The Racism Obstacle

Bethany Baker/The Coos Bay World via AP

An activist holds American and "Don't Tread on Me" flags and sports a Confederate flag on his shirt in in North Bend, Oregon. 

Neither will like the comparison, but it’s inescapable. Since the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders sounds like an earlier leader who wanted to overhaul the Democratic Party after a devastating loss: former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Almost 30 years ago, Clinton, like Sanders, struggled to find a way to win back the White House by attracting more white non-college educated voters, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, many of whom had left the party at least partly out of discomfort with the dominance of women and people of color in the Democratic coalition.

Clinton promoted his humble origins, and so does Sanders. “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from,” Sanders declared in a speech soon after the shattering election loss to Donald Trump.

At this point, the two men’s paths diverge. Where Bill Clinton embraced a neoliberal “Third Way,” playing down the party’s advocacy of government, which had come to be seen as the province of black people and women by those defecting white workers, Sanders seeks a “Third Way” of his own, but a radical one, to reach them.

Sanders wants a full-throated re-embrace of government, a correction from Clinton’s anti-government pose. The former president embraced harsh policies on crime and welfare in part to win back whites; Sanders calls for nothing of the kind. Clinton helped the poor and middle class through stealth government—a vast and beneficial expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a new college tuition tax credit program that, in terms of its value in foregone government revenues, matched the G.I. Bill. Sanders, on the other hand, places government at the center of a new American revival, in which Medicare for all and tuition-free college promote greater opportunity and less income inequality.

So while it would be wrong to belabor the comparability of the two men, we have to acknowledge we’ve wound up in much the same place, almost 30 years after Clinton and his allies began their reclamation project: trying to lure white non-college voters to a party that has increasingly become a home to women, people of color, LGBT voters, and “cosmopolitans” of every stripe—only immeasurably more so, this time around.

This is my third roundtable. I have not given up our common project on finding ways to win more white working-class votes. But in the age of Trump, which I hope will be a short one, I believe it’s more difficult, and more politically treacherous. Democrats began to hemorrhage white working-class voters when Lyndon Johnson put the party behind civil rights in 1964. Their share of those voters dropped from 55 percent to 35 percent between 1964 and 1972. We have not figured out a way to win back a significant number of them without white-centering political corner-cutting, à la Clinton, ever since. But today, doing so is not just morally wrong, but politically risky, given the party’s majority-female-and-voters-of-color base.


I WAS HONORED TO be included in the 2012 Roundtable after I wrote What’s the Matter with White People? Why We Long For A Golden Age That Never Was. The book tracked how the white working class became unmoored from the Democrats in the 1960s, partly through the story of my Irish Catholic family. While I acknowledged racism as a major factor in that breakup, I also made the case that the Democrats abandoned their role as the working-class party around the same time, making it hard to tease out which mattered more. I thought that if Democrats made a better, clearer case that they were the party of workers and not Wall Street, they could win back at least some of the defectors.  

But even as I was writing it, I was questioning my thesis, shaken by the white backlash to President Obama, in which race undeniably played a role. Yes, Obama was too easy on Wall Street. But his auto bailout, his stimulus, and even Obamacare provided tangible help to this group that I was insisting would reward Democrats for providing tangible help. They did not. Obama’s support among white working-class voters dropped from 40 percent against John McCain, in the middle of the terrifying financial crisis of 2008, to 36 percent against Mitt Romney, who looked not like a coworker but “the guy who laid you off,” as Mike Huckabee noted 2008, and who emerged as the granite face of Bain Capital in 2012. In an afterward to the paperback, I tried to show how those Obama programs helped him in the Midwest, which they did, some. But where early exit polls showed him running ahead with the white working class in Ohio, thanks largely to the auto restructuring, later data showed he lost that group there, though he won narrowly in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Then came the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. We all know what happened. Or at least, we know that Trump, unbelievably, beat Clinton. We differ wildly over why. Many on the left have argued, with Bernie Sanders, that it was because even more white working-class voters left the Democrats over the party’s failure to broadcast an economic message that lined up with their experience of downward mobility and despair. I use the word “broadcast” because the party’s platform was in fact the most progressive, both economically and socially, in my lifetime. I cannot deny there is some truth in that “broadcast” failure; reporters who try can easily find voters who say they backed Obama but abandoned Clinton, and who explain it’s because they missed her economic message. She lost the white working class by 40 points, by 25 more points than Obama.

Still, a large and respectable roster of post-election surveys has shown us that the most salient factors in determining who voted for Trump is their racial resentment, belief in white superiority, and fear of their coming “minority” status in the United States. Meanwhile, historian Rick Perlstein reminds us that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” echoed the Ku Klux Klan of the early 20th century (in a wonderful piece in which he takes some of his own earlier books to task). Trump tapped into an old, dark vein in American politics, and while we are right to look at the economic anxiety that helped him rise, we must also look at the racism.


