A view of the Bicentennial Tower in Erie, Pa. (Photo via Flickr Commons)
The media is reporting the story of a fight within the Democratic Party between moderates and progressives over how far left the party can go and still win the presidency in 2020. The fight is said to be over such issues as single-payer health care and how much to challenge economic inequality.
The story is widespread. But it makes no sense in terms of beating President Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump did not run as an economic conservative.
Three years ago, Trump broke with Republican orthodoxy and expressly ran against the excesses of Wall Street and the elitism of the Davos set. The resentments that he stoked were not primarily racial, but economic. Free trade and other forms of globalization had left ordinary people behind, he repeatedly said.
Even today, many of Trump’s supporters still think of big business as hostile to their interests — even as Trump has repeatedly taken credit for a thriving stock market.
Given this context, how could someone like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who runs on very similar themes, be considered too liberal to take on Trump? She would seem to be the perfect candidate.
The problem with Warren is not a matter of policies, but of attitude, and it illustrates the real divide in the Democratic Party.
In May, Warren turned down an invitation to appear in a Fox News televised town hall, denouncing the network as a “hate for profit racket,” that elevates the voices of “racists,” the Boston Herald reported at the time. Thus, she comes across as an elitist who considers that huge audience to be stupid and easily manipulated. You might as well call them a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters in 2016.
The divide in the Democratic Party is whether to write off the white working class as irredeemably racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-immigrant. If the ultimate Democratic presidential nominee manifests that attitude, it will not matter what policies the candidate offers. Those voters will vote for Trump.
Well, frankly, so what? Isn’t this a voting group in decline?
Yes, but it is still huge. In 2020, probably over 40 percent of all voters will be whites without college degrees, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. And that definition may understate the size of the white working class.
Not only is this group large in absolute numbers, it is decisive precisely where the Democrats lost the presidency in 2016.
On election night, when it became clear that Clinton had narrowly lost Erie County, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett announced on national television that she had just lost Pennsylvania and maybe the White House.
The story was the same all over the upper Midwest. Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and thus the presidency, by a combined 77,744 votes.
The easiest way to reverse that result is to stem the losses among white working class voters.
This is not an impossible task.
In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney 57-40 percent in Erie County. The pattern was the same in Luzerne County, which Obama (51-46 percent) also won and Clinton lost (58-38 percent). Some, among those missing 77, 744 votes, were whites who had voted for Obama in 2012. They were not irredeemable racists.
It is not certain which candidate would appeal to these voters in 2020. If Obama could do well, then obviously the Democratic Party nominee for president need not be an older white male. If economic resentment worked for Trump, the candidate need not be a moderate.
In other words, it does not have to be Joe Biden.
No Democratic candidate for president is going to soften the party’s stance against white nationalism, its support for the rights of women and gays, and its concern for the welfare of immigrants. That’s in the Democrats’ DNA.
But that does not mean writing off white working people. It means creating a diverse working class coalition. It means what is has always meant for successful Democrats, from FDR to Bill Clinton to Obama—appealing to ordinary people from all backgrounds.
That means waging a national campaign; not just turning out the base in blue areas.
That means going to coal country to talk about carbon capture technology; not just crowing about closing coal mines. That means addressing the legitimate concerns of law abiding gun owners; not just talking about gun control.
That means lowering social security taxes; not just raising taxes on the rich. That means trade policy that highlights the export jobs and lower prices on everyday goods that Trump’s tariffs have lost.
And, most importantly, that means embracing the greatness of America.
America used to stand for democracy and human rights. We used our power after WWII to build an international structure that promoted peace and prosperity. We made mistakes—grievous ones—but that was our basic stance. And the whole world knew it.
Trump has made America ordinary, just another money grubbing power seeking its own self-interest. The Democratic candidate for president must offer real national renewal.
In 2016, Trump conned a lot of people. The con was perfectly captured by the comic Dave Chappelle in his now-classic routine from the early voting line in Ohio. Looking at whites obviously hoping that Trump would be on their side, Chappelle could only feel sorry for them: “You are poor. He’s fighting for me.”
The next Democrat who wins the presidency will have to convince ordinary people from all backgrounds that the fight is for them. The candidate who wins Erie will win it all.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz is a constitutional law professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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