Should Democrats Try To Win Over Trump’s Supporters, or Just Move On?

Should Democrats Try To Win Over Trump’s Supporters, or Just Move On?

Should Democrats Try To Win Over Trump’s Supporters, or Just Move On?

A profoundly important debate is dividing the left.


Whatever Hillary Clinton meant when she said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters could be consigned to a “basket of deplorables,” everyone agreed the comment was, at best, maladroit. Four years ago Mitt Romney attempted to campaign with the unusual strategy of insulting a sizable fraction of the electorate to a room full of wealthy donors, and we know how well things turned out for him. Of all the gaffes in all the world, why’d it have to be this one?1

Even so, many on the left, including here at The Nation, noted that if her comment was wrong in any factual sense, it was only in its exaggeration of the percentage of Trump’s supporters that are, as Clinton put it, “irredeemable”—and even then, they said, she was not off by much. That being the case, perhaps Democrats should decide once and for all to call off all efforts to win over The Donald’s supporters, and instead focus on maintaining and expanding Barack Obama’s political base—people of color, the educated, and the young. But, came the rejoinder, what kind of vision of the national future does that provide?2

After circling around and around this question, we decided to submit it to the consideration of six writers on the left. Their responses are below.
—Richard Kreitner3

* * *4

Steve Phillips

The New Not-Silent Majority

Democrats absolutely should not waste time and resources over the next four weeks trying to get the votes of Trump supporters. After the election, however, they absolutely should seek their support for a policy agenda that addresses the profound wealth inequality plaguing our nation.6

Organizing, mobilizing, and investing in the New American Majority should be the primary political imperative of progressives across the country. Obama’s election and reelection proved that there is a New American Majority consisting of progressive people of color and progressive whites. Together, those constituencies comprise more than 51 percent of all eligible voters. There are 7.5 million more eligible voters of color today than there were in 2012. And 25 million eligible people of color didn’t vote in 2012. Together, these voters of color far eclipse the small number of potential convertible Trump voters.7

Political campaigns are zero-sum games involving the strategic allocation of two scarce resources: time and money. Mobilizing the New American Majority is labor and resource-intensive, so we should not be diverting any resources away from that imperative. Helping members of the New American Majority clear the myriad hurdles to voting requires more attention and resources, not less. For example, people of color are, on the whole, poorer than whites (the average black or Latino family has just one-tenth the assets of the average white family) and face more barriers to civic participation, such as the costs of childcare and transportation, and ability to get time off from work.8

Even if we were to pursue Trump’s supporters, the particular challenge of engaging them is that the animating principle of his campaign is racial resentment. If that’s what’s motivating his supporters (and it is), how do we appeal to that same constituency, and what could we say that would sway them if what compels them to vote are promises to build a wall and kick out people of color?9

From a cost-benefit perspective, targeting Trump voters also doesn’t make financial sense. Every black voter we turn out is 80 percent likely to vote Democratic (90 percent this year); every Latino and Asian-American is 73 percent likely to vote Democratic. Every dollar spent pursuing white Trump voters is highly speculative and much less likely to yield the desired result.10

Having said all that, there is a strong future basis for reaching out to Trump supporters and calling for unity with regard to economic inequality. The Occupy Wall Street movement’s slogan of “We Are the 99 percent” showed the potential of a cross-race, class-based campaign that targets the widespread economic inequality in America.11

But that’s after the election. Right now time is so short that nearly every dollar should be spent hiring community-based organizers in New American Majority communities to get their peers and family and friends to the polls.12

Paul Starr

We’re For You

Donald Trump’s supporters are lost to the Democrats—but not necessarily forever. In the long run, for both moral and political reasons, Democrats cannot give up on white working-class voters.2

Whites without college degrees—the core of Trump’s support—are experiencing a measurable decline in their life circumstances. As my Princeton colleagues Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown, middle-aged whites, especially those with only a high-school education, have seen significant increases in mortality rates, primarily as a result of “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcoholism, and opioid addiction. The Democrats message for them has to be, “We’re for you even if you’re not for us.”3

Democrats have a strong case to make that they can help. Since 1948, working- and middle-class Americans have consistently done better during Democratic administrations, as data from political scientist Larry Bartels’s Unequal Democracy shows (see below). While income growth under Republican presidents has been concentrated at the top, it has been higher and spread more evenly under Democrats. “Stronger together” is not just a slogan; it has been the historical record.4

Real Growth in Pre-Tax Income by Income Level under Democratic and Republican Presidents, 1948–2014. Source: Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, 2d ed. (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Real Growth in Pre-Tax Income by Income Level under Democratic and Republican Presidents, 1948–2014. Source: Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, 2d ed. (Princeton University Press, 2016).