FIVE YEARS LATER, I’ve concluded my book was too respectful, in a way, of the white “ethnic” backlash against civil rights in the 1960s. Partly because it was about my family: I tried to be compassionate, and located much of the backlash in their reaction to the genuine chaos of the times, not just around race, but also around drugs, crime, divorce, the sometimes violent anti-war movement, and so on. That was technically accurate, but I think it downplayed the role of racial and ethnic resentment. There is a strong, enduring, always-possibly-violent hostility to the “other” in American politics, despite the fact that most of us, or our families, were, at one point in American history, “the other” ourselves. Trump tapped into that fear and rage in a way Republicans like McCain and Romney had played with—McCain picked Sarah “pallin’ around with terrorists” Palin as his running mate, and Romney sought and welcomed Trump’s endorsement, even though his racist “birther” nonsense was the only thing that had made the swindling mogul a force in GOP politics—but had never fully deployed.

I wanted the solution to be for Democrats to promote strong populist economic policies, to stop kowtowing too much to Wall Street and, yes, even to change our approach to “identity politics,” to some extent. But watching the backlash to Obama, then Clinton, even among some Obama voters—when presented with a real, white, nativist “choice” in the person of Donald Trump—I have come to despair that such an appeal will make an enormous amount of difference. For much of 2016, I felt like I wrote a manifesto for the Sanders movement back in 2012, but disowned it by the time Sanders ran.

Of course I know Democrats have to win back at least some of these voters—if not to win the White House again (where the “rising American electorate” is still rising), then certainly to win back the Senate and especially the House of Representatives, along with purple-state legislatures which have gone bright red, enabling congressional conservatives to back punitive policies against women and people of color, from harsh voter suppression to surreal restrictions on reproductive rights. But so much of our current debate over Democratic strategy seems to center those white working-class voters over the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies, starting with black women (who gave Clinton 94 percent of their votes.)

Even Sanders, whose racial pitch grew more substantive and compassionate throughout the primary season, reverted to this tin-eared clunker in March: “I don’t believe the majority of Trump voters are racist or sexist.” We can’t know whether he’s right; he may be. We do know that some women and voters of color took his comment as a form of gaslighting: a denial of the very real racism and sexism that Trump deliberately channeled. Yes, Trump won even a majority of white women, and even some (we have no idea how many) white voters who backed Obama. But that doesn’t erase the Trump victory’s creepy undertones in white supremacy and misogyny.

We erase the acknowledgment of the primacy of racism at great political risk. Few people seem to remember it, but while Bill Clinton’s racial signaling memorably won him back some white working-class voters, in both the North and the South, it also seems to have cost him black votes. Where Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis won 89 percent and 88 percent of the black vote in the 1984 and 1988 elections, according to the Joint Center for Political Studies, Clinton’s support dipped to 82 percent in 1992 and 84 percent in 1996. Al Gore grabbed 90 percent running against George W. Bush four years later. Even accounting for the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot (who won single-digit black support both years), Clinton suffered a noteworthy decline.

I admit that while writing my book, and after finishing it, I was chagrined by pushback from black friends and readers who believed I was minimizing the role of racism in the anti-Obama movement, as well as the difficulty of luring white working-class voters without turning away the Democratic Party’s loyal base of women and people of color. It’s a painful admission, but I came to agree with them, especially as the Trump movement emerged. We are not here to relitigate the 2016 primary or general election; any fair observer must admit the problems with the Clinton campaign, including (especially?) the lack of a finely honed, fiery as well as compassionate economic message to those left behind in this winner-take-all economy. And yet any fair observer must also admit that when offered a message that reverberated with white nationalism, full of empty and contradictory and mostly unachievable economic policy proposals, a disturbing majority of white voters, particularly those we term “working class,” signed on. And it’s very hard to separate whiteness from the more understandable “nationalism” of Trump’s white nationalist appeal.

There still remain opportunities to win some, maybe many, of those voters back. But now those chances mainly rest in the likelihood that Trump will betray them, as he is already doing. The man who promised to drain the political and economic “swamp” instead appointed swamp creatures to his cabinet. The guy who brayed against bankers and Wall Street and hedge funds appears to have delegated his appointments to the gang at Goldman Sachs, given how many company veterans have been placed in his executive offices. The Ryan-Trump Obamacare replacement could not have been designed to hurt Trump’s voting base more if they’d set out to do so. The same goes for his proposed budget, which will devastate rural red states and counties.

Democrats must run on policies that center the working class—of every race. If they do, and if Trump fails as predicted, we will see a return of working-class whites to the Democratic fold, perhaps even beyond the modest hopes—can we just climb back to Obama levels?—of many participants in this roundtable. But we can’t advance those policies with denialist rhetoric that minimizes the role of racism in electing Trump and alienates the party’s most loyal voters.

Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats. 

You may also like