The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
Listen to the audio version of this article:Feature stories, read aloud: download the Audm app for your iPhone.
Anyone who examined the strategy that the Democratic Party has embraced ever more tightly in recent years could see its essential precariousness. And anyone could see that investing such grave hopes in the person of Hillary Clinton—who had lost the party’s nomination to a little-known senator in 2008; who had struggled to win it against a little-known socialist eight years later—was particularly risky.
But liberals’ fears were softened in 2016 by a widely shared belief: that the candidacy of Donald Trump would shatter the Republican Party, at least in the form in which we had long known it. His trail of wreckage would force a painful reckoning with the party’s shortcomings—the narrowness of its coalition, the cloistered cluelessness of its elites, its intramural disagreements about the future of the nation. After a season of Trump’s destruction, the party would lie in rubble.
On November 8, that prophecy was realized, true in every regard, except that it described the Democrats. On Inauguration Day, the party’s power ebbed to its lowest level since the 1920s.
If there’s any consolation to the realization of terrible fears, of worst-case scenarios springing to life, it’s that they are invigorating. Donald Trump’s presidency has rocked a long-complacent Democratic Party like nothing in recent history. Liberals, with their confidence that the trajectory of the country points in their direction, never had quite as much practice as conservatives in expressing their anger. That’s what makes the “Resistance”—the many marches, the seething hostility at town-hall meetings, the anti-Trump placards shouting at passersby from bungalow windows—a transformational break in the pattern.
Leaderless and loud, the Resistance has become the motive power of the Democratic Party. Presidential hopefuls already strive to anticipate its wishes. Elected officials have restructured their political calculus to avoid getting on its wrong side. The feistiness and agitation of the moment are propelling the party to a new place.
But where? The question unnerves Democrats, because the party has no scaffolding. All the dominant leaders of the last two generations—the Clintons, Barack Obama—have receded. Defeat discredited the party’s foundational strategy—or, at the very least, exposed it as a wishful description of a more distant future, rather than a clear plan for victory in the present. Resistance has given the Democrats the illusion of unity, but the reality is deeply conflicted. Two of the party’s largest concerns—race and class—reside in an increasing state of tension, a tension that will grow as the party turns toward the next presidential election.
To produce a governing majority, the party will need to survive an unsettling reckoning with itself. Donald Trump didn’t just prevail over the Democrats; he called into doubt their old truths.
A year before his wife lost, Bill Clinton had a premonition of how things could go very wrong. He revealed his foreboding—perhaps fittingly—at fund-raising events. He would hint at what he considered his wife’s glaring vulnerability: the roiling discontent of the white working class. The travails of the group—44 percent of eligible voters—preoccupied him. He could recite one grim statistic after another. Even at this early date in the campaign, he knew that their cultural alienation might place them beyond the reach of a Democrat. And while most pundits at that point still considered Trump the second coming of Herman Cain, a circus act rather than a serious candidate, Clinton feared Trump’s ability to channel white-working-class rage. “He’s a master brander and he[’s] sensing sort of the emotional landscape of people he’s selling to,” Clinton told donors gathered in Atlanta in October 2015.
Hillary Clinton always had trouble getting right with the zeitgeist, and her aides worried about that flaw. She began her first presidential bid as her party exploded in anger over the Iraq War, an adventure she had sanctified in the Senate. The specter of that vote and the campaign that followed, the fear that the political moment might again turn against her, continued to haunt her closest aides, especially Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress and one of her longest-standing advisers. Five months before the 2016 Iowa caucus, Tanden warned that Clinton would be punished for supporting banking deregulation—“the closest thing to an Iraq vote we have to face,” she wrote her fellow members of the campaign’s inner sanctum. Her analysis proved wrong in the particulars, but broadly captured a central tension of the campaign. Some in Clinton’s camp could clearly see that a large chunk of the country seethed against elites, yet the candidate could never quite understand the need to insulate herself from the ire, much less harness it.
