Bernie and Biden are centering their campaigns on wooing conservative working-class white men. Which means Trumpism is winning.
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The general election of 2020 was supposed to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a finishing blow for Donald Trump, and a mass rebuke of the bigotry that has fueled his support. “Supposed to be” is the operative phrase here. In one very important way, Donald Trump has already won the 2020 presidential election.
“Democrats Know They Need White Male Voters,” blares an AP headline from earlier this month. The article cites Trump’s overwhelming support from white men (63 percent of whom voted Trump in 2016, with a smaller 60 percent majority voting Republican in the 2018 midterms) as a key reason for the Democrats’ 2016 loss. In response, Democratic strategists and politicians are singing the praises of the almighty white guy: “The white male vote is indispensable,” says former Hillary Clinton pollster Ronald Lester. Democratic strategist Mike Mikus claims the party’s future rests with “somewhat conservative,” Trump-averse men who “have, at least temporarily, put their Republican Party membership card in their pocket for a while.”
Of course, there are people who actually vote for Democrats—people of color and, in the last two election cycles, college-educated white women—many of whom are being sidelined in the electoral process due to racist voter-suppression laws and antiquated concepts like the electoral college. But who cares, when you can pin all your hopes on white men who are only mostly Republican? Several dispiriting specimens are rolled out by the AP, including 42-year-old Alfred Schnabel, who explains what makes him better than other Republicans (“Going to college, I met people who were gay”—this happens outside the academy, too, but presumably not to Alfred) while also stressing that he fears the Democratic agenda (“There seems to be a push to go super-progressive”). If you think this sounds grim, just wait: The white savior the AP quotes to close out the article is a registered Republican, isn’t even sure he’ll vote, and still describes the GOP as “my party.”
I would rather claw my eyes out with caviar forks than read these arguments again. But, then, the white-man gambit appears to be universal. Both Democratic frontrunners are working to shift the party’s ideological center to an imaginary “working-class white man” who is open to voting for progressive policies, but only as long as they don’t challenge any of his biases.
Joe Biden does this by playing to the nostalgia vote. The AP article captures him onstage, before a largely white and male union audience, deploring his “sophisticated friends” who have “[made] a lot of you think the rest of the country doesn’t see you, or know you.” White men, historically, do not suffer from any kind of visibility deficit, but having to share the stage with the rest of us makes some of them feel neglected, a reaction Biden is eager to affirm. Elsewhere, Biden’s public behavior—like making fun of consent culture, shortly after he was accused of touching women without permission—seems intended to highlight a contempt for “political correctness,” and mark him as the kind of old-school, good-old-boy candidate white men can trust to safeguard their interests.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who laments that Democrats don’t center the white working class, has also feinted at a fiscally-liberal-socially-conservative platform: Booking a town hall on FOX News while declaring that they have “some people on there who I think are serious [journalists],” or opposing open borders out of fear that America would be overrun by immigrants, or even sending Jane Sanders out onstage to declare that she’s comfortable identifying as a wife first. (Jane Sanders, of course, chooses her own words, but given her publicly stated non-feminism—she doesn’t “do gender politics or identity politics,” she told an interviewer in 2015—it’s hard not to read her statement as a dog whistle to anti-feminist voters.) The goal is to reach the rural white working men that Sanders claims he alone can deliver, but he seems to believe he can sneak socialist policies past them by appeasing their archaic beliefs.
There is no inherent problem with outreach to the working class, and it is classist to equate “the working class” with “white bigots.” (Consider how Elizabeth Warren’s populist proposals—universal childcare, reparations, fighting housing discrimination—actually center the single mothers and/or families of color that comprise most of America’s working-class and poor.) The problem is a delusional belief that conservative-leaning white men can save us from American conservatism. This seems to be founded, not on fact, but on the belief that white men’s support matters more than anyone else’s.
In one of the most galling moments in the AP article, the Democrats’ 2018 midterm victory—famously fueled by the organizing, candidacies and votes of women, especially women of color—is attributed to a secret rebel alliance of middle-class, college-educated white men: “Just as there’s been a movement of white, college-educated women, there’s been a movement of white college-educated men,” John Hickenlooper adviser Anna Greenberg insists.
But there’s been no such movement. College-educated white women do seem to be leaving the Republican party long-term; a 51 percent majority voted for Hillary Clinton, and a larger 59 percent majority voted blue in the midterms. But the overwhelming majority of white men, college-educated or otherwise, voted for Trump in 2016, and came back to vote for Republicans in 2018. This “analysis” is just double standards and wishful thinking: When 53 percent of white women vote Republican, they’re Republicans, but when 60 percent of white men do it, they’re Democrats’ best hope.
Nor does the Sanders strategy—capturing the xenophobic FOX News vote by stripping progressivism of “identity politics”—bear up to reality testing. White opposition to socialist policies, for example, often springs directly from racism. In one 2018 study, whites were shown different sets of data about poverty in America, then asked about welfare policies. White people who were shown (fabricated) data about non-whites’ increasing income or population were less likely to support such programs, even if they were also shown data proving that white people would benefit from them. Put bluntly, white people were willing to lose out on benefits for themselves if it meant denying benefits to people of color. If that doesn’t change, socialist policies don’t pass.
A candidate who constructively challenged white racism might be able to overcome this problem. A candidate who focused on turning out the base wouldn’t have to worry so much. But by coddling white male bias, Sanders and Biden are strengthening their opposition, and Sanders is steering American leftism away from the very principles that make it worthwhile. (Biden is too much of a relic to presume he could embody those principles to begin with.) Our leaders are taking the votes of women and people of color for granted, while they woo people who don’t want to be convinced. But there’s another politician who has an unrivaled talent for emboldening white men’s worst selves. And they cannot compete with him on his turf.
The entire point of Trumpism was to restore white men to a place of centrality and dominance in American politics. The unfiltered misogyny and white nationalism of his campaign were appealing because they promised a chance to put marginalized people back in their place. Trumpism was about white male anger, anger that women and people of color had made marginal gains in the public sphere, anger that white men no longer held uncontested dominion, anger that merely being white and male was no guarantee of upward mobility or respect. Trumpism was a national tantrum: If we don’t show white men the deference they’ve grown accustomed to, they’ll take their ball and go home. Or take your children and put them in cages, as the case may be.
Four years later, Democrats have responded to the backlash by acceding to its core demands: Centering their messaging on aggrieved white men, and abandoning social-justice commitments if they make those men insecure. They will not be able to do Trump better than Trump—no one could. But they could be a refuge, an alternative, and a voice for all the people those angry white men want to hurt. So far, those groups have been showing up to the polls, and voting Democrat, to save their own lives. What no one is asking—and they should—is how that might change, if instead of two distinct choices, those voters saw two groups of people courting white guys.
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