Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened doesn’t live up to its title’s expectations. In her campaign tell-all, Clinton sounds like a full-fledged member of the progressive #resistance, content to blame all of her campaign’s woes on sexism, media bias, James Comey, and Russian interference. But she never fully grapples with the biggest problem that crippled her campaign, and which continues to dog her party: the Democrats’ growing cultural disconnect from the rest of the country.
Clinton’s decision to call Trump backers deplorable was one of her campaign’s low points. But the problem runs much deeper within her party. Progressives now instinctively label pro-Trump conservatives as “white supremacists,” a slur that paints nearly half the country with a racist brush. Legitimate anxieties over the country’s national security are frequently dismissed as anti-Muslim xenophobia. Politicized sportswriters assumed that the American public supports players protesting the national anthem, even when a swell of football fans across the country—including those in the most liberal media markets—booed their own team’s players for disrespecting the flag.
President Trump has exploited this gaping disconnect between elite opinion and majority sentiment in the most divisive way possible. But it doesn’t mean that Democrats should be playing into his hands.
For a sign of how far to the left Democrats have drifted on culture, just look at the last major anthem protest to sweep up a sports league. In 1996, Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem, calling the American flag a symbol of tyranny. He was promptly suspended for a game and fined by the NBA. There was no uproar in favor of his right to protest, even in a league where most players were African-American. Condemnation of Abdul-Rauf’s action ran across the political spectrum. Then-commissioner David Stern later mandated players stand in a dignified manner when the anthem was played—a wholly uncontroversial decision.
The closest Clinton comes to acknowledging the party’s cultural tone-deafness is an anecdote she shares about the Arkansas Senate race in 2014. She relays a story about an old friend who typically votes Democratic, has fairly liberal economic views, but was having a tough time supporting moderate Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor’s reelection. She recounts him telling her husband: “At least the Republicans won’t do anything to us. The Democrats want to take away my gun and make me go to a gay wedding.” But instead of showing empathy for people with more-traditional social views, she concludes that “the politics of cultural identity and resentment were overwhelming evidence, reason and personal experience.” Successful politicians feel people’s pain; they don’t hector them about their hang-ups.
As president, Bill Clinton’s strategy when tackling divisive cultural issues was to at least offer a signal that he understood the opposition. His famous formulation about wanting abortion to be “safe, legal and rare” offered rhetorical reassurance to those opposed to abortion, even as his administration was solidly and proudly in favor of abortion rights. Inclusive language helps dampen the anger of opponents, even when there’s little agreement on policy.
Even longtime Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has long urged Democrats to adopt an aggressively populist economic message, concludes that Clinton’s cultural disconnect was her most glaring vulnerability in the campaign. In an essay in The American Prospect, he writes: “Despite overwhelming evidence that the Democratic base wasn’t consolidated or excited, the campaign believed that Trump’s tasteless attacks and Clinton’s identification with every group in the rainbow coalition would produce near-universal support…. They were explicitly privileging race and gender over class.”
Indeed, for working-class white voters, cultural issues have become a litmus test in the same way that immigration policy is for many Hispanics. As much as Greenberg would like to sell the Democrats’ views on the minimum wage and corporate malfeasance to blue-collar voters, it’s hard to get a fair hearing when the dominant voices on the Left are talking about their subconscious racism.
What’s keeping the Democrats in a strategic straitjacket is that they’d get killed by their base if they sounded more assimilationist on immigration, more muscular on national security, or more understanding of fan disillusionment. It explains why Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, urged Democrats to pursue winnable Trump voters but struggled to identify a tangible way to get them back in the fold.
Something’s got to give. Trump isn’t going to change his divisive rhetoric and destabilizing actions, leaving Democrats with a golden opportunity to put together a broad-based coalition of centrists and pragmatic liberals. Clinton simply dismissed Trump and his supporters. Democrats can choose to think big and win back those voters who left them. Or they can play niche identity politics, and continue to embrace victimhood.