The party has harmed millions of their own former constituents. If they change course, they can reverse their losses
By Thomas Frank
The tragedy of the 2016 election is connected closely, at least for me, to the larger tragedy of the industrial midwest. It was in the ruined industrial city of Cleveland that the Republican Party came together in convention last July, and it was the deindustrialized, addiction-harrowed precincts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that switched sides in November and delivered Donald Trump to the Oval Office.
I am a midwesterner too, and I like to think I share the values and outlook of that part of the country. I have spent many of the last 15 years trying to understand my region’s gradual drift to the political right. And I have spent the last three weeks driving around the deindustrialized midwest, visiting 13 different cities to talk about the appeal of Donald Trump and what ails the Democratic Party. I met labor leaders and progressive politicians; average people and rank-and-file union members; senior citizens and Millennials; sages and cranks.
And what I am here to say is that the midwest is not an exotic place. It isn’t a benighted region of unknowable people and mysterious urges. It isn’t backward or hopelessly superstitious or hostile to learning. It is solid, familiar, ordinary America, and Democrats can have no excuse for not seeing the wave of heartland rage that swamped them last November.
The wreckage that you see every day as you tour this part of the country is the utterly predictable fruit of the Democratic party’s neoliberal turn. Every time our liberal leaders signed off on some lousy trade deal, figuring that working-class people had “nowhere else to go,” they were making what happened last November a little more likely.
What we need is for the Democratic party and its media enablers to alter course. It’s not enough to hear people’s voices and feel their pain; the party actually needs to change. They need to understand that the enlightened Davos ideology they have embraced over the years has done material harm to millions of their own former constituents. The Democrats need to offer something different next time. And then they need to deliver.
Donald Trump won the presidency last night. Many voters were stunned, after the media overwhelmingly predicted a Clinton win and Trump began to look desperate, sending a lawyer to Nevada to demand information about when a line ended for early voting. Now, Americans are looking back at the past few months and trying to understand what happened.
In the days before the election, the Washington Post published a piece entitled, “What is this election missing? Empathy for Trump voters.” But a lot of people who have watched this election closely pointed out there has actually been a lot of outpouring of empathy for Trump voters.
Throughout the campaign, the media was on a perpetual quest to understand what attracted people to Trump’s message. Journalists considered economic disadvantage as a major factor for why Trump voters felt unheard — and interpreted Trump’s support as evidence that these people reject the establishment Republicans and Democrats who have left them behind.
That was the popular narrative for months. It appears that many members of the media wanted to consider anything but racism, as if it couldn’t possibly that be so straightforward. But it really is.
America’s demographics are changing, and they’re changing quickly. By 2055, there will no longer be a single racial or ethnic majority in the United States and 14 percent of the country will be foreign born, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-three percent of Millennials are people of color.
Let’s be clear: This is scaring white voters. White people believe that they are more often the victims of racism than black people, according to a 2011 new study from researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The research also found that white voters perceived social progress for people of color to be much swifter than it actually is.
The authors wrote, “These data are the first to demonstrate that not only do whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do blacks, but whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality — at their expense.”
WASHINGTON — Donna Mae Litowitz, a Miami Beach retiree, likes Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont so much that three months ago she sent his presidential campaign $10,000. His campaign sent back all but $2,700 because it was more than he was allowed to take under federal election law, but she wishes he had kept it all.
“I like what Sanders stands for, and he says what needs to be said,” said Ms. Litowitz, who gave money in 2008 to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “And I don’t like Hillary Clinton.”
In an election dominated by million-dollar donations to “super PACs,” Ms. Litowitz qualifies in Mr. Sanders’s insurgent campaign as a big donor. Unlike almost all of the other major Democratic and Republican candidates this year, Mr. Sanders has refused to accept support from super PACs, relying instead on supporters like Ms. Litowitz as well as tens of thousands of small donors giving as little as $5 or $10.
The average donation, according to campaign officials, is $31.30.
When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation last year that he was “prepared to run for president,” he said he would do so only if it was clear that progressives were enthusiastic about a movement campaign seeking nothing less than “a political revolution.” It was an audacious proposal—but after traveling the country for a year, Sanders decided that the enthusiasm was there and announced in late April as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. There were plenty of doubters then. Two months into the campaign, however, everything about this candidacy—the crowds, the poll numbers, the buzz—is bigger than expected. That says something about Sanders. But it also says something about the prospects for progressive politics. In late June, The Nation sat down with Sanders for several conversations that asked the longtime Nation reader (“started when I was a University of Chicago student in the early 1960s”) to put not just his campaign but the moment in historical perspective for our 150th-anniversary issue:
The Nation: Your campaign for the presidency has surprised people. The crowds are big; the poll numbers are stronger than the pundits predicted. You’re a student of political history. Put what’s happening now in perspective. Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?
Sanders: Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue.
In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.
The Nation: As long as we’re talking about the evolution of public policy, let’s talk about the evolution of a word: socialism. You appeared on ABC’s This Week and, when you were asked whether a socialist can be elected president, you did not blink; you talked about socialism in positive, detailed terms. I don’t believe a presidential candidate has ever done that on a Sunday-morning show.
Sanders: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push “European-style socialism,” and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding…. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?
I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made…. The Danish ambassador, whom I talked to a couple of years ago, said to me that in Denmark it is very, very hard to be poor; you really have to literally want to be outside of the system. Well, that’s pretty good. In Denmark, all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends. Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people. They have a very strong childcare system, which to me is very important. Their retirement system is very strong. They are very active in trying to protect their environment…. And, by the way, the voter turnout in those countries is much higher; in Denmark, in the last election, it was over 80 percent. Political consciousness is much higher than it is in the United States. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.