Democrats Should Hope the Economic Populists Are Right

More than a month after the election, a war of words and ideas still rages on the left between the Sanders-leaning economic populists and the more establishment defenders of the Clinton campaign. Broadly speaking, the contours of the argument center around whether Clinton could have done more from a populist messaging standpoint to appeal to white working class Rust Belt voters and to disaffected voters who stayed home, or whether Clinton’s overall approach was good, but that she was overwhelmed by the prejudices of white voters and stabbed in the back by Comey, Russia, and various parts of the progressive left.

Billions of pixels have been spent on the topic, battle lines have been drawn, and the two sides are firmly entrenched. No one who has a stake in the fight is going to change sides at this point–and indeed, the battle is continuing via a proxy war for the DNC chairmanship between Keith Ellison on the economic populist side, and Tom Perez on the establishment side.

But in the end, it hardly matters who is right about the causes of the defeat, because only one side is offering hope for a different outcome in the future. If Clinton’s defenders are correct, then Democrats are doomed in the near future, with no hope at least until demography can slowly advance to overtake Republicans sometime in the next decade or so. And even that assumes that Republicans won’t succeed in carving off new identity fault lines within the current liberal coalition.

Let’s consider the narrative of the Clinton defenders for a moment. The argument goes something like this: Clinton was a stellar candidate whose reputation was tarnished by a nasty primary campaign led by the malign character of Bernie Sanders–not even a real Democrat!–who harmed her reputation with young progressive voters. But Clinton would have won the general election, anyway, if it hadn’t been for the leaks of campaign emails, a press that painted a false equivalence between her and Donald Trump, the backstabbing of FBI director Comey in releasing a nothingburger letter against her at the last minute, and the perfidy of Green and Libertarian candidates Stein and Johnon who siphoned off her voters. And she still would have won, except that Donald Trump managed to activate the latent racism and sexism of the white middle American electorate–a racist ideological powerhouse against whom no amount of love, compassion or populism could have held sway, because for most American whites, bigotry overwhelms all other electoral impulses.

This is a very silly and misleading narrative for many reasons that I have explained at length herehere, herehere, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here. Primaries are healthy things–the Obama/Clinton primary didn’t hurt Obama in 2008 despite the PUMAs, and the vicious GOP primary in 2016 didn’t hurt them, either. Opposition to Clintonian politics has raged on the left for decades now–Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004 was a rebuke to Clintonism, and it was anti-Clinton progressives who led the way to Obama’s 2008 primary win. No matter how hard the establishment tried, Clinton was always going to face a challenge from the left because someone was going to do it, and she was frankly lucky that her most credible opposition came from a cranky 73-year-old socialist from Vermont who endorsed her at Convention and campaigned for her hard through the general.

Similarly, in an election where both the major party candidates had low approval ratings, Democrats should count themselves lucky that the Greens and Libertarians offered candidates as feckless as Stein and Johnson–but the Green and Libertarian parties were certainly going to field candidates regardless. It’s not entirely clear how much Comey’s letters actually hurt Clinton. Media false equivalence was certainly a problem, but good luck changing that in the future. And as for racism? Well, a Trump victory based on a racist whitelash against Obama seems a bit silly given that Obama’s own approval rating was at 59% and many people who voted for Obama twice switched to Trump. It’s also ridiculous to think that Republicans could always have won based on racism alone and just never figured out until Trump that they could dispense with the dogwhistles altogether. That’s simply not true. Trump would have lost to Obama in 2012, and David Duke would have lost badly in 2016. And sexism? Well, that’s certainly possible, but the fact that Trump didn’t lose ground versus Romney among women suggests either a 100% incidence of internalized sexism among Republican women, or that other issues were vastly more important to them.

But the point here is not to relitigate all that. The point is where we go from here.

If Clinton’s defenders are right about the narrative, and that Clinton either made no mistakes or only made tactical ones (like targeting Arizona instead of Wisconsin, for instance), then there’s no hope.

If overt appeals to racism are so powerful with rural whites in the Rust Belt that economic populism can’t defeat them, then Democrats have lost most of the Rust Belt for the next decade at least. That in turn means eight more years of Trump, and it means GOP gerrymandering for the next decade and a half.

If anything less than an uncontested coronation of the center-left, Wall Street-friendly Center for American Progress-backed candidate is so damaging to Democratic chances in November that it guarantees a GOP win, then throw in the towel now, because Cory Booker is not going to waltz uncontested to the 2020 nomination. There is going to be a fight, and it’s going to be big.

If media false equivalence means that Democrats can’t compete on equal footing, then they might as well give up. Because the media depends on clicks and eyeballs for its economic survival, and attracting viewers and readers depends on having a contest to report.

In short, if Clinton’s defenders are right, we’re all doomed.

The alternative is that a more controversial and aggressive approach to politics can generate positive earned media just like Trump did this year, but in good and productive way. With righteous, Elizabeth-Warren-style anger, rather than with Trumpist xenophobia.

The alternative is that blaming Wall Street and the plutocracy for the declining fortunes of the white working class can help them listen to the class solidarity angel on their left shoulders, rather than to the prejudiced demon on their right.

The alternative is that openly racist appeals are not the magic key to unlocking a new Republican electorate, but a sign of apartheid-style desperation just waiting for a party that is both class- and identity-conscious to blow apart.

The alternative is that a country that didn’t truly believe that America was already great and stronger together, could be convinced that America was never as great as it could be and that a rising tide hadn’t lifted all boats, but that it might be made great and more equal given the right set of policies that would redound to the benefit of nearly all, rather than just the very rich and the very poor.

The alternative is that a purely identity-focused campaign left many young people of all colors, genders and creeds cold and lacking enthusiasm, while an economically populist campaign that preaches universal benefits and the power of the 99% (especially under the banner of a Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown or Elizabeth Warren) could reignite the feelings of hope and change that lit a fire under the Obama coalition.

It might not work. But why not give it a try? The alternative is hopelessness, despair and a decade of Trump.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.