Refocusing the Democratic Party Means Listening to Jim Webb: Hardships of White People Matter Too

| DEC 14, 2016 | 3:56 PM
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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?

While continuing to drift away from its traditional power bloc, most influential party members 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 individuals, promised an increase in immigration to 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.

Webb, thankfully, has brought this crisis into the limelight. It is a crisis that entails the shift in the party's base from various blue-collar types of all races to “the educated, the coastal, and the professional,” as Emmitt Rensin writes. But all too often this also means the condescending.

Indeed, should 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 simply drawn to it like flies to a carcass.

With the election behind us, 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, he noted, “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 recklessly expanded to benefit those who are non-white, regardless of class and economic well-being.

In a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Webb pointed out the hypocrisy at work here. Where is the fairness, he asks, 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 pondering questions like this one, 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 party — a not-far-off description of what surely accelerated during the Obama years.

As Obama's second term came to an end, the Democrats had a choice: nominate someone like Webb and return the party to the principles by which it governs best, or continue down the crumbling path of identity politics. Unfortunately, the party could not get out of its own way, as Hillary Clinton was as much a forced candidate as we have ever seen in American politics.

Clinton's nomination and campaign strategy were contextualized fairly 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 clear, post-election analyses like this one have made their rounds in the often overlapping worlds of media and academia where they have more or less been accepted as holding kernels of truth.

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.

Let's face it: The stories we read about the first person of a certain race, gender, or combination of the two to do this or that each has its place, but when Democratic politicians rely on those anecdotal tales 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 possibly be won over by the plight of well-off minority college students who crave “safe spaces” yet benefit from affirmative action.

Needless to say, a return to the ideological middle is what the Democratic Party urgently needs. If you recall at that first debate fourteen months ago, Webb stood out to many 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 Bernie Sanders, whom some want to represent the Democratic Party in the coming years. 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.”

Additionally, 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 typically 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 became preoccupied with the minor aspects of our social fabric and too often turned a blind eye to 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 says 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.