Columnist Don Robinson: What should Democrats do now?

  • President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen before signing an executive order for immigration actions to build a border wall during a visit to the Homeland Security Department in Washington on Wednesday. AP PHOTO

Published: 1/25/2017 6:16:15 PM

The last two months have been deeply disheartening for progressives. The Democratic Party took a shellacking on Nov. 8, losing not just the presidency, but up and down the ticket, in both houses of Congress and in a majority of statehouses across the land.

Many Democrats feel demoralized, confused and leaderless. Beyond railing against the president’s tweets and expressing outrage at his appointments and executive orders, what is to be done?

Should Democrats concentrate on recasting their message? Can their talking points on the economic recovery following the collapse of 2007-2008 be delivered more convincingly? Can they offer better explanations of their foreign policy, especially in the Middle East?

Or should they focus on “identity politics”? Should they work on reassembling, and extending, the Obama coalition, energizing more women, minorities, younger voters?

Or do they simply need to develop a better “ground game”? Better strategies? Smarter allocation of campaign resources? Quicker, more disciplined reactions to provocations like Benghazi, the “damned emails,” FBI director James Comey’s dithering and Putin’s purloined memos from inside the Democratic campaign?

In truth, the central problem for the Democrats, and for progressives, is deeper than any of these factors. What Democrats must do is reconnect with the white working class. These people were the core of FDR’s coalition. Ronald Reagan’s rise, and that of the Republican Party with him, began when he captured the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Can the Democratic Party reconnect with these voters? Until it can figure out how to do this, it will not recover its position as the dominant party.

An excellent guide to understanding this challenge is the acclaimed book by Arlie Russell Hochschild entitled “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” It was published in early September 2016, before the election on Nov. 8.

It offers therefore not a comment on the election, much less a strategy for Democrats seeking to regain their traditional hold on working-class voters. Hochschild’s project is to understand why working-class white people have left the Democratic Party and are instead supporting the Tea Party and Republicans like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Her research began five years ago. She looked for a region with certain features and found what she was looking for in southwestern Louisiana. It was rife with Tea Party folks, rich with the culture that propelled Trump to rise over all opposition in the GOP primary contests and seize the party’s nomination. Trump then sent, not only Hillary, but many of her party’s Senate candidates to crushing defeat.

A 2004 book by Thomas Frank, called “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” had asked how such voters can be so oblivious to their true interests? Why do they not vote for the party whose platform is full of policies designed to help them?

Hochschild found this disconnect, too, but she argues that ignorance doesn’t explain it. These folks are not ill-informed. They have reasons for how they feel, what they do, but their most powerful interests are cultural, not economic.

Many of them have been badly, personally hurt by the reckless practices of the petroleum industry in their region. But here’s the thing: they did not trust the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration to help them. For them Washington is emotionally remote, a place of cool disdain for their values and lifestyle. It is contemptuous of people like them.

Trump passionately expresses their contempt for Washington, that “swamp” of self-regarding elites. They love to hear him ring the changes on the gang in Washington, how stupid and corrupt they are, and how they LIE! When Hillary spoke of all her experience there, Trump ridiculed her. “What do we have to show for it? All that experience, and so little accomplished!”

This is why Trump’s appeal is so impervious to criticism by elite institutions like the New York Times, feminist organizations, the mainline Protestant denominations and the like. That’s why they can’t get much traction now. Criticism by the Times, by PBS and NPR and by CNN just bounces off him. He is made of Teflon, like Reagan.

Is his cabinet a collection of white male billionaires? So what?

Did Trump and his press-secretary lie about the crowd at the inaugural? Is he lying about the hordes of illegal immigrants who voted against him? Trump counters by announcing that he has called for a “major investigation” of these “facts.”

He makes a monkey out of Mitt Romney and his lapdog interest in being secretary of state. He reappoints James Comey as director of the FBI. They love it! And they stand mutely by while Benjamin Netanyahu announces plans to build more settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Trump torpedoes US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (while the GOP establishment cringes). He tells a bunch of corporate CEOs that they had better not send manufacturing abroad, or he will tax their imports to the US market. What fun!

I was listening the other day to a scene from “Hamilton.” At a cabinet meeting Hamilton gets into a hot quarrel with Jefferson over his financial plans. President Washington declares a recess and calls his hotheaded young lieutenant aside for a little fatherly advice. “Winning (the war for independence)was easy,” he says. “Governing is hard.” It isn’t enough to be right, advises the President. “You haven’t got the votes.”

Hamilton gets the point. He yields to the Virginians on the location of the nation’s capital. Move it from New York, not to Philadelphia, but to a spot between Maryland and Virginia. Jefferson won’t have to travel so far from his beloved Monticello. The deal is done.

Can Democrats apply President Washington’s sage advice to their current struggles? Democratic policy wonks are trying to figure out how to lure white working-class males from Trump by offering them irresistible goodies. It’s hard, because, as Washington pointed out to Hamilton, they don’t have the votes, in either house of Congress.

It’s a pity Joe Biden is so old. He really knew how to talk to these folks. He loved them, and he respected them. He really did, and they sensed it. Our badly divided country needs such a leader now, as never before since Lincoln.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.




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