clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Democrats have reached out to the white working class before — by neglecting people of color

The challenge for Democrats is not repeating the same mistake.

Hillary Clinton. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The consensus among political pundits after the 2016 election: Democrats should reach out to the white working class. That’s one of the key groups, after all, that carried Donald Trump to his shocking upset victory on Election Day. So winning this group over, the thinking goes, could stop Trump’s reelection or another Trump-like figure in the future.

But it’s really not that simple. As New Yorker writer James Surowiecki explained in a series of tweets, reaching out to the white working class in the past has often been coupled with racist messages against people of color (POC). That is, in fact, what Trump did — with proposals to ban Muslims from entering the US, to build a wall to stop Mexican immigrants he described as “rapists,” and to expand the stop-and-frisk policing strategy that was struck down by courts in New York for targeting minority residents. And that seemed to be what many of Trump’s supporters in the white working class liked about him, considering surveys show Trump backers tend to have hostile views against minority Americans.

Yet if Democrats try Trump’s approach, they risk neglecting and losing the base of minority constituents that they’ve built up over the past few decades, and effectively becoming the kind of candidate they’re now trying to stop.

There is, as Surowiecki notes, a way out: It is possible to promote an economically populist platform while speaking out against racism. That’s something that Sen. Bernie Sanders, clumsily but surely, tried during his challenge against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries — by bringing together ideas like single-payer health care and free public college with promises to reform the criminal justice system. (Still, Sanders faced criticism for not taking systemic racism seriously enough on the campaign trail.) Perhaps another politician could fine-tune the mix of messages, although it’s an open question whether that mix will be as successful as Trump’s approach.

If not, though, there’s a real concern that people of color will get left behind once again.

Watch: Race isn’t biologically real

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.