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The Big Question Democrats Need to Ask Themselves Before They Nominate Hillary

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

By most accounts, Hillary Clinton had a good election night. Or at least her 2016 chances did. The New York Times reported that voters and operatives woke up the next day counting on her to “resurrect the Democratic Party.” And that “the lopsided outcome … makes it less likely she would face an insurgent challenger from the left.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen went even further, asserting that the past two midterms have so decimated the Democratic ranks Clinton is no longer simply the party’s best hope, “She is its only hope.”

I’m inclined to agree with this analysis, as far as it goes. Last week’s results certainly make me pine for a Democratic nominee with the political experience, organization, gravitas, and fundraising potential to crush whatever candidate emerges from the GOP clown show set to play out over the next year-and-a-half. There don’t seem to be many Democrats other than Clinton who fit all those criteria. It’s possible that there are none.

On the other hand, if there’s one thing the past two midterms have taught us, it’s that it’s not enough to build a coalition that wins the presidency. Democrats need one that also turns out in non-presidential years to have any hope of enacting an agenda (or, for that matter, even staffing their cabinet). And, at this point, it’s far from clear that Hillary Clinton is a candidate built for both 2016 and 2018. In fact, it’s pretty easy to imagine an Obama-like coalition of young people, Latinos, African-Americans, and single women electing Clinton to the White House, then taking a breather two years later.

So Democrats need to find a way to appeal to an older, whiter electorate as well. Specifically, they need to find a better way to appeal to the white working class, which is where they’re getting clobbered. In last week’s midterms, whites without a college degree accounted for 36 percent of voters; Democrats lost them by a 30-point margin. In 2012, the margin was 26 points.

At first blush, the white working class would appear to pose a real dilemma.1 The set of issues on which the Democratic Party is most coherent these days is social progressivism. It’s very difficult to find a Democratic politician that doesn’t support immigration reform, LGBT rights, women’s reproductive rights, affirmative action, steps to reduce climate change, etc. (It’s even more difficult after last Tuesday’s election.) But while these issues unite college-educated voters and working-class minority voters, they’ve historically alienated the white working class.

True, Democrats could theoretically appeal to the white working class with a more populist economic agenda—a recent Pew study turned up a group of voters who typically lean Republican nursing a deep frustration with the economic system. They might call for breaking up big banks and limits on CEO pay, for example. Or a tax on financial transactions to rein in speculation. But this strategy has its own problems—namely, that populism has historically alienated college-educated voters.

So we have a situation in which the issues that hold together the Democratic coalition appear to be anathema to the white working class; and the issues that could appeal to the white working class are a deal-breaker for part of the Democratic coalition.

How to square this circle? Well, it turns out we don’t really have to, since the analysis is outdated. The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election. (This tolerance diminishes as people get older, but even middle-aged working class voters are relatively open-minded on this issue.)

Teixeira and Halpin also cite a recent Center for American Progress poll that asked people about their views on racial and ethnic diversity. In that poll, 64 percent of white working class voters (overall, not just Millennials) agreed that “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to many different cultures.” Sixty-two percent agreed that “diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive.” A slight majority even agreed that “the entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population.”

For their part, college grads are increasingly sympathetic toward economic populism, according to recent polling from Pew. The percentage of college grads who believe “[t]here is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies” has jumped 16 points since it bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 59 percent. The percentage who believe “corporations make too much profit” has jumped eight points since its low of 42 percent in the late ‘90s. The percentage who believe “Wall Street makes an important contribution to the American economy” has dropped 12 points since 2009 (when Pew first asked the question), to 66 percent.

Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. (As Teixeira and Halpin point out, Democrats don’t need a majority of the white working class to hold their own in the midterms. They just need to stop getting crushed.) The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today. The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. It’s possible that Clinton has it in her to channel people’s frustration with big business and Wall Street and figure out how to spread corporate profits more evenly across workers. She’s certainly had her moments of late. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Hillary’s extensive ties to the one percent will strangle the populist project before it ever gets going, in which case some of those unnamed lefty challengers the Times wrote off start to look pretty attractive. However you feel about it, though, it’s the question for Democrats to consider once they realize they need a lasting majority, not just control of the White House.

  1. Hillary Clinton partisans will point out the Clinton did very well among white working-class voters during the 2008 presidential primaries. This is true, but it's not at all clear that support would translate to a general election. These were working-class voters who vote in Democratic primaries, after all, meaning they're already pretty loyal to the party. And she was running against a candidate who, for all his virtues, has performed historically badly among white working class voters. (It's hard to believe race wasn't at least part of the story.)