Balancing Economic and Social Issues

by Neil H. Buchanan

Let us start with two big ifs.  If Trump and the Republicans do not succeed in turning future elections into shams, and if liberals and others who opposed Trump can find their way to a winning political strategy, then the future will not be as bleak as it currently appears to be.

Regarding that first big if, I recently argued that there are very good reasons to worry that Trump and his party will soon change the rules to make future elections nearly unwinnable for Democrats.  I also argued, however, that believers in democracy have no choice but to try to prevent that from happening and, in any case, to compete even in heavily rigged elections.

Even if small-d democrats are successful in preserving free and fair elections, however, we then move on to that second big if regarding a winning strategy.  Unfortunately, the early indications are that the post-election conversation among liberals (and those who claim to be sympathetic) has already gone seriously off the rails.

Part of the problem is that people are acting as if Trump won big.  We evidently need to remind ourselves that stunning is not the same as sweeping.  We must remember that it would only have taken the equivalent of roughly half the population of Erie, Pennsylvania -- spread across only three swing states -- to turn Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory into a win in the Electoral College.

That is not a minor point.  Yes, elections have binary outcomes, and losing is losing.  But acting as if "the voters" en masse repudiated Clinton and the Democrats seriously misses the point.  Acting like you were a big loser makes people think you are a big loser.  More importantly, it makes you think so yourself.

Yet even a sober-minded commentator like Emma Roller approvingly quoted the liberal mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, who faulted the Clinton campaign because "they wanted not just a victory, but a smashing victory — actually, the kind that Donald Trump had."  Clinton might have miscalculated by trying to swing Arizona and Georgia, but Trump did not win big.  He barely eked out a win, and we should not let anyone forget it.

Still, we do need to ask why the election was even close enough for Trump to snake his way to that narrow win.  Was this not a winnable election for the Democrats, and was Trump not the most farcically unqualified and repellent candidate in U.S. presidential history?  Yes, and ohmygod yes.

This means that post-election conversations need to focus on the important lessons from November 8's shocking outcome.  Unfortunately, the leading contender for the new conventional wisdom -- that Democrats focused on "identity politics" rather than real issues -- is both vacuous and dangerous.  It may, in fact, be the single most ridiculous political argument currently on offer.

The most prominent version thus far of the anti-identity politics argument arrived in the opinion section of this past Sunday's New York Times.  A Columbia professor named Mark Lilla argued that "American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing."

Other than offering some snarky and unsupported remarks about liberals being "narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups" and college students being "encouraged to keep this focus on themselves," however, Lilla never actually says why it is such a bad thing to be concerned about the rights of people who have been -- and are being -- discriminated against.

Indeed, even the most overwrought caricatures of campus life from the anti-intellectual right are built upon faulting over-pampered white upper middle class kids for exercising their privilege by caring about things that do not really affect them personally.

After all, the vast majority of college students demonstrating in favor of, say, transgender bathrooms (the favorite example from eye-rolling types like Lilla) are not themselves transgendered.  The people who support Black Lives Matter or who worried about Trump's anti-Muslim hate-mongering or his threats to destroy the lives of millions of Latinos living in America are not being narcissistic or failing to be aware of conditions outside of themselves.

The only point that the anti-identity politics screeds are really making is that liberals supposedly focused on the concerns of the wrong groups of vulnerable Americans.  As I will argue momentarily, that is ultimately also a fatuous argument.  But it is important to emphasize here that the accusation that liberals are only worried about "self-defined groups" is a content-free accusation that can be adapted to any purpose and merely boils down to: "The rest of you liberals are not focused on what I think you should be focused on."

This free-floating indictment of liberals then leads Lilla to make the jaw-droppingly false empirical statement that identity politics "never wins elections — but can lose them."  The entire case against the Clinton campaign, however, has been that she thought that she could reassemble the identity groups that allowed Barack Obama to win two presidential elections.

Of course, because the phrase "identity politics" now stands merely for things that people like Lilla associate with losing elections, he could easily claim that Obama somehow did not engage in identity politics, thus preserving the tautology that liberals in 2016 (but not in 2012 or 2008) were too worried about the wrong people.

The most worrisome part of this argument is how closely it resembles the historic error that Democrats committed after their last epoch-defining loss.  In the aftermath of Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984 (which actually was a landslide), Democrats fatefully accepted Republicans' framing that liberalism was too focused on "special interests."

