Memo to Dems: sanctimony won’t save the republic
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When I was learning to drive, I once nearly killed myself and my mother. The traffic light had turned green and I put my foot down in spite of the fact that a large truck was speeding at us from side on. My mother grabbed the wheel and swerved us just in time. “It was our right of way!” my 17-year-old-self protested. “What a silly thing to say,” she replied. I often recall that bleedingly obvious teachable moment at odd points in my life. It surfaced again this political season as I watched the Democrats’ midterm election campaign. The fatal truck is kitchen table economics. The driver is the Democratic party. Unfortunately it was too stuck on its own rightness to acknowledge the danger. I suppose my mother is some kind of pundit, although I’m finding it very hard to picture her in that role.
As it happens, things could have been much worse for the Democrats last night. I offer my tentatively early conclusions of the results here. But Democrats made it worse for themselves by sticking their head under a rock. Their most egregious blunder has been to deny inflation was rising. That story then changed to saying that inflation was exaggerated. Next they argued rising inflation was actually good for low-income Americans because the hot economy was raising wages more than prices. Finally, they blamed inflation on corporate greed. All along they strenuously denied that the $1.9tn American Rescue Plan had anything to do with it. As the Washington Post’s excellent Catherine Rampell points out here, on each point they were either wholly or partly wrong. Democrats often tell “themselves stories they want to believe instead of stories that are true”, Rampell writes.
Such wishful thinking amounts to self-harm when it causes you to miss what voters keep telling pollsters is at the top of their minds. Far better to grasp the nettle and concede inflation is a real problem — and that Republicans would exacerbate it — than to dismiss it as a figment of the media’s imagination. As I say, the damage could have been far more devastating on Tuesday night. But it is crucial Democrats absorb these lessons before 2024. The malaise goes deeper than the miscalculations of Democratic strategists. Liberal America’s cognitive elites have got it into their heads that rightwing populism is entirely driven by deplorability — whether it be racism, misogyny or hatred of science. Around the time of Donald Trump’s nomination, the sarcastic hashtag #EconomicAnxiety surfaced on social media whenever there was an incident involving racists (take your pick: there have been so many). The implication was that America’s “deaths of despair”, falling life expectancy, stagnant incomes, and the broken ladder of meritocracy were all red herrings to the real driver of electoral populism — the white majority backlash. This nostrum keeps blinding liberal America’s elites to the truck that is travelling at high speed towards them.
There is no doubt that racism is rife in America and Trump has made it worse. But voting Republican does not make you a racist. As I wrote in a recent Swamp Notes, a growing share of Hispanics are voting Republican. Are they blinded by false consciousness? Or is it a tiny bit possible that they think Democrats have been downplaying their concerns? Either way, it is malpractice to imply voters are misguided (Republican Hispanics), beyond redemption (blue-collar whites), or taken for granted (African Americans). Which brings me to the future of the republic. The only way to save American democracy is to defeat Maga Republicans at the ballot box. That means listening to voters. For sure, they should share our legitimate forebodings about Trump’s threat to American democracy, just as truck drivers should stop at red lights. Because so many voters don’t care, or don’t care enough to change their votes, a better strategy is needed. Being right is not enough. Rana, yesterday we exchanged views (and largely agreed) on what was lacking in the Democratic party’s economic messaging. How would you better frame their democracy argument?
PS Join Edward Luce, Rana Foroohar, James Politi and veteran commentator Norm Ornstein on November 10 for a subscriber-exclusive webinar staged with the Swamp Notes newsletter to discuss the US midterm results. Register for free here and submit your questions in advance for our panel.
Swampians who are interested in this theme ought to read Ruy Teixeira’s Atlantic piece on “Democrats’ long goodbye to the working class”. “Until Democrats are prepared to grapple honestly with the sources of their electoral struggles, that streak is unlikely to end,” he writes. A key reminder is that if Hillary Clinton had won the same share of the white working-class vote in 2016 as Obama had in 2012, Trump would never have been president. Racism can’t explain that.
Meanwhile, please read my colleague Joshua Chaffin’s acutely observed piece on the New York governor’s race between Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin — a closer race than expected partly because of generous support for Zeldin from Ronald Lauder of the cosmetics family fortune.
Finally, do read my colleague Martin Wolf on the steep cost of delayed action on climate change amid low expectations for the COP27 summit in Egypt. His piece is a reminder, from the other end of the telescope as it were, that elections have consequences. Alas, Republicans do not share Martin’s concerns.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I couldn’t agree more that liberals have catastrophically deluded themselves about the race and class debates in the US. On the former, I have to share a truly amazing thing that I heard walking down the street in my sanctimoniously blue neighbourhood of Park Slope the other day. A Lululemon-clad mother and her soccer-uniformed son, perhaps 8 or so, were talking about politics and he asked, “Mom, are there any real racists still in the US?” Her answer? “Yes, honey, in the south.” The stunning sense of moral high ground was matched only by the obliviousness of privilege — racism, apparently, doesn’t happen above the Mason-Dixon Line, certainly not in brownstone Brooklyn.
As for how to shift the economic messaging, both of us have long argued that the Democratic party took the wrong turn in focusing more on identity politics than on how they lost so many working people to the Republicans. You know that I believe that a failure to move away from neoliberal economics harder and sooner was a huge part of the problem. The effects of Bidenomics won’t kick in for another year or so (in the sense of any real economic pay-off from infrastructure building, and other longer-term fiscal stimulus such as the Inflation Reduction Act). But what I fear now is that it’s going to require a much harder, uglier, louder politics for Democrats to get the “we really do care about labour” message across. And it will mean hard choices between domestic and foreign agendas. A progressive political analyst told me yesterday that China was used as a crucial issue in a fifth of the battleground states. Look for a fight over which party can sound tougher on China in advance of 2024. It’s a battle that is going to have massive consequences for global trade.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Why is the Democratic economic message such a hard sell?”:
“The Democrats are losing because instead of focusing on real issues that people care about, they focus on social issues and use a very divisive rhetoric — the opposite of ‘when they go low, we go high’ they so obscenely preach. No wonder, many drift to the right which, due to the above, has become much more populist.” — FT reader WalktheTalk
“Most countries are suffering post-Covid inflation, with only minor variations I think. It is inevitable, inflation and unemployment being the two demons that we fear, that this should make parties in power unpopular. It’s happening to Sunak about as much as to Biden, as any by-election would show.” — FT reader Martin Hughes