For their part, Democrats need greater support from white working- and middle-class voters to be able to carry out a coherent, sustained program. It will not be enough to just focus on building a coalition of people of color, the young, and educated, upper-middle-class whites.5

The geographic clustering of Democratic votes in cities is costing the party representation in Congress and state legislatures. The Democrats’ dependence on black, Latino, Asian, and young voters is a particular liability in off-year elections. When voter turnout falls, it falls the most for those groups. Even when Democrats have been winning the presidency, they have been losing Congress two years later. Now they will be lucky just to win the Senate. They’re not likely to overcome their deficits, especially in off-year elections, without more white support.6

For a different reason, Democrats should also be concerned about becoming too dependent on more educated, higher-income whites. Many of those voters may desert Democrats in the future if the Republicans tone down their extremism on cultural issues.7

We are now in the throes of a great white backlash against the growing diversity of American society and changing racial and gender relations. Eventually, as the older generation dies out, that backlash is going to subside, but the problems of economic inequality will persist, and on those distributive issues, the GOP has never served white working- and middle-class voters well. The Democratic Party has been their historic home, and if the Democrats keep the door open, the lights on, and hot food on the stove, many of those whites will find their way back.8

Arlie Hochschild

Forging a Common Cause

Not long ago, I visited Hungary, a country now ruled by the far-right leader Victor Orban, who since coming to power in 2010 has curtailed the freedom of the press, shuttered many NGOs, replaced statues of non-Hungarians with statues of Hungarians, barred all Syrian immigrants despite a labor shortage, and rebuilt memorials and museums to deny any Hungarian role in the extermination of the country’s Jews. My husband and I asked a member of the opposition, “How could this happen?” His answer was this: “Nobody thought Orban could win, and the left, self-absorbed and divided, didn’t vote.”15

With the rise of Donald Trump, we Americans find ourselves in a similar political moment. Unfortunately, our left fits the same description.16

Between now and November 8, the first order of business is, I believe, to set aside differences and get out the vote for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. The alternatives—staying home, or voting for a third party—are luxuries we cannot afford. After Election Day, however, there must be a concerted effort to reach out to blue-collar and lower-middle-class whites who are abandoning the Democratic Party in droves—and even the ideals long associated with it. Five years of listening to such people—many of them complex, ambivalent, and thoughtful—has shown me that they feel like an ignored, ridiculed, unacknowledged minority group. For them the new N-word begins with an “R”—as in “redneck”—and it’s used far too freely by some on the left.17

There are, moreover, several crossover issues on which left and right can find common cause: getting money out of politics, reducing prison populations, cleaning up the environment. Almost all the people I interviewed will be voting for Trump. All of them felt distaste and contempt—some justified, some not—for Hillary Clinton. But, surprisingly, none of them showed the same visceral dislike for Bernie Sanders. They felt he was genuine, if eccentric and unrealistic.18

An insurance saleswoman, single mom, Tea Party advocate, and former chair of Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana who plans to vote for Trump has a 17-year-old son who greatly admires Sanders. To their credit, mother and son are talking through their differences. But no one else in this young man’s school or family shares his views, and neither mother nor son have experienced an open outreach from others willing to join their debate, seek common cause, and perhaps more. That has to be the left’s mission once the imminent danger of a Trump presidency has passed.19

Copyright © 2016 Arlie Hochschild

William Greider

The New Popular Front

Whatever the election results this year, political chaos is sure to continue. That’s because the two-party system will still be a confused jumble astride deeper contradictions.10

The working class is starkly divided by race, religion, and bitter regional history—rich states and poor states, progressive states and racially backward states. Yet despite their deep differences, the varied ranks of working people in blue states and red states share the same embittering experiences—the deindustrialization that killed jobs and suppressed incomes for a generation of blue-collar families; the great shift in wealth and family security that both political parties engineered in behalf of multinational corporations and international financiers.11

In the long run, the political party that succeeds in uniting working-class voters—white and black, North and South—will be the party that eventually secures majority status. That is my hunch about the future of our dysfunctional democracy—somewhat wishful, but not implausible. If neither party finds the courage to grasp the need for profound economic change, then the country needs a new party, or maybe even two of them.12

The hopeful factors Democrats could exploit include the shifting demographics that guarantee a multi-hued America and the distinctively more radical views that younger voters expressed this year. But the Democratic Party will be utterly unconvincing if its leaders continue to cling to the money and banking interests. The party’s current disregard for the white working class is condescending at best. Democratic leaders will have to relearn how to talk to working stiffs, or even better how to listen to them.13

