The emerging debate about what Democrats have to do in the wake of their disastrous 2016 election has primarily focused on what part of their coalition should now receive the most attention.
The popular way that professional-class pundits have framed the choice is one between “populism” and “identity politics” ― either Democrats go all-in appealing to the working class, or stick with a coalition made up of historically disenfranchised minority communities.
Someone is going to get the party’s favor, and someone else is going to be told, “Well, you have nowhere else to go.” So who should get the shaft? That’s easy. It should be the very people who have engendered this debate in the first place: the professional class.
Why can’t the Democratic Party tell their most affluent backers that the time has come for them to cater to someone else? On this week’s podcast, we asked Thomas Frank ― the author of Listen, Liberal ― about this idea.
“There you go,” Frank said. “That’s exactly right. ... You can say to the professional class, who the Democrats have done everything in their power to help for decades now, ‘Well look, we’re still good on the abortion issue, we’re still good on whatever culture war issue you’d care to name. ... We’re your guys on those issues. What are you gonna do, go to the Republicans?’”
Political parties distribute political and economic power through policy choices. The members of their particular coalition are given the opportunity to share in both the overall policy mission and the spoils that arise from the enactment of those policies. In the current economic climate, Democrats should be able to capably present themselves as a party that will help working-class strivers and constituents from historically marginalized groups obtain a greater share of economic and political power. In the current political climate, it is vital that Democrats restore their coalition’s trust that they will pursue this project.
Their particular predilection for the professional class keeps getting in the way of all of that.
And Hillary Clinton’s campaign really made this problem transparent. The campaign was a marvel of professional-class accomplishment. It was well funded and multi-platform. It was optimized and app-enabled. There were hives and hubs and widgets. And to the estimation of everyone involved, it was humming within expected operational parameters, until the moment it up and pooped the bed on election night.
It’s possible to over-dramatize the results of the election. After all, had Clinton merely shifted 100,000 votes or so in a few key states, she would have won the whole thing. But the votes she lost were telling. Key swaths of voters in various Rust Belt states stayed at home or went with Donald Trump. And the Obama coalition ― comprised of faithful blocs of black and Hispanic voters ― frayed as well.
As many researchers and reporters concluded after election night was over, there were a goodly number of voters who went for Obama twice and switched to Trump. This fact really complicates matters for anyone who wants to write down Clinton’s loss as simple racism. I would posit that these voters in particular saw Obama as someone who would distribute political and economic power down to them ― happily voting for him twice. But when the time came to choose someone to continue this unfinished redistributive project, Clinton failed to distinguish herself as the likelier successor.
It’s very likely that many of these voters just couldn’t see themselves in the picture the Clinton campaign was painting, which relied heavily on the idea of barrier breaking and diversifying professional-sector boardrooms as a key way of ameliorating income inequality. At a critical moment, the Clinton team forgot that not everyone in America wants the lifestyle of a Facebook executive.
And after the Democrats concluded their convention, the Clinton camp decided, for some reason, that what they needed to do was to court the affections of moderate Republican elites, believing that winning the game required them to peel away part of the GOP base. Had they not been watching the campaign as it unfolded? The reason Trump became the nominee in the first place was because the GOP base stopped following the direction of the party’s professional-class elites.
Did the Clinton team forget to draft policies that would help working-class Americans? The thing is, they didn’t. It was their constant complaint that the media failed to account for the many policy papers that could be found on their website, and to give them the equal time that Trump’s red-meat rallies got on cable news.
But even here, you see the folly of the professional-class lens. Working-class people don’t have scads of leisure time to read white papers. They aren’t lounging about, reading my take on the candidates’ maternity-leave proposals. This is what a campaign is for. Trump may not end up saving the working class money over the next four years, but on the campaign trail, he surely saved them some time.
Members of the “West Wing” cast, including Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Dulé Hill (Charlie Young), Mary McCormack (Kate Harper) and Joshua Malina (Will Bailey) will join forces at six different locations on Saturday and Sunday.
Who on earth was this for? This is basically elite-level wish-fulfillment on steroids.
Life in the professional class is good. And while there are many of us who are uncomfortable with the idea that we are somehow “elite,” the fact is that relative to those men and women who put us here through centuries of backbreaking labor and the millions more toiling across the country to earn a little of that privilege for themselves, that is exactly what we are. With all that in mind, one of the very last things any of us in the professional class needed was a presidential campaign that centered itself on improving our political or economic fortunes.
So Democrats, please, give us the shaft. Stop directing your attention and affection toward us. Tell us, properly, that we’re stuck now, with nowhere else to go. Trust me when I tell you that it will be our dumb liberal social pieties that keep us from voting for Trump next time out. Take the opportunity to hold the professional class hostage and develop some real ideas about how to send political power and economic opportunity to the people in this country who actually, desperately need it.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here.