At first, the challenge of Bernie Sanders looked like a gift. All of the Democrats with big benefactors and well-tended reputations sensed the futility of running against Clinton, because she had started with imposing poll numbers, a well-funded apparatus, and the goodwill of a party that felt her loyal service to Obama merited reward. That left her facing a cantankerous, aging democratic socialist with a small following. Even Sanders—a luftmensch who ran his operation with about the same attentiveness he brings to getting dressed—seemed to doubt the potential of his own candidacy. A year before the first primary, he told Elizabeth Warren that he would cease his campaign preparations if she wanted to run. “He would have given her a clear lane,” one former Sanders adviser told me. But Warren demurred. She had only recently arrived in the Senate, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a fusillade of Clinton-campaign attacks, an opposition-research file disgorged, leaving her too damaged for future fights.
Sanders, however, would prove a flummoxing rival. To win the Democratic presidential nomination, it helps to secure the African American vote. But another path to victory involves rallying white voters with a populist bent. This can create an uncomfortable dynamic in presidential primaries, where race vies with class to become the defining concern of the party. Politicians rarely vocalize the tension. But the socialism of Bernie Sanders—which hindered his efforts to explain the centrality of race to American life—made this split less subterranean than usual.
Of course, Hillary Clinton would have preferred to avoid an argument about the primacy of race versus class. But African American voters provided her the surest path to primary victory. They gravitated to her, in no small measure out of loyalty to Obama. Where Clinton posed as the president’s anointed successor, Sanders questioned Obama’s legacy and called for revolutionary change. He never dedicated himself to making meaningful inroads with African American or Latino voters, and so Clinton doubled down. After she lost New Hampshire in February, she began traveling with the grieving mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other African American casualties of violence. Criminal-justice issues became an elevated feature of her standard pitch.
This was an inversion of the 2008 primary campaign. Desperately attempting to forestall Barack Obama by collecting wins in Appalachia, Clinton posed then as the tribune of “hardworking Americans, white Americans.” But her reinvention last year followed the party’s prevailing wisdom. The Democrats had slowly transformed themselves since the 1960s, when working-class voters of every ethnicity had been reliable constituents. As the party had shed white southerners, it had trodden less tentatively on issues of race. And the swell of immigration that had begun with the Johnson administration’s liberalization of quotas had finally yielded enough citizens to lay a foundation for a cosmopolitan party. That direction suited white urban professionals, who considered themselves tolerant members of a globalized world. Working-class whites hadn’t been lost completely, of course; they remained important to the party in places like the upper Midwest, and unions, however shrunken, continued to provide support. But it was the mélange of minorities, Millennials, and white professionals that provided the basis for the so-called Obama coalition. And if Clinton had carried over any lesson from the 2008 race, it was the necessity of mimicking Obama’s tactics and methods, even if she sometimes produced only ersatz copies of them.
Sanders hardly represented a mortal threat to her nomination, but his campaign did real damage to her chances in November. Alert to her flaws, he portrayed her as a greedy insider, tightly tethered to Goldman Sachs—an image that would reappear in the closing ads Trump ran against her. Clinton, meanwhile, could hardly take the African American vote for granted—a worrying number of black Millennials distrusted her, and some blamed her husband for ushering in the age of mass incarceration. She needed to prove the authenticity of her critique of that system, which meant she returned to that issue far more than any strategist focused on a general election would have deemed prudent. As one Clinton aide told Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, the authors of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, “Our failure to reach out to white voters, like literally from the New Hampshire primary on, it never changed.”
By the spring of 2016, one top Clinton adviser explained to me, the campaign’s own polling showed that white voters without a college degree despised Clinton. The extent of their loathing was surprising—she polled far worse with them than Obama ever had, especially in states like Ohio and Iowa. Trump compounded her challenge. From the moment he announced his candidacy, he aimed his message at the white working class. He pursued that group with steadfastness. The threat that he might capture an unusually large chunk of it persuaded Clinton to pursue professionals with even greater intensity in an attempt to offset Trump’s potential gains.
With hindsight, it’s possible to see the risks of her strategy. Her campaign theorized that dentists, accountants, and middle managers needed to fully understand how Donald Trump surrounded himself with bigots and anti-Semites. “From the start,” she argued in a sharply worded speech in August, “Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia.” Her campaign ads against Trump emphasized his misogyny. The attacks highlighted Trump’s greatest weakness, but also played to his greatest strength. Trump had spent the entirety of his campaign trying to foment a culture war, and Clinton zealously joined it. He talked endlessly about political correctness—trying to convince his voters that they weren’t just losing the debates over gay marriage or immigration, but that the elite wanted to banish them as bigots if they even dared to question the prevailing liberal view. Clinton boosted that cause when she told donors in September, “To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ ” It was meant to be a sotto voce comment, but that’s never how it works, as Mitt Romney could confirm.
