Populism vs. Identity Politics is a False Choice; Dems Need Both to Win
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With identity politics currently in some disrepute, economic populism is ascendant in the Democratic Party. The conventional wisdom goes that Donald Trump’s upset Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton derived in part from his strong right-wing populist appeal to white working-class voters in Rust Belt states, including some who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In the wake of Democrats’ historic loss, which many left-wing populists interpret as an indictment of neoliberalism, it makes some sense for the party to articulate a clear, compelling populist economic message that more directly addresses the concerns of the white working class who defied years of precedent by backing Trump in 2016. Democrats will have an ideal opportunity to try out this approach come 2018 in a slew of winnable governors races in states with sizable white working-class populations. But first, the postmortem, in which we would be remiss not to challenge a common assumption by asking a question: is pure economic populism really the future of the Democratic Party?
A shift from identity politics to economic populism is by no means a magic bullet for Democrats when it comes to the formidable challenge of winning over white working-class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, nor does it come without risk. Populism that stresses class solidarity risks alienating voters of color and religious minorities facing unique systemic injustice and inequality stemming from deeply ingrained institutional and structural racism. Hillary Clinton was successful with these demographics because she demonstrated a fluency with the issues that affect communities of color; her comfort and sincerity in addressing these issues helped her to build a rapport with voters. Bernie Sanders’ populist message, on the other hand, did not go over as well.
Democrats must learn from the 2016 primaries. A message of race-blind populism might fail to activate the Obama coalition (in what should be read as a warning sign, African Americans and millennials both showed up in diminished numbers in the 2016 general election). Worse, it might leave them feeling neglected by a Democratic Party more intent on courting the folks that voted for Trump than those who voted for Hillary. This is the stuff backlashes are made of. It would be tragically ironic for Democrats to successfully win back white working-class voters only to lose the election because other key demographics stayed home. It could happen.
Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, a candidate for DNC Chair endorsed early on by progressive heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, seems to understand the need to balance identity politics and populism. He has broadcast a reluctance to work with Donald Trump and an eagerness to defy him, not wanting to normalize a thoroughly abnormal, dangerous public figure. Sanders and Warren, on the other hand, have expressed openness to working with Trump on “shared priorities,” premised on the assumption that they can separate the President’s bigoted appeals from his economic populism. So who’s right?
Clearly, Warren and Sanders are attempting to seem amenable to working with Trump in part as an appeal to the white working-class Americans who voted for the Republican based on his populist appeal. They hope if Democrats prove their own populist bona fides and combine it with a better, more authentic economic platform, they can snatch away some of Trump’s supporters. This strategy, while sensible, operates on some risky assumptions, first and foremost that voters were driven to support Trump exclusively or primarily due to his economic message.
In fact, there is compelling evidence that racial resentment was more predictive of support for Trump than economic distress. In addition, education level took precedence over income in determining support for Trump, meaning the cultural differences between those with and without college degrees were of some importance in the election. All in all, it is very possible that Trump’s racial and cultural appeal to the white working-class voters was at least as powerful as his populist rhetoric
None of this is to say that everyone who supported Trump is personally bigoted and/or ignorant or that economic insecurity was a negligible factor in their voting decisions. This is not to say we should write off Trump voters as deplorable and move on to other constituencies. On the contrary, the Democratic Party and the left should absolutely make an effort to empathize with the economic concerns of white working class voters who supported Trump, not just to win their votes but because it is right. But this same moral and ideological imperative demands that we empathize with those groups endangered by Trump and his supporters. And when the former elects a president that poses a threat to the latter, this is not something that can simply be swept under the rug in the name of class solidarity.
Empathy is not just seeing the good in people or feeling compassion for them when they suffer. It doesn’t mean defending a decision that is indefensible just to prove our own open-mindedness. No, empathy requires listening to what others have to say, even when the words don’t suit our own preferred ideological narrative. It requires engaging with the rhetorical appeals of candidates to gain insight into why voters supported them. It requires that we take a long, hard look at what drove so many of our fellow Americans, including our friends and family members, to support a bigoted demagogue with a thin skin and strong authoritarian impulses. For the sake of intellectual honesty, left-wing populists must set aside their skepticism of identity politics (at times quite justified) and ask themselves how white working-class voters conceptualize charged concepts such as race, gender and sexuality both in isolation and in relation to economics.
