By grappling with class, however crudely, the President-elect has smashed a smug consensusby Thomas Frank / November 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
And so the United States has embraced the demagogue, a man who ran for the presidency as a kind of lone entrepreneur, without benefit of funding or even a political party, really. Every poll had him losing, some of them had him losing massively. And he won, thanks to the votes of millions of working-class whites which he did not really have any business winning.
How did it happen? Well, consider the traditional party of the American working class. For years the Democrats have been beguiled by the idea that all political victories lay in a kind of squishy centrism that involved making compromises with the Republicans. Working-class people, they assumed, had “nowhere else to go” as the party’s leaders triangulated to the centre. And so, led by Hillary Clinton’s husband, they got the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) passed and the banks deregulated—measures that were like poison to working class people and their organisations.
The great promise of centrism was that it delivered political victories. The Democratic Party’s various constituents would be abandoned, yes, but the Party itself would go from triumph to triumph. Here and there, certain people in the US pointed out that Republicans were making their own peculiar pitch to the working class, but Democrats closed their ears to that argument. In 2008, the Democrats succeeded by promising hope and action on behalf of middle-class Americans. They oversaw Wall Street bailouts instead. In 2016, with working people in fevered desperation, the Democrats chose to nominate the centrist par excellence, a woman who was visibly associated with trade agreements and Wall Street banks. Clinton was singularly ill-equipped to deal with the politics of class. She has never showed real interest in her party’s traditional mission. Her great vision, as she described it on the campaign trail, was a juiced-up meritocracy in which every talented person got a chance to compete.
Her party suppressed the Bernie Sanders challenge and lapsed immediately back into its usual complacency. Washington Democrats have long believed that demographic changes would eventually deliver every future presidential election to them forever, wrapped up like a Christmas present and without regard to what they actually achieved in office. To say they took voters for granted, as Donald Trump repeatedly charged, is to summarise their strategy accurately.