Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a sharp critique of the state of the Democratic Party in an extensive interview, released yesterday, with Vox’s Ezra Klein:
I think it would be hard to imagine if you walked out of here or walked down the street or went a few miles away from here and you stopped somebody on the street and you said, “Do you think that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class?” People would look at you and say, “What are you talking about?”
There was a time — I think under Roosevelt, maybe even under Truman — where it was perceived that working people were part of the Democratic Party. I think for a variety of reasons, a lot having to do with money and politics, that is no longer the case. In my view that is exactly what shouldn’t be happening. Instead of spending all of our time raising money, I think we should go out organizing people and getting them to unite around a progressive agenda which expands the middle class which tells the billionaire class that they cannot have it all, which says to corporate America, “You’re going to have to start paying your fair share of taxes,” which says we’re going to raise the minimum wage, we’re going to make college available to all regardless of their income, that we are going to have pay equity for women workers, that we are going to create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. You need a progressive agenda, then you need the ability to go out and organize people.
Sanders’ central insight—that the New Deal Democrats were a working class party, but the modern Democrats are not—is clearly correct, even if the party doesn’t like to acknowledge it. Blue collar workers were at the center of the New Deal coalition, while today’s white working class voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for the GOP.
Why the shift? Sanders suggests that it has to do with “money and politics.” He doesn’t spell out what that means, exactly, but it seems to points to his belief that the Democrats have abandoned robust social welfare programs in favor of a more centrist, pro-corporate economic program. This contrasts with the rather more self-satisfied explanation that some on the elite left have offered—namely, that whites without a college education are a lost cause because conservatives trick them into voting Republican by exploiting their latent prejudices and resentments.
Sanders’ proposed solution to the Democrats’ poor showing among the white working class is well known: a hard-left economic populist agenda, complete with dramatic minimum wage increases, high-end tax hikes, massive government spending on and infrastructure and education, and invective against the superrich—in other words, a restoration of the blue model and then some. He’s not alone; the rest of the party is signing on to some of these economic proposals as well.
But would an economic populist program actually wrest the white working class from the GOP? Perhaps it will move the needle temporarily, but the genuinely working class party of Truman and Roosevelt simply cannot be resurrected in the foreseeable future. The economic model that existed in the New Deal era, and that the New Deal political coalition relied upon, is deteriorating—not only because of policy choices, as Sanders suggests, but also because of irreversible trends in technology, globalization, and demography. Private sector unions will never reattain the level economic and political might they wielded in the 1950s no matter how the Supreme Court rules on right-to-work statutes. And shoring up the public benefits system devised in the New Deal would require large tax increases—not only upper-end tax hikes, but middle-class tax hikes as well—that would risk splintering the Democratic coalition.
Then, of course, there is culture. As the white working class began to slip away from the Democrats in the 1960s, the party drifted leftward culturally—a process that is once again picking up steam today. In important (though qualified) ways, upper class liberals are further to the left culturally than working class voters. So in addition to economic populism, winning back blue collar whites would probably require adopting a softer tone on cultural questions—something that would not please culturally liberal constituencies (like Silicon Valley tycoons) that provide the Democratic party with critical support.
Matthew Continetti has perceptively written that “there are two Republican parties, an elite party of the corporate upper crust and meritocratic winners that sits atop a mass party of whites without college degrees whose worldviews and experiences and ambitions could not be more different from their social and economic betters.” In the same way, there are two Democratic parties; an elite party of affluent white urban cultural liberals that sits atop a coalition of identity groups—blacks, hispanics, LGBT people, single women, and young people. Bernie Sanders wants to win back some of the disaffected whites who currently find themselves in the Republican camp, and re-constitute the singular New Deal Democratic Party of yore. But given existing economic and social trends, we may be stuck with two Democratic parties—and two Republican parties—for the foreseeable future.