Thanks to the great success of social-reform movements, we need not re-argue abortion or other settled issues. The reform message should instead focus on how we can overcome the dreadful realities that working people face. It should emphasize the imperative of creating the next economy—the profound reinvention of capitalism required to save the Earth and save all of us from the destructive forces of man-made production and consumption. There is no North and South in this new landscape, no white or black, no rich or poor.14

It sounds corny, but Trump drew a crowd this year when he started to tell folks the hard truth about the troubled American condition. People had suspected as much. They were grateful for a little honest talk, even if they knew that he was probably lying, too.15

Rick Perlstein

Women’s Rights Are Workers’ Rights

Leave aside the question of whether a Trump presidency would actually help ordinary Americans: Obviously, it would not. But what about Trump’s constituency? Should the left focus on regaining what has become known by shorthand as the “white working class”? Or should we stick to mobilizing what’s been called the “Obama coalition”—youth, minorities, college-educated professionals, women?22

Those arguing for the latter often make an important point: Whenever people talk about the “white working class,” they seem to refer only to white men. This is self-evidently ridiculous, but for some reason it endures. In an important recent book on the history of the culture wars, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, the historian Robert O. Self explains how, prior to the 1960s, liberalism was built on a economic and social foundation we now would call sexist: The job of the state was to provide for the health of families by providing for men—who in turn would provide for their families. Self labels this “breadwinner liberalism.”23

Much of the work of feminism in the 1970s was an attempt to unyoke social provision from family status. In halting ways, it has enjoyed some success—but that has only helped provide access to a pie that itself has not grown in decades. Because breadwinner liberalism, never particularly strong in the first place (see: America’s inability to achieve universal healthcare), has obviously failed so many in the regions where Trump is doing best, white males there feel doubly dispossessed: in terms of both the economy and of gender. The failure of breadwinner liberalism unmans them.24

The right has an answer to this, what Self calls “breadwinner conservatism”: a politics of symbolic remuneration, the phony promises of mastery that Donald Trump grunts forth from the podium day after day. It hates those perceived as others because it has no genuine answer to the rage at this loss of mastery.25

Do we? A society that guarantees security for women as a right of citizenship, not as a reward for having a husband, should be a fundamental goal of any left worthy of the name. But that strategy has real consequences for those who once enjoyed a petty lordship just for being born with a penis. To understand is not to excuse. But the rage is real, and don’t think it will be easy to forge a politics to transcend it.26

Ian Haney López

What Hillary Clinton Should Say

A progressive coalition that includes a significant number of erstwhile Trump supporters is not only necessary but possible. Only a fragment of his supporters is beyond redemption; most are otherwise decent folks prone to fears about changing demographics and resentment over lost status. Building on a half-century of Republican dog whistling, Trump plays precisely to those fears and resentments, constantly nurturing them with outrageous racial provocations. 17

None of this should be news to Clinton. In the 1990s, Clinton followed her husband and the New Democrats in imitating the GOP’s use of coded racial messages. This was the era in which she stumped for an egregious crime bill by decrying “superpredators” who needed to be “brought to heel.” Along similar lines, in her 2008 contest against Barack Obama, Clinton touted her support from “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.”18

Ironically, then, Clinton is just the person to reach out to racially resentful whites. Imagine a possible Clinton address along these lines:19

Donald Trump hopes to win office by dividing us by race and other false hierarchies. This isn’t new; it’s a 50-year-old tactic that encourages working people to fear each other while handing over power to economic elites. I should know because in the 1990s I did it myself. I was wrong, and I apologize. And today I’m here to fight against anyone doing this again. When racism becomes a political weapon, we build prisons and deport millions, wrecking communities of color. And we also let corporations and the selfish rich hijack the economy, harming every one of every race. To get government and the market back on the side of ordinary folks, we have to reject racial fear and build solidarity among “we the people.” We truly are stronger together.20

Clinton probably won’t give this speech in the final weeks of an election in which she holds a narrow lead. But if it’s risky to broach with whites how racism has betrayed them, the harm of not doing so is certain—and growing. As our demographics shift, and as power passes to the Obama coalition, a large part of the white population, likely a majority, will only become more racially anxious, and as a result more politically reactionary.21

Remaking our politics and economy depends on a broad coalition that must include substantial numbers of racially anxious whites. Ignoring their fears, or worse, pandering to them, further impoverishes all of us. Instead, we must have a unified message for whites as well as people of color: Fearful of one another, we too easily hand over power to moneyed interests, but working together, we can rebuild the American Dream.28

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy