Democrats are in danger of moving from complacency to panic. Neither is particularly helpful.
The complacency part is obvious: Until about 9 p.m. on Nov. 8, supporters of Hillary Clinton (myself included) were certain that Donald Trump’s weaknesses among women, nonwhite voters, and younger Americans would prevent him from becoming president.
This analysis was half-right: Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 million. But things went just wrong enough for Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to give Trump his Electoral College victory. His combined margin in the three states stands at about 100,000. Roughly 134 million votes have been counted nationwide.
Is pointing to the limits of Trump’s victory simply a way of evading the depth of the Democrats’ plight? After all, they also failed to take over the U.S. Senate in a year many Republican incumbents looked vulnerable. They picked up a paltry six seats in the House. Add to this the large-scale losses of governorships and state legislatures since the Democrats’ recent high point in 2008 and you have the makings of a party-wide nervous breakdown.
But unless Trump’s first two years are wildly successful, 2018’S midterm elections offer Democrats opportunities to rebuild hollowed-out local parties. This is especially true in statehouses
Clinton’s popular vote advantage speaks to other opportunities. It reflected a shift toward the Democrats in Sunbelt states with large minority populations that is likely to continue.
Trump’s narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, plus his larger victories in Ohio and Iowa, have the Democrats focused on the white working class — and on whether it’s time for “the end of identity liberalism,” the headline of a recent New York Times article by Mark Lilla, a Columbia University political philosopher.
Lilla’s essay provoked a polemical tempest. Many advocates for African-Americans, gays and lesbians, immigrants and women fear Lilla’s suggestion would lead liberals to abandon beleaguered constituencies at the very moment when they most need defending.
In fact, Lilla is right that liberalism needs to root its devotion to inclusion in larger principles and should not allow itself to be cast (or parodied) as simply about the summing up of group claims. He is also dead on when he writes: “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.” Democrats, who gave us the New Deal and empowered the labor movement, should be alarmed by the flight of the white working class.
But Lilla’s critics are right about something, too: An effort to reach out to the white working class cannot be seen as a strategy for abandoning people of color, Muslims or immigrants, or for stepping back from commitments to gender equality, or for withdrawing support for long-excluded groups. Liberalism’s very inclusiveness offers Democrats long-term advantages both in the Sunbelt and among younger voters who will own the future.
Remembering this is the first step toward political recovery.