EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
In the United States, inequality and economic distress have spread over the past decades. Growing numbers in the working class struggle with depression, divorce, and addiction. Yet for years neither party’s establishment responded. Taxes grew more rather than less regressive. Expanded social investment was strangled by austerity policies. Labor unions grew weaker, and the minimum wage didn’t keep up with inflation. Deregulation and corporate globalization accelerated plant closings, with very little public assistance for families and communities left in their wake. It took the fake populism of President Trump and the furious indictment of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to end the silence. But why has Trump’s autocratic fake populism been able to exploit widespread popular grievances here despite Sanders and others demonstrating the force of a progressive populism?
Harvard economist Dani Rodrik recently offered several reasons—some convincing, some not so much. One reason he suggests is that the Democratic Party floundered in part because it allowed “identity politics” and other socially liberal causes to displace focus on the bread-and-butter issues, such as incomes and jobs. But pitting identity politics against economic populism produces more heat than light. As Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg noted, Democrats don’t have a white working-class problem; they have a working-class problem. Black, Latino, and single-women voters are disproportionately middle- and low-wage workers. For Democratic candidates, a populist economic message doesn’t contradict “identity politics”; it helps turn out the broad coalition of working-class voters who should be their base.
Indeed, it is the right that has successfully used identity politics to consolidate an appeal beyond its affluent base. The modern Republican Party was born in reaction to the civil-rights movement, consolidating a white sanctuary in the South and deploying race-bait politics while forging an alliance of anti-abortion, pro-gun, Christian Coalition constituencies. Trump intensified this politics of division by rousing fears of immigrants and Muslims.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.