Democrats used to campaign on class â€? and win. It’s time to do it again.

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Democrats used to campaign on class — and win. It's time to do it again.

The reason the Democratic Party lost the last presidential election is simple.

Or so a lot of Democrats seem to think.

In the end, says one school of thought, it was all about race. As the influential journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates asserted in a recent Atlantic magazine cover story, “whiteness brought us Donald Trump.”

Trump, Coates pointed out, won whites of all genders, all ages, all incomes and all levels of educational attainment. “And so,” Coates concluded, “it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific — ‘America’s first white president.’”

Unless, of course, November’s defeat wasn’t about race after all. The real reason Democrats lost the White House was economic, not cultural, according to the most powerful Democrat in the country (and his many allies).

“When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things … you blame yourself,” declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier this year. “I think if we come up with this strong, bold economic package, it will change things around. That’s what we were missing.”

Economics or culture? This, in short, is the debate that has consumed the Democratic Party since the disorienting morning of Nov. 9, when Hillary Clinton � who was supposed to have an 85 percent chance of winning � finally called Trump to concede. It is a debate that has produced 11 months of postmortems and polemics, each more assured of its own simple rightness than the last.

If only liberals weren’t so obsessed with identity politics, argues Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla in the New York Times, then everything would be different.

If only Democrats knew how to talk to blue-collar whites, added University of California law professor Joan C. Williams in the Harvard Business Review, then Trump wouldn’t be president.

Wait a minute, countered Columbia law professor Katherine Franke in the Los Angeles Review of Books. A liberalism that ignores identity â€? that “regards the protests of people of color and women as a complaint or a feeling, ignoring the facts upon which those protests are based” â€? is a liberalism of “white supremacy.”

And so on.

But what if the answer isn’t so simple? What if it isn’t “either/or” â€? but rather “both/and”? As Democrats ponder their defeat and strategize about how to avoid similar disappointments in 2018 and 2020, it might be worth considering not just why they lost but why Trump won.

In a sense, it all came down to class, because class is the space where economics and culture overlap.

More than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory, Trump erased the boundaries between culture and economics. Again and again, the impulsive, improvisational mogul â€? a man who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” â€? capitalized on the resentments and rage of certain white Americans: toward elites, toward the “establishment,” toward nonwhites and non-Americans. At the same time, Trump broke with the bipartisan Beltway consensus to gesture, at least, toward an economic attitude â€? “agenda” is probably too strong a word â€? that reflected the populist desires and demands of the voters to whom he was also targeting his divisive cultural appeals. Unravel free-trade deals. Revive American manufacturing. Reanimate the coal industry. Halt immigration.

Never mind that as president, Trump has done little, so far, to deliver on any of these promises. In his campaign, culture dictated economics and economics amplified culture. The product was greater than the sum of its parts: the first Republican presidential bid in decades to be animated by the affinities and animosities of a particular class. As a result, Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2. 9 million but peeled off just enough voters in the traditionally blue states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania � 77, 744 of them, to be exact � to eke out a surprise victory in the Electoral College.

If Democrats want to wound Trump in 2018 and defeat him in 2020, they would be wise to learn from his success. Don’t ignore identity â€? embrace it. Then embrace the economic implications of that identity.

But which identity could Democrats embrace? And which economic agenda flows from it?

This, at least, should be familiar territory. For decades, every Democrat worth his or her salt knew the answer.

And again, it comes back to class.

In the marquee elections of 2017, not much seems to have changed: the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, mild-mannered pediatric neurologist Ralph Northam, two times voted for George W. Rose bush, and his counterpart in New Jersey, Phil Murphy, is a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs executive.

But class is really a subject that several of the party’s rising stars are circling close to â€? and that at least one veteran senator, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, is attempting to get his fellow Democrats to place front and center.

*****

The Democratic Party is the oldest political celebration in the world. Its coalitions have splintered over the last two centuries; its focal points have shifted. Yet one founding principle has survived since the party’s earliest days: a sense, however self-serving, that Democrats represent “the people.”

In the particular Jeffersonian era, Democrats � or even Democratic-Republicans, as they were called � opposed the federalism of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, using its strong central government, its judgment elite and its affection for brokers and business.

