Pete Buttigieg
Credit: CBS News/YouTube Screen Capture

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been enjoying a remarkable, meteoric rise in the Democratic primary. He’s young, smart, articulate. He’s a veteran, a polyglot, and he would have his own claim to history as the first openly gay president in American history. In a recent Emerson Poll in Iowa, Buttigieg came in third—well behind Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but an impressive and eye-opening showing nonetheless.

But Mayor Pete—as he’s known—may be about to face his first communications crisis of the young presidential cycle. In an interview published with Washington Post Magazine last January, Buttigieg offered an assessment of the 2016 election that was somewhat critical of Hillary Clinton’s messaging strategy:

“Donald Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out the huge troubles in our economy and our democracy… at least he didn’t go around saying that America was already great, like Hillary did.”

Presumably, now that Buttigieg is getting a little more traction and is seen as more of a threat, this months-old interview seems to have been discovered by opposition researchers and is getting some pushback. One of those to go on the attack was advisor and spokesman for Clinton, Nick Merrill. According to CNN, Merrill said:

“This is indefensible. @HillaryClinton ran on a belief in this country & the most progressive platform in modern political history. Trump ran on pessimism, racism, false promises, & vitriol. Interpret that how you want, but there are 66,000,000 people who disagree. Good luck.”

A few issues here are worth noting. First, the only reason the election came down to a few tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was that the electoral college places artificial and outsize importance on swing states as opposed to the popular vote winner; Russian military intelligence hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign to criminally expose embarrassing communications; and FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s email server—without any evidence that there was any new evidence in the case. It is nearly certain that, without any one of these three factors, we would not be having this conversation.

But these three things did happen, and Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college, in large part because of the way less well-off white voters—what we could call the “white working class”—turned against her campaign and supported Donald Trump.

So, in the argument between Merrill and Buttigieg, who is right? They both are. And the fact that Merrill doesn’t understand that point is part of the problem; and it’s a sign of what the 2020 Democratic nominee must fix.

One cannot even begin to talk about this issue without acknowledging that the white working class is quite literally dying. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been ticking upwards for nearly 20 years, led primarily by a sharp rise in “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse—among those without college degrees. According to research, these deaths are primarily driven by a lack of good jobs and the dysfunction that economic anxiety creates in the social fabric.

Buttigieg is right that Trump pretended to offer solutions for these voters specifically, and that certain aspects of Clinton’s messaging did not convey the urgency that people in these communities feel about their circumstances. It’s no accident that “learn to code” has become a scornful joke on both the right and the progressive left.

Merrill is also right that the solutions Trump offered were racist, vitriolic, and full of false promises. Trump blamed economic and social problems on immigrants, promised to use his supposed skill as a negotiator to fix trade deals and bring jobs back, and promised to use his bully pulpit to strongarm companies into keeping existing factories open and getting new ones built.

Trump is a fraud, and so are his promises. But during the 2016 campaign, he acknowledged the anxiety of these communities, and gave them a narrative that fit both their worldview, their understanding of politics, and their prejudices. Perhaps most importantly, as I’ve written before, he gave them a villain.

Whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020 has two options to confront this problem. One is to simply give up on reaching these voters in the belief that their prejudices make them unwinnable, regardless of the nominee’s economic messaging. The second is to campaign to them in a way that acknowledges the desolation of these communities and gives them a more appropriate and accurate villain to blame.

Merrill’s argument fallaciously assumes that taking this second approach means unavoidably abandoning the Democratic party’s base: women and people of color. But both common sense and specific research indicates that this doesn’t need to be the case. Anat Shenker-Osorio, Ian Haney-López, and Tamara Draut have shown that there is hope for Democrats in an approach that tackles race and class together–putting the blame for exploiting racial divides on the wealthy, who grow even richer on the backs of a fractured and divided working class that blames itself for its own problems. According to this research, this approach that unites the working class of all backgrounds against the wealthy fares better with white working class voters than an approach discusses either race or class alone. Even better, this message also appeals to minority voters as well, and even appeals better than one focused on race alone.

Another broad misconception shared by those in Merrill’s camp is that economic populists from the left who support Buttigieg’s messaging believe that all Trump voters can potentially be swayed by it. It’s common among these types to point to some act of horrific racism or sexism at a Trump rally and smirk about “economic anxiety.” But, of course, no one really believes that all Trump voters are persuadable in this way. Remember that Hillary Clinton herself placed Trump supporters into two baskets, one of them deplorable and one of them not. What shocked most liberals was just how big the basket of deplorables was. But it’s naive at best and disingenuous at worst to postulate that there is literally no one in the second basket: people who may not have not liked Trump much, but voted for him out of general frustration or a belief that he might do something to shake things up. Elections in America are extremely close. Even if only 5% of Trump voters are in a persuadable non-deplorable basket, that’s the difference in many districts and states between a loss and a landslide victory.

The Roman orator Quintilian once wrote that no one is so evil that they would wish to appear so. While Quintilian never got the chance to meet the alt-right, his maxim still likely stands for some Trump voters. Many do not think of themselves as racist and seek to vote based on that intention. But they are probably looking for something or someone to blame for the decline in their circumstances and the health of their communities.

Democratic messaging should play to that idea. There is no good reason to want to believe that a significant portion of white working class voters are unreachable except through racist appeals, especially when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. 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.