Like the term identity politics now, blaming Democrats in the 1980's for being a party of special interests also had no actual content.  Yet it served the same purpose, blaming election losses on the idea that protecting and expanding the rights of people is somehow illegitimate.

This false framing is dangerous today for precisely the reason that it was dangerous in the 1980's and 1990's.  Yes, Bill Clinton won twice by bashing labor and ending "welfare as we know it" -- jettisoning those supposedly special interests -- but he did so by adopting the policies that have continued to undermine the lives of the very working class voters who turned against his wife in 2016.

What, after all, was the biggest economic issue that Trump used to bash Hillary Clinton?  Trade agreements, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  I remember well how liberals -- the same liberals who had been accused of being captured by those dreaded special interests -- fought against Bill Clinton's "war room" strategy that resulted in the passage of NAFTA with overwhelming Republican support.

As Monica Potts put it last week, the working class voters who voted for Trump this year apparently blamed Obama (and Hillary Clinton) for "policies they must have known were at least 30 years old—Ronald Reagan–era policies—because that’s how long it’s been since good factory jobs started leaving."

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, completely understood that the Trump base included "people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change."

And it was not as if liberals had not been thinking and writing about this for years.   For example, at least since the beginning of the Great Recession, I have been writing almost obsessively about how economic stagnation could lead to dangerous political possibilities, including the rise of neo-fascist demagogues.

During this year's campaign, I argued that "if there is going to be any hope for political progress in the years ahead, people of good faith will have to learn how to peel off those voters" who, because of their economic pain, are willing to hold their noses and vote for a charlatan like Trump.  Also: "Reaching the good Americans who nonetheless currently support a campaign based on bigotry is one of the keys to future political progress."

It is true that Clinton did not convince enough white working-class voters in the industrial states to vote for her.  Of course, she could have won without them, too, so focusing on this issue is itself indicative of how the post-election conversation is being driven by the choice -- and it is a choice -- to say that white people are not getting enough attention.

I have always believed that the concerns of working people (of all races) should be a central pillar of liberal politics, which means that I agree with Randi Weingarten that social issues and class issues should be part of a "both/and" approach to politics.  That, however, is not the same thing as saying that Clinton, or liberals more generally, care too much about "identity" issues.

After all, the biggest mystery not only of 2016 but of the last generation is why the voters who are most harmed by Republican (and Bill Clinton's Republican-lite) policies -- reducing wages, making workplaces less safe, allowing Wall Street to prey on the economically desperate, and so on -- continue to vote for the people who are most responsible for these voters' pain.

Hillary Clinton, with the help of Bernie Sanders and the progressive wing of the party, advocated policies that would at least begin to ease the pain of the vulnerable middle class.  Trump promised to cut taxes for the rich.

It will be useful and interesting to try to understand why these economically vulnerable voters do not express their economic anxiety by supporting politicians who offer them actual policies that could help ease that pain.  Or why they failed to credit Democrats for the very real economic gains of the past seven years (including, at long last, some much-needed increases in workers' incomes).

But the idea that Clinton and the Democrats did not offer -- or did not campaign on -- bread-and-butter issues is simply to engage in 20/20 hindsight.  "Who didn't vote for her?  White working people?  OK, then obviously she misallocated her time between social and economic issues."  Brilliant.

And it is not just Clinton herself who advocated policies that would help those Trump voters.  David Leonhardt's recent column describing the successful policies of a progressive Democratic governor in Delaware shows how liberals have been able to run on policies that are focused on economic improvement for all, and to be successful when the voters have given them a chance.

When Clinton's win looked like a lock, my concern was that the Republicans' continued obstruction for the next four years would continue the economic stagnation that has caused working class people paradoxically to reward Republicans.  My concern most definitely was not that Clinton and the Democrats did not have pro-worker policy ideas.

It is now possible that Trump and the Republicans will go for broke with their regressive policies, badly overplaying their hands and then being blamed when wages do not go up, when more and more people lose access to health care, and when the people who do work in factories are exposed to poisons and other hazards in the name of deregulation.

If that happens, and if it is still possible for Democrat-leaning voters to vote, then the Democrats' actual liberal policy ideas will allow them to take power back from Trump and the Republicans.  It is a harmful diversion, however, to fault Democrats for caring about social issues.  It is simply not necessary to abandon minorities and other vulnerable groups in order to win.