Clinton apologized, but she didn’t have any credibility to fall back on. She never fully met her most important political challenge: the need to both celebrate multiculturalism and also cushion the backlash against the celebration. A look back on some of the campaign’s slogans—to be fair, she reportedly didn’t love any of them—captures her difficulties on this score. First there was “I’m With Her,” not exactly brimming with substance, aside from its plea for gender solidarity. Then she turned to “Breaking Down Barriers,” which also highlighted the historic nature of her candidacy, yet made no effort to appeal to either the self-interest or the patriotism of white men. Finally she settled on “Stronger Together,” which got closer to an appeal to all Americans. But it still read more like an indictment of Trump’s intolerance than a vision for the nation. All the while, as Clinton groped for a summation, Trump never veered from the words stitched onto his red hat.
What’s worse, in focusing so intently on Trump’s temperament, Clinton neglected to make a robust economic argument. Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally closed on a populist note, arguing that while Republicans are for the rich, Democrats fight for the working stiff. The pitch might sound hackneyed, but it has a solid record of bolstering support. Nonetheless, neither Clinton nor her campaign manager, Robby Mook, had any apparent interest in that appeal. They considered Trump’s disreputable character the issue that would carry the election. One Clinton adviser describes watching drafts of speeches begin with a strong populist message. But with each revision, as the drafts advanced to the highest reaches of the campaign, those lines would steadily weaken and then disappear. So instead of having to rebut the traditional Democratic attack, Donald Trump came to own it. He ran ads that portrayed Clinton as a puppet of Wall Street. Trump never missed an opportunity to ding “Crooked Hillary,” caricaturing her as a self-righteous elite who bent the rules for her own gain.
It didn’t need to be this way. While Clinton sought to copy Barack Obama, his example in fact suggested a more nuanced approach. Even though many on the left have come to consider him an avatar of the neoliberal establishment, Obama ran two of the most populist campaigns in recent American history. In 2008, he presented himself as a figure untainted by the prevailing political culture; he would arrive in Washington carried by a transformational gust, a prefiguring of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” In 2012, his campaign mercilessly pummeled Mitt Romney as the coldhearted representative of plutocracy.
And where Clinton found herself bogged down in the quagmire of a culture war, Obama had stepped around such debates. Confident that his campaign would generate overwhelming African American turnout, he celebrated a vision of “one America” that seemed carefully designed to assuage racist anxieties that he would favor one group at another’s expense—and more generally to reassure whites, particularly those past middle age and with an acute sense of cultural and economic anomie, that America wasn’t kicking them to the side. (Indeed, his most effective ads against Romney sympathetically portrayed precisely those voters and blamed the Republican nominee for their suffering.) He spoke of his desire to broker a compromise on immigration—an issue he framed as a matter of good governance. His campaign explicitly targeted rural counties. Obama didn’t believe he could win them, and by and large he didn’t, but by redirecting populist anger and allaying cultural anxieties, he reduced his deficit among white noncollege voters to a tolerable margin. (When Bill Clinton asked his wife’s campaign to dispatch him to such small towns in 2016, campaign officials refused, because it would take him away from cities with larger vote hauls.) This tactic enabled Obama to win the upper Midwest so decisively that many analysts began to describe the region as part of a “blue wall.”
That blue wall, of course, turned out to be less sound than Democrats allowed themselves to understand. In an election so close, any number of explanations for defeat are plausible. Hillary Clinton didn’t battle just a demagogue, but also the adroit meddling of Vladimir Putin, the pious intervention of James Comey, and widespread misogyny. Still, the nagging question remains: If the Democrats couldn’t muster a coalition of the cosmopolitan to take out Donald Trump, can they ever count on that coalition? Clinton’s defeat reflects badly on her candidacy, but also exposes the limits of the Democratic Party, which has sustained failures at nearly every tier of government over the past eight years.
