There are many reasons why Hillary Clinton will not become president of the United States this January. The media’s outsize emphasis on her email habits, James Comey’s precedent-shattering late-October letter, and the GOP’s myriad efforts to restrict voter participation in swing states are all among them.
The most obvious and immediate cause of Clinton’s defeat, however, is that she narrowly lost a bunch of traditionally Democratic states in the Midwest, as many white working-class voters who backed Barack Obama four years ago chose to stay at home or pull the lever for Donald Trump.
How to interpret — and, thus, respond to — this fact has been the central point of intra-left debate since last Tuesday night. In Clinton’s defeat, some progressives see a vindication of Bernie Sanders’s emphasis on economic populism and cross-racial class solidarity — as opposed to the Clinton campaign’s foregrounding of social liberalism and peripheral appeals to expanding economic opportunity.
Others see in such suggestions the first steps toward a betrayal of black and Hispanic Democrats — a path that would lead the party to sacrifice more Ricky Ray Rectors, welfare programs, and police reforms on the altar of white reaction.
This concern is rooted in a long history of such betrayals, as The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki argued Sunday.
It’s important to note that virtually no one in progressive politics is (currently) arguing that the Democrats should compromise on issues of racial justice. The Sanders wing contends that forthright advocacy for social democracy would peel off enough downscale whites, by itself, to make such compromises unnecessary. And this faith is affirmed in the Sandernistas’ support for Keith Ellison — a black, Muslim congressperson — for DNC chair.
Still, in light of the history Surowiecki highlights, it’s both reasonable and important for progressives to guard against the possibility that Democrats will pair a renewed focus on economic populism with a surrender to white racial resentment.
But some liberal commentators have gone beyond warning against this possibility to lamenting its inevitability. In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Adam Serwer offers an analysis nearly identical to that of your average blue-dog Democrat from the mid-’90s: Democrats can’t significantly increase their share of the white working-class vote without compromising on racial justice.
Democrats now face a renewed white-identity politics whose appeal will be immensely difficult to neutralize, and the notion that a more vigorous, left wing economics will return the white working class to the Democratic fold is likely a fantasy. The last Democrat to come close to winning the white vote was Bill Clinton, who combined his economic populism with promises to “end welfare as we know it” and advertised his willingness to use state violence against black Americans, turning the execution of Ricky Ray Rector to his political advantage.
The uncomfortable truth is that, whether you’re Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, economic populism is most effective in American politics when it is paired with appeals to racism. Maybe the Democrats can and will find a way to do so without such appeals. By the time they do, it may simply be too late to stop what is coming.
Certainly, Democrats have little chance of “winning the white vote” in the near future. But almost no one is suggesting that doing so should be the party’s goal. Rather, the suggestion is that the party can recapture the white working-class voters who backed Obama by making different strategic choices than Hillary Clinton did.
The argument against the latter suggestion is that Donald Trump’s explicit appeals to white nationalism fundamentally changed the nature of American politics: The Democratic Party’s support from white workers in the Midwest was always been dependent on the political force of white supremacy remaining dormant. Clinton’s loss shows that Trump has awakened that force. Now the idea that left-wing economics could lure white Obama voters in Michigan back to Team Blue is “likely a fantasy.”
This is an idea worth taking seriously. Sociological research suggests, overwhelmingly, that support for Trump is correlated with white racial animus. Long before Trump’s election, the rapid diversification of the rural Midwest was already pushing voters in the region rightward. White voters appear to be voting more and more like an ethnic bloc — at the same time that Democrats have grown more unashamed in their support for the concerns of African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups.
But Trump’s embrace of white identity politics wasn’t the only new variable in the 2016 race. Much of this commentary is written as though Hillary Clinton made retaining white working-class Democrats in the Midwest a central focus of her campaign — and lost, anyway.
The truth is the opposite. While the Republican candidate aggressively courted white workers in the Rust Belt, Clinton neglected to make a single visit to Wisconsin during the general-election campaign; in the race’s closing weeks, her campaign aired more advertisements in the city of Omaha than in Michigan and Wisconsin combined.
While Obama tailored much of his messaging in 2012 to the concerns of white workers in the Midwest — painting Mitt Romney as a callous plutocrat, championing his party’s support of the auto bailout — Clinton focused her paid media on Trump’s vulgarity and lack of expertise, rather than on his history of exploiting contractors and conning consumers.
Beyond messaging and strategy, Clinton brought countless other liabilities to the 2016 race that Obama never had to overcome: her relative lack of oratorical prowess, an active FBI investigation into her handling of classified information, her status as a longtime member of an unpopular political Establishment, a history of taking exorbitant sums of money to give closed-door speeches to Wall Street banks, and, of course, her gender.
The salience of that last variable is difficult to assess because Clinton was the first and only female major-party nominee in the history of our republic … but that fact suggests we should err on the side of assuming it was quite salient, indeed.
Nonetheless, while Democrats are ideologically (and ethically) compelled not to suppress female candidates in deference to America’s sexism, the party still shouldn’t have a hard time nominating someone in 2020 who lacks Hillary Clinton’s other liabilities. Nor would it be difficult for that candidate to more actively court white voters in the Rust Belt — literally, all he or she would have to do is actually campaign and advertise there.
Barack Obama, himself, made this point on Monday.
“I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa, it was because I spent 87 days going to every small town, and fair, and fish fry, and VFW hall. And there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points,” Obama told reporters at news conference. “There’re some counties that maybe I won that people didn’t expect — because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.”
Clinton’s neglect of these states was understandable. The polling told her — and us — that she didn’t need to worry about them. But it’s odd to conclude, after her campaign deliberately chose to neglect those areas, that she never had a chance to win them, anyway, because her campaign was too anti-racist for this cruel world.
Maybe this is correct. But we have no way to know that based on the information available to us. Beyond the difficulty of discerning the impact of Clinton’s strategic decisions on the behavior of white voters in the Midwest, exit polls suggest that Trump had less success in consolidating the GOP share of the white vote than he did in expanding the party’s share of the economically desperate: Trump improved on Romney’s share of the white vote by a single point, but outperformed Mitt among low-income voters by 16 percent.
Exit polls are flawed. This does not prove anything. But it certainly does not fortify the argument that Trump’s racial appeal is irresistible to whites, and, thus, that sharper economic messaging cannot significantly expand Democrats’ share of the downscale white vote.
Three decades ago, Bill Clinton tried to win white workers in the Midwest by getting tough on crime and welfare deadbeats. This year, Hillary Clinton tried to win them without even trying. There is a lot of space between these two strategies — and a popular Democratic president between the two candidates.