In the Jacksonian era, Democrats fought to eliminate the national bank and broaden suffrage to citizens â€? a minimum of white male citizens â€? who also didn’t own land. “There never has been but two parties, founded in the radical question, whether PEOPLE, or PROPERTY, shall govern?” fumed Democratic Sen. Thomas Hart Benton in 1835. “Democracy implies government by the people. … Aristocracy implies a government of the rich … and in these words are contained the sum of party distinction.”

Fast-forward through the following 135 years â€? through the City War, the Gilded Age, the fantastic Depression, the Great Society and a tectonic realignment that finally forced the particular party to shed its slaveholding previous and embrace civil rights â€? and you’ll hear Democrats appearing the same note of economic populism at every turn.

Their identity â€? the force that bound all of them together â€? centered on class. The other party represents the rich, they claimed. We’re for the rest of a person.

“There are those we believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below,” said three-time Democratic usa president nominee William Jennings Bryan within 1896, defining what would in more recent times be called “trickle-down economics.” “The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

“The Democratic Party represents the people,” President Harry Truman added in 1948. “It is pledged to work for agriculture. It is pledged to work for labor. It is pledged to work for the small businessman and the white-collar worker.”

In the 1970s, however, something changed. After Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, Democrats formed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. Its goal was to heal and restructure the party � and restructure the party it did, forging a new coalition under the guidance of strategist Fred Dutton.

“By quietly cutting back the influence of unions,” the Atlantic’s Matt Stoller has written, “Dutton sought to eject [from the Democratic Party] the white working class … which he saw as ‘a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the anti-Negro, anti-youth vote.’ The future, he argued, lay in a coalition of African-Americans, feminists and affluent, young, college-educated whites.”

Dutton’s realignment succeeded. At the time, it felt obvious â€? a natural evolution. The trusts of the Gilded Age had been busted. The social safety net had been built. The unions had grown strong. And the Great Depression was a distant memory. America was prosperous, and its prosperity was widely shared; the economic arguments that had animated earlier generations of Democrats no longer applied. And so, as Dutton wrote in 1971, the “balance of political power” was shifting from the “economic to the psychological … from the stomach and the pocketbook to the psyche.”

The psyche of the Democratic Party shifted along with it. Now “the people” no longer meant “workers.” Instead, the little guy was the student oppressed by the draft; the woman oppressed by sexism; the African-American oppressed by bigotry. In fact, workers, as Dutton put it, were “the principal group arrayed against the forces of change.”

“In the 1930s, the blue-collar group was in the forefront,” he concluded. “Now it is the white-collar sector.”

With the rise of free-market Reagan Republicanism, any mention of class was soon considered off-limits; “Class warfare!” shouted the newly dominant conservatives.

As a result, a Democratic identity that used to center on economics came to center on culture, and a post-New Deal generation of politicians â€? Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, the neo-liberals and New Democrats â€? steered the party toward a more moderate, market-friendly agenda designed to appeal to the college-educated, meritocratic, baby-boomer professionals who now comprised the party’s primary class constituency. Free trade. Financial deregulation. Welfare reform. Technocratic innovation. Out went a rhetoric that once revolved around “workers”; in came “the middle class,” a mushy mantra whose main political appeal was the fact that almost all Americans thought it applied to them, actual data be damned.

Which brings us to 2017. The question a lot of Democrats seem to be asking themselves now, in the wake of Trump’s electoral upset, is whether the turn the party took in the 1970s â€? a turn reflected and reified in the presidencies of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama â€? still makes sense today, with economic inequality looming, as Obama himself once put it, as “the defining challenge of our time.”

The Dow Jones hits new highs every month. Productivity continues to increase. Yet wages stagnate. Median income hovers well below its 2007 level. As journalist Thomas Frank notes in his 2016 book Listen, Liberal, the lower 90 percent of the population â€? a group that took home 70 percent of U. S. income growth between the Great Depression and 1980 â€? hasn’t pocketed a single cent of that growth since 1997. Why? The “upper 10 percent of the population — the country’s financiers, managers and professionals — ate the whole thing.” In 2016, the top 1 percent made 87 times more than the bottom 50 percent of workers, up from a 27-to-1 ratio in 1980, and CEOs made 271 times more, on average, than a typical employee â€? a 930 percent increase since 1978.

Corporate consolidation, meanwhile, is back. Automation is accelerating. And vast swaths of America have been devastated.

How can Democrats respond? Is the “party of the people” doing enough? Or is the rise of Trump, after years of debilitating losses in statehouses and governor’s races, a red flag: a warning that, in order to revitalize itself, the Democratic Party may have to reoccupy the space where identity and economics overlap?

Trump has yoked the Republican Party to his own narrow, racial notion of class. Those are the battle lines he has drawn; that is the war he has declared.

Has the president paved the way for Democrats return to their roots? Has the time come for class to make a comeback on the left as well? And if so, can the party convey a different, more inclusive version of class than Trump � one that can unite its diverse constituencies rather than dividing them?

*****

To find out, I got in touch with four younger, forward-thinking Democrats, all of whom have been asking versions of these questions themselves: 2016 Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander; Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; and 2016 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello.

Each is considered a rising Democratic star. Though his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Roy Blunt fell short, Kander, 36, outperformed Hillary Clinton in Missouri by 16 percentage points after assembling an AR-15 blindfolded in what’s been called “the best campaign ad of 2016.” Murphy, 44, seized the national spotlight after the Orlando nightclub shooting by filibustering for 15 hours on the Senate floor; he’s often hyped as a future presidential candidate. Last November, Ryan, 44, challenged Nancy Pelosi for the job of House Minority Leader, claiming that his blue-collar constituents consider the San Francisco Democrat more “toxic” than Trump. And Perriello, 43, whose innovative, insurgent (albeit losing) primary campaign was designed as a progressive-populist response to Trump, is one of the party’s smartest voices on what he has called “a genuine shift in the economics of the United States.”

From the outset, Kander, Murphy, Ryan and Perriello agreed on one thing: The Democratic Party can’t downplay its commitment to social justice and civil rights.

“We don’t need to take a back seat to anybody on the issues of equal protection under the law and inclusion,” Ryan insisted. “That is a pillar of the Democratic platform, regardless of who you are or who you love.”

“Trump is waging an assault on civil rights,” Murphy added. “So Democrats have to keep raising alarm bells about the way this administration is treating immigrants, African-Americans, the LGBT community.”

Yet in an era of overwhelming economic inequality and insecurity, it would be mistake, they continued, to let so-called social issues define the party’s identity.

“Over the last few years we’ve spent 50 percent of our time making economic arguments and 50 percent of our time making social and cultural arguments,” Murphy insisted. “We need to be spending 80 percent of our time making economic arguments, 20 percent of our time making non-economic arguments.”

The problem in 2016 â€? the reason Trump won whole swaths of 2012 Obama counties in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio â€? wasn’t just that he “suckered [Clinton] away from an economic contrast on to a debate on social and cultural issues,” as Murphy put it, or that when Clinton did talk about the economy, she “started with programs and plans” â€? taxing the rich, redistributing wealth and creating various new benefits, like paid family leave â€? rather than “a vision of the change we’re trying to bring about in people’s lives,” according to Kander.

It was that the former secretary of state had come to embody a Democratic Party that voters in those areas dismiss as a bunch of “out-of-touch coastal wealthy liberals,” in Ryan’s words.

“Democrats did not do enough over the course of the last 20 or 30 years to keep communities like mine plugged into the global economy,” he explained. “You could see that trade in the aggregate works. Globalization in the aggregate works. But it is disproportionate as to the benefits. The corporations have done really well. The wealthiest people have done really well. But communities like Youngstown, Ohio, have been wiped out.”

“It’s absolutely true that we have not been seen as standing up for everyday folks — because very often, we haven’t,” Perriello concurred. “In our policies and our rhetoric over the last generation, too many Democrats too many times have seemed to stand with the rich and powerful over genuine economic opportunity.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s surprisingly durable Democratic primary opponent, performed better in this regard, Ryan & Co. agreed, “obviously striking a chord on the economy” (Ryan) by hammering away at “a couple of big, easy-to-understand, popular ideas” (Murphy).

“I think the party needs to learn from Bernie,” Murphy said.

Yet none of these younger Democrats answered yes when asked if the party actually needs to sound more like Sanders â€? a man who tweeted, shortly after the election, that “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect ambitious pols to endorse the agenda of a self-described democratic socialist who refuses even to join their party. But if not Clinton or Sanders, then what should Democrats sound like going forward?

“Bold” was a favorite buzzword. “Populist” too.

“We need to have new ideas, bolder ideas, bigger ideas,” Ryan said.

“We’ve got to have some sharp-edged populist messaging,” Murphy said. “We can’t be afraid of telling people who’s screwing them.”

“We’re the party of progress,” Kander said. “So absolutely we should lean into that.”

“The line in politics today isn’t actually right vs. left — it’s boring vs. bold,” Periello concluded. “I do believe that the Democratic Party will benefit by being bolder.”

Specifics, however, were harder to come by.

Periello was the most inventive of the bunch, if also the wonkiest. He predicted that “whichever party figures out how to talk about automation and monopoly will control not just the economic conversation but politics for the next decade or more.” He mentioned “health insurance not tied to employment,” and a “robot tax,” and decentralized energy production, and two free years of community college or vocational training.

 

“Neither party has fundamentally changed its economic outlook to adjust to the realities of the 21st-century economy,” he said.

Ryan mentioned automation as well (in addition to his steelworker grandparents and his long record of voting against free-trade deals). Yet his diagnosis of an ailing Democratic Party was more detailed than his prescription to cure it â€? a prescription that boiled down to tax breaks for companies willing to create jobs in places like Youngstown and a nebulous plan to replace “every blighted home and every empty factory in the United States in the next five years” with things like “urban farms” and “multipurpose housing developments” that “both millennials and baby boomers want to live in.”

Murphy, meanwhile, was more sanguine, calling for “a Democratic message that says we’re going to go after the bloated costs in the health care system and finally take on the drug companies and insurance companies that are making billions off your health care” â€? but otherwise insisting that “the moment” doesn’t “require us to fundamentally change who we are” as long “we have the discipline to make the contrast every single day.”

And Kander barely engaged at all, preferring to speak more broadly about how, “when we talk about issues, we should talk about the way they affect people in their lives.”

Yet under the surface one could sense each of these Democrats dancing around the deeper, more delicate issue of class. It was there in their vague yearning for “boldness” and “authenticity”â€? for an organizing principle that could transform “programs and plans” into a “vision.”

But most of all, it was there in the way they referred to the diverse Democratic coalition, and hinted that an identity conceived around economics � a class identity � could both embrace that diversity and transcend it.

“The unifying theme for all of those different groups is economics and wages and pensions and job security and getting investment into these communities that have been isolated over these last 30 years,” Ryan said. “The working-class people — black, white, brown, gay, straight — don’t see Democrats as a party that’s out there fighting for them.”

Still, none of these promising young Democrats framed his politics in terms of class. None really seemed ready to resituate workers â€? regardless of race, creed or sexuality â€? at the heart of their party’s identity.

One of their more seasoned colleagues, however, has been quietly doing just that.

*****

When Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968, his underdog bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was gathering steam; he had just won primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota and California. What we remember today is how Kennedy galvanized antiwar Democrats. What we forget is that he also relied on a “blue-black” or “have-not” coalition for much of his electoral strength.

“I have a chance, just a chance, to organize a new coalition of Negroes and working-class white people against the union and party establishments,” Kennedy told journalist Jack Newfield before he died.

RFK never got that chance. But from time to time his vision of an anti-establishment, have-not coalition � a coalition of working-class whites and working-class minorities united around a progressive, populist agenda � resurfaces in Democratic op-eds, policy papers and even campaign speeches.

If anyone embodies that vision today, it’s probably Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown.

As a recent BuzzFeed profile put it, Brown, 64, has “combined a fierce populism and unapologetic progressive ideals to repeatedly win local and state elections — even as Ohio has trended increasingly conservative.” He’s won in cities and rural communities; old manufacturing hubs and college towns; diverse districts and mostly-white districts.

