The debate goes something like this:
Hillary blew it! What a terrible campaign. What a blemished candidate. What horrible judgment to take those speaking fees from Wall Street, to keep classified data on her personal server, to fail to ask her top aide Huma Abedin to leave her employ once the Anthony Weiner mess blew up, yet again. She handed her enemies a loaded gun. And now we’re stuck with Trump!! Hillary screwed up, we pay the price.
Hold on, misogynist pig. Hillary won! She won the popular vote by more than two million. Even apart from the alleged hacking of election results, old-fashioned voter suppression — in the form of closed polling places, long lines, restrictions on early voting, abuse of ID requirements, improper purges — probably cost her at least three swing states where the winning margin was razor thin. She won!
Yeah, but a decent candidate would have beat Trump by ten points. There was no excitement for Hillary outside the bubble. Did you even see Hillary lawn signs, or bumper stickers?
Give me a break. Look at all the dirty tricks — the Russians hacking and leaking confidential communications by her top advisers. The FBI chief breaking all the rules and meddling in an election. Look at how the media obsessed about her emails and kept giving Trump a free pass.
I’ll give you this: The rot goes a lot deeper than Hillary. The Democratic presidential party has been blowing off the white working class for decades, getting into bed with Wall Street, making trade deals by and for corporate America. No wonder Trump, despite being a billionaire and a fake, could get traction as a champion of working people. Why do you think Bernie almost beat her for the nomination?
Bernie and the Bernie bros cost us the election. He never was going to win. He sapped energy from the general election.
Hey, just think of the Bernie vote as data. Hillary and the establishment party had such weak appeal among the young and the working class that they supported a 74-year-old Jewish socialist.
What does that tell you?
Those white working class guys who voted for Trump? How many of them are just plain racist? How many of them would never vote for a woman? There is a new majority coalition in this country — of minorities, women, immigrants, the young, LGBTQ people. It just didn’t totally come together in 2016 because of all the dirty tricks.
Yeah, that and the lack of voter enthusiasm. If you think it was racism that defeated Hillary, how do you explain that Obama, a black man, did better in 2008 with the white working class than Hillary did in 2016? I’ll tell you the answer. He looked like an outsider, and regular people are sick to death of insiders — so sick that they voted for Trump. Sorry, but that coalition doesn’t coalesce without the white working class.
Maybe they are more inclined to vote for an African American man than a woman, much less a feminist.
Sorry, identity politics doesn’t cut it without the working class.
No, no, stop. It’s not mainly class. It’s racism and misogyny. It’s culture!
Okay, campers. Can we please move on? We’ve got a constitution to defend.
Can we stipulate: Hillary ran a terrible campaign, and she was the victim of dirty tricks and presidential Democrats have been far too cavalier about regular working people, and there is plenty of racism and misogyny?
Completing the rights revolution for blacks, women, gays, lesbians, trans people, immigrants, would have been tricky politics even had Hillary been better at lunch-bucket policies for Middle America. But it was a bridge too far in the absence of credible appeals to the working class.
Gentle reader, it is both/and. And class is culture. Just hang out in a bar in a working class town, where the factories have moved to Mexico or China, where half the storefronts on Main Street are shuttered and a way of life that was once valued is ruined. Is that class or culture? Surely, it’s both. This was once FDR country. It’s now Trump country.
John Kennedy famously said that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. Not this time. This particular bastard of a defeat had plenty of fathers — and mothers.
So can we please declare this debate closed, and think about what to do now?
What do we know about President Elect Trump? We know that he views the presidency mainly as a business opportunity; that he is appointing other billionaires to high offices, so that they can also turn government and public policies into profit-making ventures. Betsy DeVos, the designated education secretary, supports school vouchers not just as school “choice,” but as a money-making opportunity.
We know that apart from a few gestures, he will do just about nothing for the white working class protest voters. So can Democrats somehow win these folks back?
It won’t be easy, precisely because the revolt against the establishment is about culture as well as class. Trump, however, may be his own worst enemy. While posing as a populist, he seems inclined to let the Republican establishment have its way, not just with welfare for the poor but with federal programs that Middle America actually values, such as social security and medicare.
At some point, even the devout Trump backers may notice that the man is a fraud. And Democrats need to be there with a brand of constructive economic nationalism that actually serves working people.
But in the meantime a great deal is at risk — not just the programs going back to Franklin Roosevelt and the civil rights victories going back to LBJ and Martin Luther King but constitutional democracy itself.
Now, can the Democrats please suspend their usual ritual of the circular firing squad — and get on with the business of defending what’s decent in America?
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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