Even if many Trump voters are not personally bigoted, the fact that they failed to see the blatant misogyny and bigotry of Donald Trump and the alt-right as disqualifying is revealing. They heard Donald Trump refer to Mexicans as murderers and rapists. They saw the Access Hollywood video in which Trump appeared to brag about committing sexual assault. And yet, rather than denouncing Trump, many of them argued that he was being victimized by the forces of political correctness (feminists, celebrities, academics, etc.). The cultural beliefs that led so many voters to this conclusion cannot so easily be subordinated to economics and class. Rather, they must be taken seriously in their own right.
Holding Trump voters accountable for the ideas that they at least tacitly endorsed with their votes is not about calling names or dividing up America based on cultural issues, a common leftist accusation. Rather, it constitutes an attempt to understand the motives of voters who do not share the cosmopolitan values that predominate in the contemporary Democratic Party. Even as Democrats adopt a more populist economic message, they would do well to consider the possibility that the white working class conceives of its interests, economic and otherwise, in a way fundamentally different than how we conceive of ours.
The distinctions between left-wing populism and right-wing populism go some way towards placing the economic appeal of Trump’s message in its proper context. Despite shared opposition to the establishment, globalization and vaguely defined “elites,” the populism of the right and left are actually quite different, perhaps even irreconcilable. In an essay titled “The Rise of Right-Wing Populism in Europe and the United States” published byFriederich-Ebert Stiftung, Thomas Greven explains:
“Right-wing populism across Europe and the United States takes different forms depending on nationally specific factors such as political history, system and culture, but there are similarities. Populism’s central and permanent narrative is the juxtaposition of a (corrupt) »political class,« »elite,« or »establishment,« and »the people,« as whose sole authentic voice the populist party bills itself. Right-wing populism adds a second antagonism of »us versus them.« Based on a definition of the people as culturally homogenous, right-wing populists juxtapose its identity and common interests, with are considered to be based on common sense, with the identity and interests of »others,« usually minorities such as migrants, which are supposedly favored by the (corrupt) elites.
The tendency of right-wing populists to blame “the other” for economic problems – in Trump’s case, primarily but not exclusively undocumented immigrants from South and Central America and Muslims – should be unacceptable to Democrats and progressives. Whether and to what extent these views are present in white working-class Americans who voted for Trump is difficult to assess conclusively. But Greven’s description of right-wing populism perfectly matches Stephen Bannon’s alt-right in America, which comprises a substantial chunk of Trump’s political support. If scapegoating of the other, consistently present in right-wing populist movements throughout the world, is a key part of Donald Trump’s appeal, then Democrats will have a hard time winning over working-class whites with a left-wing populist message stressing the primacy of class.
This doesn’t mean Democrats should not try to tailor a message that appeals to white working class voters; after all, it would not take many defections for them to win states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in future elections. However, they must do so with humility and a clear, sober understanding of the potential drawbacks of their approach when taken to the extreme. Democrats and the left must be careful that in focusing on appealing to the white working class, they do not throw people of color and other vulnerable Americans under the bus. Identity politics serve a vital purpose when applied correctly and will be essential to winning future elections. Somehow, Democrats must balance the dual imperatives of appealing to the white working class and protecting those groups endangered by the rise of Trump and the alt-right.
It may well be impossible to please everyone. While American history proves that it is possible for political parties to build diverse coalitions, politics is to some extent a zero sum game. There is only so much money to spend, so many words in a speech, so much political capital to make use of as a minority party. The extent of Democrats’ reliance on a populist economic message will determine how highly they prioritize taking back the Rust Belt from Trump versus making gains in states with growing Latino demographics. As the Democratic Party hones its message and seeks to resolve its identity crisis, it should never forget that the dilemma it faces is not just political, but also a moral one. History will not treat the Democratic Party kindly if it fails to do everything in its power to stand up for the interests of all Americans, even if that means offending the delicate sensibilities of voters who supported a bigoted, misogynistic candidate.