First elected to Congress in 1992, Brown secured reelection two years later by picking off Republican-leaning workers who’d previously backed Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA presidential bid. In 2012, running for a second Senate term, he earned 95 percent of the black vote and outperformed his GOP rival, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, in many white, industrial parts of the state â€? including Mahoning and Trumbull counties, where Brown took 66 percent and 62 percent of the vote respectively.

Brown didn’t accomplish this by moderating his staunchly liberal views on social and cultural issues. He was one of only two members of Ohio’s congressional delegation to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996; he’s pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-gun-control, and pro-criminal-justice-reform. (He was the first senator to oppose Jeff Sessionsâ€? nomination as attorney general. )

Instead, Brown keeps winning in Ohio â€? he’s gearing up for a rematch with Mandel next November â€? because he personifies Chris Murphy’s 80/20 recipe for the party: He has spent his entire career obsessing, first and foremost, over the economic well-being of workers.

Not just white workers, the way Trump did. All workers.

“I do my very best to fight for working people in this job,” Brown told me last week. “And that means all workers — whether you punch a time sheet or swipe a badge, make a salary or earn tips. Whether you’re on payroll, a contract worker, or a temp — working behind a desk, on factory floor, or behind a restaurant counter. The fact is, all workers across this country are feeling squeezed.”

Other, higher-profile Senate populists â€? Sanders, Elizabeth Warren â€? tend to view the world through an anti-Wall Street lens. Brown sees everything from a pro-worker perspective. To the casual listener, Sanders and Warren can sound like they’re bashing billionaires or bankers because they’re billionaires or bankers â€? a message that might resonate in liberal enclaves like Vermont or Massachusetts but doesn’t play as well in middle America.

In contrast, Brown is always careful to remind voters that the real problem isn’t corporate profits, per se â€? it’s that “workers,” as he told me, “are no longer sharing in the wealth they help create.”

“Look at what Bank of America did this week — downgrading Chipotle because it pays its workers too much,” he added. “This view that American workers are a cost to be minimized instead of a valuable asset to invest in is everything that’s wrong with Wall Street and our economy.”

For 18 years, Brown refused to enroll in a congressional health plan, saying he would not accept federally subsidized care until the American public could also avail itself of the same option. As a state representative in the mid-1970s, he spent long days as listening to tales of worry and woe at the steelworkers union hall in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. He went on to lead the bipartisan opposition to NAFTA, crossing then president Bill Clinton; more than two decades later, he helped torpedo the Trans-Pacific Partnership, defying Barack Obama. In between, Brown wrote a book called Myths of Free Trade. On election night 2016, he surprised his gloomy staffers by immediately offering to help Trump renegotiate NAFTA (a promise he’s kept). And when Brown rescued a shaggy black dog, he named it Franklin â€? as in Roosevelt, the Democrat who created the New Deal.

According to recent reports, Brown was Hillary Clinton’s initial vice presidential pick; some progressives tout him as a possible 2020 presidential nominee. It remains to be seen whether Brown’s moment on the national stage will ever come. But in March, the senator showed up at Ohio State University in Columbus and, with little fanfare, put forward a vision that could, he thinks, help lead his party out of the political wilderness.

“I can accept that the workforce is changing,” Brown said from behind a dinky podium. “But what we cannot accept is that more and more of our workers are paid less and have little economic security. We need to update our economic policies, our retirement policies and our labor laws to reflect today’s reality.”

The 77-page, footnote-heavy white paper that Brown released that day â€? Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America â€? in some ways anticipated the “Better Deal” blueprint that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would unveil four months later. Both aim to combat the inequality of a system that “favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers,” as Schumer put it.

But the Better Deal â€? a $15 minimum wage; paid leave; corporate tax credits for retraining; a crackdown on prescription drug prices; $1 trillion for infrastructure â€? isn’t as bold as it (repeatedly) claims to be; much of it consists of material recycled from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This is “a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there,” Schumer insisted when he introduced the proposal. But the phrase “middle class” was a giveaway â€? the same old so-vague-its-meaningless rhetoric of a party that still fears the “class warfare” label.

Brown’s plan was bolder, his pitch stronger.

