Since early June, when voters in Georgia’s sixth congressional district rubbed yet more salt in their 2016 election wounds, Democratic pols and sages have been pondering why, as Ohio congressman Tim Ryan put it, “our brand is worse than Trump.” That’s a low bar, given the president’s nearly subterranean approval ratings, but so far the Blue party has mostly been turning to an inside-the-box set of policy and political memes: jobs programs, talk of a mutiny against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and better marketing—or, in Ryan’s words, “branding”—of the Democratic message.
What’s missing from this list is the most important—and most challenging—item of all: solving the liberal “deplorable” problem. The white working class that hoisted Donald Trump to an unexpected victory may not always admire the man, but they know that he doesn’t hate “people like me,” in the pollsters’ common formulation. And they have good reason to think that Democrats, particularly coastal and media types, do hate them: consider Frank Rich’s snide and oft-cited article, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” It’s possible that white working-class voters would back a party filled with people who see them as racists and misogynists, with bad values and worse taste, because they all want to raise taxes on Goldman Sachs executives, but it seems a risky bet.
So it’s worth noting that a few prominent liberal writers have been venturing out of the partisan bunker and calling attention to the “deplorable” issue over the past few months. In late May, for instance, progressive stalwart Michael Tomasky, former editor of Guardian America and now of Democracy, published an article frankly titled “Elitism is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem” in the New Republic. The West Virginia native called “the chasm between elite liberals and middle America . . . liberalism’s biggest problem.” The issue “has nothing to do with policy,” Tomasky writes. It’s about different “sensibilities;” “bridging the gulf is on us, not them.” To most conservatives, Tomasky’s depiction of Middle Americans will seem cringingly obvious. The group tends to be churchgoers (“Not temple. Church”), they don’t think and talk politics from morning till night, and, yes, they’re flag-waving patriots. Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum, an influential though occasionally heterodox liberal, seconded the argument.
A more complex analysis of liberal elitism comes from Joan Williams, a feminist law professor whose best-known previous book is Unbending Gender. In White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Williams takes her fellow liberal professionals to the woodshed for their indifference to the hard-knock realities of working-class life and for their blindness to the shortcomings of their own cosmopolitan preferences. Married to the Harvard-educated son of a working-class family, Williams is astute about the wide disparities between liberal and white working-class notions of the meaning of work, family, community, and country. One of her proposals for solving class cluelessness is a conservative favorite: reviving civics education.
A final recent example of deplorable-détente comes from Atlantic columnist Peter Beinart’s “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration.” Noting that the unofficial open-borders philosophy of the Democratic Party is far more radical than the restrictionist immigration policy it espoused just a few decades ago, the former New Republic editor acknowledges that there is more than nativist bigotry behind white working class immigration concerns. He concedes that mass immigration may have worked to the disadvantage of blue-collar America by lowering wages for low-skilled workers and undermining social cohesion. Beinart concludes by “dusting off a concept that liberals currently hate: assimilation.” Liberals should be “celebrating America’s diversity less, and its unity more,” he writes.
These writers are engaging in healthy critical self-reflection, but in the course of describing the Democrats’ class dilemma, the liberal truth-tellers unwittingly show why a solution lies out of reach. They understate Democrats’ entanglement with the identity-politics Left, a group devoted to a narrative of American iniquity. Identity politics appeals to its core constituents through grievance and resentment, particularly toward white men. Consider some reactions to centrist Democrat John Osoff’s defeat in Georgia’s sixth district. “Maybe instead of trying to convince hateful white people, Dems should convince our base—ppl of color, women—to turn out,” feminist writer and Cosmopolitan political columnist Jill Filopovic tweeted afterward. “At some point we have to be willing to say that yes, lots of conservative voters are hateful and willing to embrace bigots.” Insightful as she is, even Williams assumes that all criticisms of the immigration status quo can be chalked up to “fear of brown people.”
No Democrat on the scene today possesses the Lincolnesque political skills to persuade liberal voters to give up their assumptions of white deplorability, endorse assimilation, or back traditional civics education. In the current environment, a Democratic civics curriculum would teach that American institutions are vehicles for the transmission of white supremacy and sexism, hardly a route to social cohesion. As for assimilation, Hispanic and bilingual-education advocacy organizations would threaten a revolt—and they’d only be the first to sound the alarm.
Appeasing deplorables may yet prove unnecessary, though. Democrats’ strategy of awaiting “inevitable” demographic change in the electorate, combined with the hope that Trump and the Republican Congress will commit major unforced errors, may allow the party to regain control of the country without making any concessions to the large portion of the U.S. population whom they appear to despise.
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