Primary Colors: On Democratic Presidential Politics, Neoliberalism, and the White Working Class

What happened on Election Night was, in a sense, unremarkable. The white working class, long a constituency at the very heart of American politics, simply found its way into the spotlight once again. Exit polls indicate, with about as much confidence as the entire enterprise of political polling can be held to indicate anything these days, that Donald Trump is President today because Hillary Clinton lost working class whites by an astounding margin. She was beaten by Trump among whites without college degrees by nearly 40 points. And, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has pointed out, she lost a significant amount of support from whites in this category who not only supported Obama, but likely comprised over a third of the coalition that brought him back to the White House in 2012.

Clinton’s atrocious performance among working class whites was, of course, reflective of a long-established trend. The Democratic Party has not won the white working class vote since 1996. Every Democratic campaign since Bill Clinton’s victory that year, save Obama’s 2008 run, has done worse with blue-collar whites than the last. Al Gore lost the white working class by 17 points. John Kerry lost them by 23 points. Obama lost them by 18 points in 2008 and by 25 points in 2012. Even against the Party’s dismal record, Hillary Clinton’s 39 point loss in November stands out. But although she lost the category by an unprecedentedly large margin, Clinton only needed to hold onto a small proportion of white working class voters in the swing states Trump narrowly won to eke out a victory. Given this, it would be absurd to suggest the Party not try to make up some of the difference moving forward. 

The question, of course, is how.

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The Liberal Agenda

We’ve made a mistake. All of us. Those who voted for November’s result have been condemned, heckled, and mocked with a desperate fervor that suggests we fear, or know, that they cannot be held solely culpable. The nature of a democracy, even one as long-compromised as ours, is that all play a role in the construction of political reality. Our current reality is this: The president of the United States is a bigot, a fool, and a pig. Even against the backdrop of a political history populated by more louts and degenerates than we often care to acknowledge, the oafishness and odiousness of our current head of state feels inescapably significant.  Our leaders and pundits offer explanations for what has happened that seem safely peripheral: in the election we are told to see the fruits of a crisis in American manners, a crisis of political partisanship, or a failure to address the needs of this or that particular group of Americans.  There may well be truth to some or all of these contentions. But the strangeness of our current situation suggests that we ought to inquire as to the health of the American project itself.

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