The modern Democratic Party died as it lived, oblivious to the signs of trouble around it. The majority of Democrats supported Hillary Clinton’s nomination, the embodiment of the establishment, despite ominous signs of her unpopularity and a rising populist tide. A bevy of self-assured strategists and operatives dismissed tightening poll numbers. David Plouffe, the brilliant architect of Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns, blithely predicted that Clinton had a “100 percent chance of winning” and would be “well north of 300” electoral votes. As a result, few were prepared for what happened on election night. Hillary Clinton, the most qualified presidential candidate in recent history, lost to Donald Trump, an openly misogynist, racist, xenophobic buffoon. Clinton’s talented campaign staff, vast financial resources and army of high profile surrogates all counted for nothing. While she won the popular vote by a small margin, Clinton won fewer electoral votes than any Democrat since Michael Dukakis in 1988, losing hitherto reliably Democratic strongholds in the Midwest. Moderate Republicans, who the Clinton campaign had wooed for months, rejected her decisively. Not since Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in 1948 had such a stunning upset occurred in presidential politics.
Throughout the campaign season, there was a fierce debate on the left over whether supporters of Trump were primarily motivated by racism or economic discontent. After Trump’s shocking victory, this internecine dispute only intensified. Donald Trump undoubtedly appealed to the vilest bigotries and prejudices and drew the support of the most despicable elements of society, including unabashed neo-fascists and white supremacists. But these hateful extremists only make up a small portion of the American electorate, and racism cannot explain why white working class voters who supported Barack Obama did not support Clinton or why turnout among African-Americans dropped steeply. Nor can racism explain the decimation of the Democratic Party at the state and local levels over the past eight years. The reason for these failures, I believe, is that Democrats betrayed the populist progressive values that cemented the party’s appeal to working people across racial and ethnic lines. Instead, it embraced an unpopular and untenable combination of cultural liberalism and economic centrism. To quote Sinclair Lewis’ disturbingly relevant novel It Can’t Happen Here, “we had it coming, we Respectables.”
The Democratic Party’s populist roots can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who feared the rise of an urban, capitalist elite and saw the yeoman farmer as the exemplar of civic republicanism. Jefferson was a stalwart opponent of regressive taxes and government intervention in the economy that would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the franchise was extended to all white men and avenues for public participation in government were expanded, in keeping with the principles of Jeffersonian democracy. Nineteenth century populist Democrats certainly ought not be romanticized, for their vision of popular rule and a more equitable distribution of wealth deliberately excluded people of color. But despite their many faults, Jefferson and Jackson shaped an influential and vital political tradition that defended the interests of farmers, artisans and urban workers against concentrated corporate and financial power.
The populist progressive vision reached its fullest realization in the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Elected during the Great Depression, Roosevelt sought not to merely save banks and industries, but to redistribute wealth and provide meaningful employment to ordinary citizens. He summed up the central tenets of the populist tradition when he called for policies “that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” During his four terms in office, Roosevelt restructured the financial system and aggressively enforced anti-trust laws, consistent with the populist aversion to concentrations of power. New Deal populism remained the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party until the 1970s, when a new generation of activists and agitators on the left challenged populist Democrats’ control of the party.
As Matt Stoller notes in The Atlantic, the new left viewed the Vietnam War, not corporate or financial power, as the most pressing issue of their time and some even moved towards right-wing libertarianism on economic issues. As they began to replace the old New Deal liberals, the Democratic Party began to move away from its populist roots. Democrats came to rely upon the support of Wall Street and college-educated professionals more than organized labor and the working class, and the policies the party supported predictably reflected that shift. The New Democrats, exemplified by Bill Clinton, supported deregulation of the financial industry, free trade agreements and welfare reform. As Democrats moved away from populist progressivism, white working class voters drifted toward the Republican Party, which appealed to their cultural beliefs. Some Democrats, like Barack Obama, managed to win elections with a coalition of college-educated professionals, people of color and just enough white working-class voters. But as Democrats failed to deliver to working people across racial lines, they sowed the seeds for the unraveling of this coalition and Clinton’s loss to Trump.
While supporting neoliberal economic policies that shrunk the middle class and weakened the welfare state, Democrats aggressively promoted a divisive form of cultural liberalism. Voters who opposed abortion on moral grounds were accused of waging a “war on women.” Those who disapproved of gay marriage, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did just several years ago, were condemned as homophobes. No one ought to suggest that Democrats cease their efforts to achieve racial justice and equality for women and sexual minorities. Indeed, Democrats must now fight even more vigorously for civil rights, which will come under unprecedented assault during the presidency of Donald Trump. What is necessary, however, is a certain level of humility and tolerance when approaching complex issues regarding morality. Dismissing the mores of millions of Americans as bigotry and advocating for evermore radical cultural change is both illiberal and counterproductive. Rather, Democrats should reach out to these voters with a politics of class solidarity, which will uplift working and middle class voters across ethnic, racial and religious divides. As Senator Bernie Sanders did when he visited the ultra-conservative Liberty University during his campaign for the Democratic nomination, it is possible to stand firm on civil rights while seeking common ground with social conservatives on economic justice.
The shocking victory of Donald Trump, an ignorant, bigoted madman with fascist proclivities, is a disaster for America and the world. Hopefully it will compel Democrats to at last engage in some much-needed introspection. Clearly the technocratic, center-left policies of the New Democrats are no longer sufficient answers to the problems the nation faces today. Populist Democrats, not authoritarian ethno-nationalists like Donald Trump, must be the first to point out that the system is rigged against working Americans. Rather than claim that they “alone can fix it,” as the aspiring tyrant does, Democrats should propose policies that will radically restructure the economy and return political power to the many. Only this sort of aspirational social democracy can defeat the virulent brand of far-right populism peddled by Trump. The Democratic Party, with its venerable tradition of populist progressivism, should champion again the cause of working people and the poor and strive to build a democratic, egalitarian society. Both morally and politically, it is the correct path to take.