The Democrats' False Choice

Check your privilege — and your logic.
Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Kerstin Gillibrand onstage at an event introducing the Medicare for All Act of 2017 on Sept. 13, 2017.
Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Kerstin Gillibrand onstage at an event introducing the Medicare for All Act of 2017 on Sept. 13, 2017.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Should Democrats go all out to energize a “rising electorate” of women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, LGBTQ people and on-the-march young voters? Or should the Democrats go all out to rebuild their shattered reputation as the Party of Roosevelt that cares about the white working class?

A great deal has been written by advocates of both views, and many of these articles and speeches have talked right past each other.

For instance, advocates of the new rainbow, majority-minority coalition argue that white working-class voters are privileged relative to people of color, and that progressives can win without them, without compromising on race, gender, immigration and inclusion to pander to a coddled white working class.

Conversely, champions of the white-working-class emphasis point out that the white working class may be a declining share of the electorate but that it is distributed geographically, alas, with great efficiency.

These voters, defined as those without a college degree, are down to 34 percent of the electorate nationally, but over 50 percent in every state of the Midwest, over 60 percent statewide in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin, and over 80 percent in key counties of western Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Do those states ring a bell? They are, of course, where Democratic support has been collapsing, and where Hillary Clinton lost the election.

Partisans of the Don’t Forget the White Working Class view also observe that although the group has been “privileged” relative to minorities historically, for about two generations they also have been losing ground. The only truly privileged group today is the one percent — who just gained even more economic and political privilege via the tax bill.

“Rising electorate” advocates respond that if Democrats would only maximize the turnout of the new electorate, they could forget about those white working-class voters, many of whom are hopelessly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, violent, and worse — let Trump have them.

SPOILER ALERT: The punchline of this column, if you haven’t guessed it, is that this argument inside the family is our old nemesis, the False Dichotomy. Democrats need to do more for downtrodden people of all races, including whites, and they need to be the party of justice for groups oppressed based on their race, gender, sexuality, national origin or immigrant status.

If Democrats don’t pull this off ― if they don’t stop fighting among themselves ― the Republican corporate elite will keep laughing all the way to the bank and the polling place. But this truism turns out to be very challenging to execute in practice, and there is far too much self-righteousness on both sides of the argument.

I could quote any number of recent pieces, but here are some samples.

Steve Phillips, a respected African-American strategist from Democracy of Color, writing in The New York Times, observed that 56 percent of the Alabama voters who sent Doug Jones to the senate were black, a higher turnout than the black share of the Alabama electorate, and that: “If Democrats want to win, they will elevate and give broad budgetary authority to strategists and organizers with long histories and deep ties in the country’s communities of color.”

Ruy Teixeira, a pollster, social scientist, and strategist whom I much admire, counters persuasively in a piece for Vox titled “The Math is Clear: Democrats Need to Win More White Working Class Votes:

Jones’s triumph was not attributable to his strong showing among black voters alone, or even a combination of black voters and white college graduates. My analysis indicates that Jones benefited from a margin swing of more than 30 points among white non-college voters, relative to the 2016 presidential race in the state.

But Bill Spriggs, senior professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist of the AFL-CIO, points out what should be obvious. Writing in The American Prospect, Spriggs observed that the challenge is both race and class:

Democrats need to spend more time developing a frame to combat inequality. They need to do a better job of explaining that income inequality is a threat to economic growth. They need to be spending time helping Americans take the blinders off and see that workers, of all races, are being given the shaft by a system where corporate greed has become an elite “entitlement.” They need to pull the Band-Aid off a false sense there is some white privilege that can spare some workers the wrath of America’s war on working people. They must fess up to their quiet, and sometimes vocal, support of an agenda that attacked America’s workers. They need to stop believing the problem confronting American workers is that they are uneducated or unskilled. They need to stop defining the white working class as the less-educated. Those are the perennial excuses meted out to black workers. Young black workers reacted angrily in 2016 to a perception that their pain was being ignored. They didn’t vote for Trump, but Clinton lost as much because they didn’t vote for her either as Trump won because white voters voted for him.

Keep the emphasis on the economic screwing that the one percent and Republicans are giving to working people of all races and genders, and you stand a better chance of bridging these divides. This is all the more important as centrist Democrats close to Wall Street discover the magic of doubling down on identity politics to disguise their opposition to needed radical economic reforms.

This is tough stuff. It is even tougher in a presidential year, when aspiring Democratic candidates will be tempted to demonize their rivals as too inclined to sell the party’s soul to attract racist Trump voters, or too inclined to stress the group identities that divide rather than unite Democrats.

Given the immense stakes in 2020 and beyond, the last thing the Democrats need is another circular firing squad.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?