In the first Democratic Party debate on October 13 of last year, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb was asked this question by moderator Anderson Cooper:
Senator Webb, in 2006 you called affirmative action state-sponsored racism. In 2010 you wrote an op-ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half of the Democratic Party is non-white, aren't you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?
Webb's response is this election's hidden gem:
No, I actually believe that I am where the Democratic Party traditionally has been. The Democratic Party - and the reason I decided to run as a Democrat - has been the party that gives people who otherwise would have no voice in the corridors of power, a voice. And that is not determined by race.
...What I have discussed a number of times, is the idea that when we create diversity programs that include everyone 'of color' other than struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian Mountains, we are not being true to the Democratic Party principle of elevating the level of consciousness among our people about the hardships that a lot of people who happen to be white have.
Knowing what we know now, could the significance of Webb's answer have aged any better? By rightfully shifting the focus from racial politics to class disparities, he politely yet firmly repudiates Cooper's not-so-subtle implication that he is dangerously out of line with party values and not as racially sensitive as he “should” be.
The clarity of Webb's remarks is surely a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow in light of the election.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting anecdote that encapsulates the reasons for the Democratic Party's lackluster showing among the white working class, particularly in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest. The signs were there of a festering feeling of alienation. Jim Webb showed them to us. But did the party listen?
No. While continuing to drift away from its traditional power bloc, most influential party members - save for Webb - did not feel the need to do any self-reflection and correct their party's course.
The resulting loss gave tangible consequence to how the Democratic Party has been turning its back on those whom it once embraced. It scoffed at the concerns of the coal miner in West Virginia, the plumber in Cleveland, the construction worker in Milwaukee. Instead of hearing their grievances, they harped on bathroom rights for transgender persons, promised an increase in immigration to already economically floundering towns, and they held urban, coastal rallies with celebrities and millennials, crisscrossing “flyover” country in the process.
In this regard, they were above - literally and figuratively - middle America. If only they had listened to Jim Webb.
Webb, thankfully, has brought this crisis into the limelight. It is a crisis that entails the shift in the Democratic Party's base from various blue-collar types of all races to “the educated, the coastal, and the professional” - not to mention the condescending.
Indeed, can we really be surprised that the candidate who hurled insults at many of those Appalachian families Webb talked about - calling them “deplorable,” Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and “not America” - did not come out victorious? The arrogance rooted in the far-reaching liberal cultural apparatus was now coming directly from the mouth of the Democratic nominee for president - the person who should be helping those whom she put down.
To correct this proved to be too difficult. After all, kowtowing to minority interests has become an alluring resource in the Democratic playbook of late. They were drawn to it like flies to a carcass.
With the election over, Webb can rightly take a victory lap. In a speech last month at George Washington University, he defended his debate stance on affirmative action - the one that had made those in attendance shift awkwardly in their seats. He mentioned how more than 60 percent of immigrants from China and India have college degrees, while fewer than 20 percent of those in Appalachia do. And yet:
“To be white is, in the law and in so much of our misinformed debate, to be specially advantaged - privileged, as the slogan goes, while being a so-called minority is to be disadvantaged.”
He is correct in this observation. Affirmative action is still on the books, having been upheld by the Supreme Court in June of this year, and it has been liberally and recklessly expanded to benefit those who are non-white, regardless of class and economic well-being.
In an interview with Tucker Carlson, Webb pointed out the hypocrisy at work here. It comes down to this: where is the fairness in a white college applicant from Clay County, Kentucky - the nation's poorest - applying alongside a wealthy Chinese international student who went to prep school in London and who obtains a special advantage because the law says his race alone makes him disadvantaged?
Instead of earnestly asking these types of questions, the Democratic Party remained preoccupied with “interest group politics,” as Webb has said - mainly regarding race and sex. Webb noted how, “In many cases, white working people have become the whipping post” for the Democratic Party - an accurate description of what no doubt accelerated during the Obama years.
As Obama's second term came to an end, the Democrats had a choice: nominate Jim Webb and return the party to the principles by which it governs best, or continue down the crumbling path of identity liberalism. Unfortunately, the party could not get out of its own way; Clinton was as much a forced candidate as we have ever seen. A forced candidate for a frail cause was what the Democrats put forth - and now they're suffering the consequences.
Clinton's nomination and campaign strategy were put in context by Mark Lilla in a New York Times op-ed:
The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.
With hindsight being 20/20, post-election analyses like this one have made their rounds among the Monday morning quarterbacks in the overlapping fields of media, journalism and academia. But Webb saw this when it was being largely overlooked by these same figures. Beware of identity politics, he warned, as it is not as unifying as it is often played up to be. On the contrary, it is more expressive of a particular group's goals and intentions than it is effective at persuading broader swaths of the electorate during a nationwide campaign.
The flurry of stories we often read about the first person of this race or gender (or combination of the two) to do this or that has its place, but when Democratic politicians rely on those types of anecdotes as the backbone of their campaigns, they are drifting away from what makes their party strong. Looking back, it's now clear that those who care about their jobs being outsourced could not be won over by the plight of well-off minority college students who crave “safe spaces” yet benefit from affirmative action. Should this really be all that surprising?
Needless to say, a return to the ideological middle is what the Democratic Party urgently needs. If you recall at that first Democratic debate fourteen months ago, Jim Webb stood out to liberals for being too conservative, and to conservatives for being surprisingly palatable:
Regarding guns, Webb boldly stated how every American has a right to self-defense and called out fellow politicians for having armed bodyguards yet taking stances hostile to firearm ownership rights.
When asked the ridiculous question, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” Webb - unlike others - resisted the race-baiting game, responding, “As President of the United States, every life in this country matters.”
To Webb, the country's biggest threat was not global warming, as was said by the man who some foolishly want to represent the Democratic Party in the future (Bernie Sanders). On the contrary, Webb said, “Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relations with China; our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber-warfare against this country; our great military operational threat is resolving the situations in the Middle East.”
When asked who his biggest enemy was, the former marine and Vietnam veteran did not say, “Republicans” like Clinton did, but rather, “The enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me - but he's not around right now to talk to.”
And on the Confederate flag - one of those racially charged topics on which Democrats are scared into lock-step - Webb actually has a nuanced position that recognizes its complicated status as a battle flag but also as a symbol of heritage. Although the subject did not arise in the debates, Webb's stance would have surely been met with an uncomfortable silence - as was the case with a handful of his thoughtful answers on that October night.
As it exists now, what you see on the political left is not your grandfather's Democratic Party - not of Roosevelt, Kennedy or Johnson. In 2016, it has become preoccupied with the minor aspects of our social fabric and turns a blind eye to the issues of consequence. Hillary Clinton was at her best the last year and a half when she refrained from sliding down the rabbit hole of pleasing the laundry list of minority factions, and instead talked about how the big picture issues would affect the common person, no matter if that was a gay Latino in his 20s or a white grandmother of six.
Class trumps race when it comes to the forces that prevent people from having a voice in the corridors of power. And Webb is right when he said that the Democratic Party has traditionally been the remedy to this problem. Despite his warnings, it has gone off track. It's people like him who can get it working again.