One item of growing consensus in the Democrats’ postmortem is that the party lost the white working class because the party is perceived to have abandoned them.
The perception is definitely real, and it may explain the outcome. But is it true that the party really has, as a matter of policy goals, ignored the working class?
Among the policies that the Democrats and President Obama enacted in the past eight years are:
- The Affordable Care Act, designed to make it easier for working people to get access to health care.
- Financial sector regulation, including Dodd-Frank, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and reform of the credit industry
- Extending the auto industry bailout
- The stimulus package
- Updated overtime rules to protect workers from unpaid overtime
In addition to these accomplishments, the party actively sought to do more, including:
- A major infrastructure bill
- The American Jobs Act
- Improved access to community college
- Trade Adjustment Assistance, meant to directly address the impact of trade on American workers
- A $12 minimum wage
These last attempts failed or were significantly diluted because Republicans, who have controlled the House of Representatives since 2011, did not like them. In an era of divided government, both parties get a say. Republicans can and did argue that these were bad policies, but it’s hard to look at the list and conclude that the Democrats have cozied up to the 1 percent.
There are many things you could say, though:
The Democrats have also done a lot for other elements of the party’s coalition, notably women and minorities. If you ask Obama fans to list off the president’s chief accomplishments, they could go for a while without mentioning the items above. But that’s not abandonment. It’s caring about more than one thing.
In some cases, other policies represent a direct trade-off across different constituencies, as one policy is good for, say, Latino families but perhaps not as good for manufacturing jobs. In other cases, we could talk about opportunity costs, as efforts to make progress in one area mean the party can’t succeed in another area.
But for most party leaders, who are likely ideological liberals, all of this stuff matters. Even if it didn’t, parties are coalitions, and it is not possible to pay attention to only one coalition partner.
Democrats have backed trade and immigration, two things that are thought to hurt the working class. There is debate on the actual impacts of these policies, but it’s true that Democrats have joined Republicans on trade, and that Democrats favor a more inclusive immigration policy.
I’m not going to argue the merits of either of these policies, but there are sound reasons why economists believe that trade barriers will not bring back manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, Democrats led on trying to protect workers from the impacts of trade policy, with the auto bailout and the trade adjustment package. It’s hard to argue that the party was giving up on the working class in general, but it is possible to argue that the pro–working class policies have not included two options that many disagree over.
Maybe Obama and the Democrats could have “tried harder” to succeed on the issues where they failed. Republicans fought against them, but perhaps their will was lacking.
Many of these successes were in Obama’s first term, which is a while ago now. That is, they occurred when Democrats controlled Congress and were able to craft legislation. More recently, many liberals have shifted their attention to arenas, like the courts, where they can do things.
But the last time Obama could count on support from Congress to pass legislation, he was passing economic legislation. Since then, he’s relied on executive orders, which have a much narrower scope. Indeed, in recent years, neither party got very much accomplished.
The Clinton campaign could have done better in communicating these accomplishments and her goals for doing more if she were elected. Electoral politics is about campaigning as much as it is about policy. Clinton’s campaign focused on Trump’s character — and, by extension, on many policies of concern to women and people of color. But the economic policies were not the focus.
Together, these four points contribute to a sense that the party didn’t do enough for the white, especially rural working class. And that sense is very real. That’s a failure. But it’s very different from a party actually pivoting away from the working class.
Thinking harder about the Affordable Care Act is illustrative. This is without question a policy aimed at helping the working class. It’s also incredibly unpopular with the white working-class voters who voted for Trump. Maybe it would have been more popular if it were structured in a different way, if premiums hadn’t gone up, if it included a public option, if it worked better, if it had done more. I doubt it. The Affordable Care Act is unpopular because Republicans have spent years making it unpopular, from the beginning.
In any event, Democrats did try to do more. Obamacare barely passed, and it took all the combined power of the Democratic Party across multiple institutions to get it passed. Again, policy is the product of our political system, which includes Republicans.
If the white working class voted against Clinton because they think the Democratic Party sold them out, that is a reality, and the Democratic Party doesn’t get to pretend it isn’t so. But it is not a reality it can respond to by simply “returning” to something it never really stopped doing.