“Now, I can already hear the complaints coming from the corporate boardroom: ‘These ideas cost too much’; ‘We’ll have to raise prices,’” Brown said in Columbus. “Funny, you never hear those concerns raised over the cost of shareholder payouts or corporate bonuses.”

If enacted, the senator’s suite of populist policy proposals would strengthen key labor standards to reflect an economy that increasingly relies on alternative work arrangements (temps, subcontractors, freelancers, etc. ). He wouldn’t just raise the minimum wage and require paid sick days and paid family leave. He would also expand collective bargaining rights. He would ensure that alternative workers get benefits too. And he would crack down on companies that force people to work off the clock; that refuse to pay the minimum wage; that deny overtime pay; that steal tips; that knowingly misclassify workers to avoid paying fair wages.

And finally â€? and perhaps most potently â€? Brown would implement what he calls a “carrot and stick” approach to big companies that slash labor costs to pad their profits.

“Republicans are going to cut taxes on the largest corporations and the wealthiest people in the country,” the senator recently explained on Pod Save America. “I think … those companies that pay a living wage and provide health benefits and retirement benefits and don’t outsource their jobs, they should get a lower tax rate. But the companies that pay $10 or $11 [an hour] so that their employees get food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers? Those companies should pay a Corporate Freeloader Fee, because taxpayers have to subsidize those corporations’ wages.”

The chances of Brown’s Corporate Freeloader Fee actually becoming law? Nil under the current regime, and not much higher even if the Democrats take over. Both parties are loath to offend the business community. But as a statement of principle for the Age of Income Inequality â€? as a message to anxious workers that at least one party wants to make it less profitable for big companies to pay so little â€? it’s bolder than anything in the Better Deal.

Meanwhile, Trump himself may be providing the Democrats with some political cover. At a time when a Republican president and his allies are scoring points by railing against “global elites,” Democrats probably aren’t as susceptible to the whole class warfare attack as they used to be.  And it’s highly unlikely that the party’s core class constituency â€? coastal, college-educated professionals â€? will defect to Trump’s GOP, which appalls and terrifies them, just because Dems start sticking up for workers instead of the slick “innovators” of Silicon Valley. Antagonism toward Trump will preserve the coalition; class politics could expand it.

When we spoke, Brown insisted that “I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t see it as my role to tell my colleagues how they should talk to people in their states.” But he has also suggested that if Democrats “don’t change,” the party could “wi[n] the national popular vote by 5 million instead of 3 million [in 2020] and still los[e] the Electoral College … because of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin.”

“We as a party have to fight for workers,” the senator has said elsewhere. “And this is the way to do it. Let some corporate lobbyists call us ‘antibusiness.’ Workers are going to hear this and they’ll say, ‘I’ll do better under the Democrats.’”

Who knows if workers outside of Ohio will ever hear a message like Brown’s. It’s possible, even probable, that Democrats will continue to shy away from so-called class warfare and resist even a progressive concept of class identity â€? a concept that sees class not as a way to turn white workers against the rest of the electorate, as Trump has done, but rather as a way to unite all working-class Americans, regardless of their other identities, around a set of reforms that might help them withstand a 21st-century economy that has rapidly and ruthlessly turned against them: black or white, gay or straight, blue-collar or white-collar.

It’s possible, even probable, that Democrats will run a couple of fairly conventional, and conventionally successful, anti-incumbent campaigns in the years ahead â€? that they’ll double down on the anti-Trump, anti-GOP outrage, motivate the base, promote a few Better Deal talking points in some races, ignore them in others, win the midterms and take back the White House in 2020.

But the question Democrats should be asking themselves is: What for? Millions of American workers â€? not just white workers, but black workers, Hispanic workers, women workers, gay workers, disabled workers â€? are being left behind. If the “party of the people” won’t represent them, who will?

“People in Washington like to put voters into categories: left, right, Republican, Democrat, etc.,” Brown said near the end of our interview. “But the truth is people don’t think of themselves on some sort of ideological spectrum made up by Washington. They think about ‘Who’s on my side? Who’s fighting for me?’”

“If you want to call yourself a populist, you better be ready to stick up for the little guy,” Brown insisted. “Because populism is for the people — not these people, or those people, but all people.”

Illustrations by Ivan Canu/Salzmanart. com for Yahoo News

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