Did Democrats ignore — or worse, condescend to — white working-class voters in 2016? Did many of these voters back Donald Trump because of his promises to restore economic growth for small towns and in manufacturing and mining — or because they resented rising prospects for minorities and women? Can these voters be returned to the Democratic fold with sharper economic messaging? Or does appealing to them require an unthinkable retreat on issues of social justice and inclusion?
These questions have divided Democrats since Election Day. But who really “condescended” to working-class voters in 2016 — and what should replace such condescension today?
The most damning piece of evidence for the “Democrats condescended” claim is Hillary Clinton’s statement last September that “half” of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables.” I was with Clinton the next day, and it was clear how much she regretted that formulation. Worst of all, the focus on this comment drowned out the real point of her remarks: that Democrats had an obligation to “understand and empathize with” Trump supporters in “ the other basket” — “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, [and] nobody cares about them.”
Far from condescending, Clinton’s campaign spoke truth to these voters: Our economic future is “Stronger Together.” America’s best hope to remain an economic superpower is an inclusive economy where immigrants start businesses and create jobs, where everyone can make meaningful contributions to an innovative economy and where the United States masters the economic opportunities that come from challenges such as climate change. That message may not have appealed to some working-class voters, but it isn’t condescension — it’s honesty.
By contrast, Trump’s economic message has been a kind flim-flammery where the carnival barker lavishes compliments on his audience while whispering to his sidekicks, “Can you believe they are buying this?” He extolled the virtues of “Buy American” while building his own projects with imported Chinese steel. He made immigrants the scapegoats for a wide array of economic problems, while applying for special visas to import foreign workers for jobs at Mar-a-Lago.
It was Trump’s campaign that reeked of condescension when he told working-class voters that he alone could make sure that jobs shipped overseas come back. Trump’s presidency is erected on faux populism, as he claims to look out for “forgotten people ” while saying that only rich people are qualified to formulate economic policy and using the presidency to promote his family’s businesses. Appealing to working-class voters on false promises and flawed premises is not showing them respect: It is a condescending belief that with enough bluster and showmanship, you can get away with anything.
Democrats should respond to this — not by writing off white working-class voters, or by mimicking Trump’s divisive rhetoric and hollow promises — but with a combination of honest talk and a new social and economic contract for the working class.
The honest talk starts with unapologetically reminding Trump’s working-class voters that immigrants — like their own ancestors — have always made America greater, bringing new energy, ideas and job-creating businesses to our country. It means telling them (as President Barack Obama did), that the “time has passed” when “you didn’t have to have an education . . . [and] you could . . . get a [good] job.” It means rejecting economic nostalgia, and embracing technology and innovation; when these forces are shaped by the right policies and a fair tax system, they can create a stronger middle class in our country, as they have during earlier periods of economic transformation.
A new social and economic contract for the working class would include replacing the confusing mishmash of higher education plans with a clear program to make four years of education after high school free and universal. It should include defending and then building on the Affordable Care Act so that every American has health coverage without fear or doubt. It should ensure that benefits such as unemployment compensation and workers comp are available to all, whether they are employees or contract workers. It should make affordable child care a right (not a scavenger hunt) and life-long skills training an American area of excellence.
But like any true contract, this set of benefits must be paired with obligations. This includes an uncompromising insistence that the economy it creates will be inclusive — and that, with a program in place to restore economic opportunity for those who have been left behind, there can be no excuses for resentment of America’s growing diversity. It also includes acceptance that young people will have to get education after high school, working adults will have to continually improve their skills, and some long-beloved occupations will be replaced with new jobs. The nostalgia for an America where brawn alone was enough to create a middle-class life and where a comfortable stagnation was revered as “tradition” must be abandoned.
Candor, not condescension, is the Democrats’ path to unmasking the false promise of Trumpism and reclaiming working-class voters in 2018 and beyond.
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