There are several reasons that I wrote How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values but one of them was to combat the kind of stinking thinking that is reflected in this Johnathan Capehart piece. Capehart is promoting a podcast he did with George Mason University professor Justin Gest who has a new book he’s promoting: The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality.
Now, on the one hand, Prof. Gest has some worthwhile observations that echo much of what I’ve been saying of late. For example, the following is accurate and sounds a lot like what I wrote in my recent piece: Democrats Lost the ‘Poorly Educated’ and They Need Them Back.
“So much of Donald Trump’s politics is symbolic,” Gest explained. “They’re symbolic in the sense that this is what people want to hear and if it doesn’t get done, it’s almost beside the point because he’s elevating the prerogatives of his constituents to the national stage after having been relegated to the fringes of American politics for decades.”
But I really object to this next part:
Listen to the podcast to hear this important and provocative conversation about how economic dislocation and demographic changes are fueling discomfort and desperation among white working-class voters. While Gest says that both Republicans and Democrats have exploited these voters, he sees a way forward.
“The only way of addressing their plight is a form of political hospice care,” he said. “These are communities that are on the paths to death. And the question is: How can we make that as comfortable as possible?”
Giving these communities hospice care to make their coming deaths as comfortable as possible is precisely what I was referring to when I wrote about why working class cultures didn’t warm to the idea of free college education:
That the Democrats walked into this milieu with a message about the importance of education was ill-fated even if well-intentioned. What people really wanted was an economy where a higher education wasn’t necessary. The Democrats quite reasonably thought they should offer something based in reality with a real chance of enactment and good prospects for improving people’s lot. What they missed was that the battle was being fought on different turf. People were sick of losing in the modern economy. They were sick of seeing their traditional way of life slip away. They were tired of being condescended to and told that they weren’t smart or educated enough to compete. What the Democrats were offering was in some ways just further confirmation that they were losers who were going to continue to lose. Trump might not have been able to explain how he’d fix things, but he met them at the level of their desire.
My description of the situation was very similar to the description provided by Prof. Gest, but our solutions couldn’t be more opposed to each other. He thinks they’re going to die as a culture in both a figurative and a literal sense, and that we ought to focus on making this a kind of peaceful morphine-infused experience. If that’s the best we can do, then a simple instinct for self-preservation ought to lead them as far away from the Democrats as they can get.
What I tried to do is introduce actual policies that can appeal to these voters and genuinely save them, their communities and their culture. We saw what happened when we offered palliative care by the way Kentuckians resented Obamacare even as it did more for them than any federal program since Lyndon Johnson was in office. They slapped away the hand that sought merely to mitigate their condition rather than improve it on the level of dignity and opportunity. They’d react similarly to free college or more generous programs for the poor and unemployed. If we offer them a more comfortable cultural death, we should expect to remain as popular as a smiling Grim Reaper.
To even frame things this way is a kind of political suicide for the left that will assure that when 2020 arrives the Democrats will do even worse in these communities than they did in 2016. If you still don’t understand just how badly the Democrats did with these folks (from the richest to the poorest) then you should sit down and read How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values. If the left doesn’t fix this, the Democrats will be in the wilderness for a long time.
But it’s not actually a misinterpretation of political self-interest that appalls me in this case. It’s the idea that the modern left can self-define itself in a way that leaves out any hard-pressed community. I believe Anti-Monopoly policy can bring economic vitality back to these communities and that it is simply irresponsible to tell them that their communities are doomed without having made a real effort to save them. If I lived in a culturally working class county, it would be as clear as day to me that the left, as currently comprised, has no plan for me. I completely understand why the Democrats have cratered in county after county after county in this country. We like to tell them that they’re voting against their self-interest, but how is it in their self-interest to latch onto a party that thinks they’re beyond help?
I’m not saying the whole Democratic Party feels this way, but the default position among a lot of progressives since the election has been that to even talk about these folks is to pander to their racism and dilute the party’s commitment to civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and the environment. If we want to draw up our battle lines like that, then they sure as shit are going to take the hint.
Sure, part of my argument is based on naked self-interest. The Democrats will continue to be a minority party in most of the country and in most legislatures unless they can compete in these areas and at least win a respectable level of support. But it’s also a moral argument. I don’t recognize a left that has no better solution for struggling people than to make their inevitable deaths more comfortable. That’s not just a political loser. It’s an indefensible position to take as human beings. Every single community needs a left that will represent them and that doesn’t mean it will tolerate them or give them just enough to ease the worst of their pain.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. . . . The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
That’s what conservatives say about these folks when they think they’re not watching. I hear progressives say effectively the same thing all the time. Maybe some progressives don’t want to look for solutions here, but there are Democrats who are going to work for these people regardless. Join us or don’t, but it’s past time for licking wounds. It’s roll-up-your-sleeves time, because things aren’t going to get better by doubling down on what just failed.