Democrats Need to Deal With White Resentment. Period.

| SEP 11, 2017 | 10:26 PM
Trump David Duke 2 icarus Screenshot-The White House-Twitter-Joanna Robinson

Screenshot/The White House/@Joanna Robinson/Twitter

Donald Trump's presidency has been a rolling disaster in pretty much every way imaginable, but Democrats have been getting, and taking, a lot of bad advice on how to deal with his victory going forward. Part of the problem is that some of this advice sounds really good and sometimes even comes from smart people you trust.

Case in point: Jon Lovett, former Obama speechwriter, a straight shooter who's respected by everyone, and “Pod Save America” co-host, who recently joined the chorus of voices trying to tell the Democrats how to deal with the Trump phenomenon.

As a guest on the “Inside the Hive” podcast with Nick Bilton, Lovett delivered a lot of great insights over the course of an hour, so of course, I'm going to pick out the part I didn't like.

Lovett partially touched on a key reason for Trump's success, and he delivered a slightly different prescription for Democrats to deal with it. He properly identified some of the resentments that motivated Trump/non-Hillary voters, and he advised more creative and bold policy solutions:

"They feel a loss of dignity in their jobs, of control over their own destiny in their jobs. We all feel it—whether it’s dealing with a cable company, or getting a cell phone, or flying on an airplane—that we’ve somehow ceded power to these massive unaccountable companies that sap us of the control and power that we used to feel as citizens of this country.

Yes, Trump winning is a fluke, but the fact that the ground was soft enough for someone to succeed should tell us that there are big underlying forces that we don’t completely understand. And I think recognizing people’s mistrust, and anger, and fear, and dislocation around this economy means being open to bigger, bolder, less practical ideas that a previous generation of Democrats would have said ‘you can’t get that done; that’s not possible.’ Trump widens the scope of what’s possible."

Given the narrowness of his victory and the outside forces that aided him, it's fair to call Trump's victory a fluke, but only in a historical sense. Now that it's happened, it must be figured into every future political strategy, and with no similar historical context to go on. That's why one of the wisest things Lovett said elsewhere in the podcast was that Democrats need to find a charismatic candidate.

I don't think Trump will still be around as a candidate in 2020, but chances are the Democrats will be up against some kind of flaming dumpster fire on the other side.

Lovett is also right that Democrats should expand their view of what's politically possible, partially because Democrats have a bad habit of making extremely weak opening bids on policy. If Democrats had succeeded in implementing a public option while they held a 60-seat majority, Obamacare would be bulletproof right now.

Where he errs, though, is in missing the determinative power of white resentment, particularly white male resentment. Democrats can beat Republicans policy-for-policy (and usually do), but unless voters feel like you're on their side, it doesn't matter. It's just noise that somebody has to explain to them.

The problem that Democrats run into is in convincing enough white voters they're on their side, without alienating everyone else. Bernie Sanders thinks economic equality will do the trick on its own, but most of the advice Democrats are getting involves some variation on the theme of a “positive economic agenda” that will suddenly make Trump voters see the light.

As I've said many times, though, Republicans have been using white resentment for a generation, and its determinative effect is very poorly understood, because it requires some real soul-searching by everyone in the political establishment.

For example, the notion that taking care of “economic anxiety” will lessen white resentment is simply not borne out by the facts. Bill Clinton's presidency ended with near-full employment and record growth, but the last years of his presidency saw a sharp uptick in the percentage of white people who felt that black people were not as hardworking or intelligent as whites.

After Barack Obama rescued the economy and oversaw his own record-setting jobs streak, we ended up with Trump. For a searing deconstruction of how this happened, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay “The First White President.”

But what people really don't want to acknowledge is the role that white resentment played in electing the two Democratic presidents — who weren't facing the guy who pardoned Nixon — in my lifetime. One of those examples is pretty famous, and yet its significance is often overlooked:

That “Sister Souljah Moment” became political slang, but not for what it really was.

Beltway types will tell you that Sister Souljah-ing is “public repudiation of an extremist person or statement perceived to have some association with a politician or his party,” but this was about signaling to white voters that Democrats aren't just the party of minorities and women and other marginalized people. So was “it's the economy, stupid,” which was an unsubtle way of saying it's not all those other things.

Clinton beat George H.W. Bush with 43 percent of the vote in 1992, and he spent his entire presidency approaching white male resentment through appeasement, with things like DOMA and the crime bill and welfare reform and getting Hillary to pipe down.

But by the end of his term, the resentment was still there, despite a record economy. And look, Bill Clinton was up against a particularly nasty bunch of Republicans, so maybe his calculations were better than the alternative, but ignoring them is folly.

Obama, on the other hand, overcame white resentment by confronting it head on and finding a way to recognize the grievances without catering to them. Historians may disagree, but I have always felt this was the moment that Obama cleared his most important hurdle to victory:

“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Obama, however, was uniquely positioned to offer a form of absolution simply by voting for him and then to transfer every failure to resolve those resentments to his successor candidate.

It didn't help that she was a woman, but any Democrat starts out with the “baggage” of being presumed to be for minorities and women and other marginalized people, because if they're doing it right, they are. Democrats are also for almost all white people, too, but white resentment is fed by the idea that somebody else is getting what you should be getting.

And white male resentment isn't just about race, gender, and sexuality (although it mostly is). One point I think Lovett hit on was the every day “ced(ing) of power” that feeds resentment, but missed that feeling entitled to power in the first place is a white dude thing. No, not all, but like, 63 percent of them.

Nobody likes getting a hidden charge on their cell phone bill, but only a certain kind of person gets such a bug up their a** about it that they vote for a guy who's overtly racist and misogynist.

So the important thing for Democrats to do is to realize this is the biggest problem they face. Then, they have to figure out how to deal with it. Turning their backs on the 65.8 million voters they already have isn't the answer. Ignoring it isn't the answer. Unfortunately, Obama isn't the answer, either. Stupid Constitution.

But there are tens of millions of people who don't vote, and it will be a hell of a lot easier to get them to vote (by making it easier to vote, for example) than it will be to attract a person who is pissed off enough at his cable bill to vote with David Duke.

Listen to the full podcast below, via Vanity Fair.

Update: Lovett responded, unhappy because I didn't specifically mention that he also talked about racism and white resentment:

It wasn't my intention to imply that Lovett had ignored white resentment and racism, and I did encourage readers to check out the full podcast several times, but I can see how that inference could still be drawn. Lovett did speak extensively about it, and even called it “central to this.” My issue was solely with the advice being offered, which was the theme that the podcast's host highlighted, as well. By all means, listen to the whole thing, it was really good.

I don't think anyone on the left is ignoring white resentment, not even Bernie Sanders, who has an eloquent grasp of it even as he exhibits a blind spot for how to deal with it. My point, made at length above, is that the determinative and stubborn nature of white resentment is being grossly underestimated.

Listen to the full podcast below, via Vanity Fair.

Please note: This is a commentary piece. The views and opinions expressed within it are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of IJR.

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