Demography’s long arc may yet favor the Democrats, but in the meantime the U.S. electoral system penalizes a party with support concentrated within and around metropolises. White voters without college educations remain a vast voting bloc—especially important to Democrats in Senate races and in contests to control state governments. As the Democrats seek to recover, they need a deeper understanding of the forces that have driven these voters beyond the party’s reach.
Video: Populism Will Save the Democrats
Over the decades, the Democratic Party’s quest to understand the white working class kept doubling back to the suburbs of Detroit, to a county called Macomb. For a time, Macomb was a cliché in political journalism, examined relentlessly as a symbol of the disaffected Reagan Democrats. But if the county was a trope, it became so thanks to the work of Stanley Greenberg.
After Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984, a drubbing for the ages, Democratic Party elders summoned Greenberg, a Yale political scientist turned freelance pollster. Once upon a time, Macomb was a testament to the force of the New Deal, a vision of middle-class life made possible by the fruits of American industry. The county rewarded Democrats for this prosperity in overwhelming numbers. John F. Kennedy carried it with 63 percent of the vote. But over the years, Macomb grew distant from the party, and then furious with it. The state’s party organization asked Greenberg to figure out the roots of voters’ estrangement.
Greenberg is diminutive and prone to mumbling. He wasn’t an obvious choice to send out to connect with factory workers. But in the small focus groups he convened in the backs of restaurants and in hotel conference rooms, his style yielded brutal candor.
Many political analysts who puzzled over Democratic losses described how the backlash against the civil-rights era had propelled white voters away from liberalism, but none gave racism quite the same centrality as Greenberg did. He found “a profound distaste for black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything” that Macomb residents thought about government and politics. Denizens of Macomb—the county was 97 percent white—did little to disguise their animosity. African Americans, they complained, had benefited at their expense. Their tax dollars were funding a welfare state that plowed money into black communities, while politicians showed no concern for their own plight. (That plight was real: The auto industry, which provided the undergirding for middle-class life in Michigan, had collapsed in the face of foreign competition.)
Greenberg’s study of Macomb became a canonical text for Democrats attempting to recover from a decade of pummeling. Bill Clinton hired him in 1992, and in his presidential campaign he spoke directly to the racial anxieties revealed in the focus groups. Clinton distanced himself from the welfare state, which he damned as bloated and inefficient. He promised to pour money into the middle class itself, through tax cuts and spending on education and health care. “Let’s forget about race and be one nation again,” he told an audience in Macomb. “I’ll help you build the middle class back.”
The strategy that Bill Clinton pursued worked, eroding the Republican advantage in the county. Then Barack Obama won Macomb in 2008, the first of his two victories there. Greenberg declared that Macomb had become “normal and uninteresting.” In a New York Times op-ed, he vowed to walk away from his great subject: “Good riddance, my Macomb barometer.”
That was a wishful farewell. Not only did Trump reclaim Macomb for the Republicans—trouncing Clinton by 12 percentage points there—but he turned the Democratic establishment back to Greenberg’s central question about working-class whites: Did racism put many of them beyond reach? When Greenberg traveled to Michigan in February, to conduct his first focus groups in Macomb in nearly a decade, he was genuinely unsure of what he might find. Trump’s naked appeals to racism were far more intense than anything he had ever witnessed. The scenes from Trump’s rallies created a plausible impression that the president had activated long-suppressed feelings of hatred. To probe their disaffection, Greenberg pulled together voters who, for the most part, had defected from Obama to Trump, who had gone from voting for the first African American president to siding with his racist successor. I joined him as an observer.
Greenberg doesn’t give his subjects a clear sense of why they have been gathered or what they have in common. When they figure out that they all belong to the same politically incorrect tribe, the shock of familiarity and solidarity, like a shot of whiskey, frees the conversation of inhibition, especially since many feel the stigma of supporting Trump.
Over the years, Greenberg had heard the worst from Macomb. Back in the ’80s, he knew precisely the buzzwords that could ignite a torrent of racism. The mere mention of Detroit would send people into paroxysms of rage. Decades later, Detroit didn’t provoke any extreme expressions of animus, only comments marveling that the city finally picked up the garbage and cleaned the streets of snow. When the moderator mentioned Flint, the largely African American city whose drinking water had been steeped in lead, the focus groups professed sympathy for the community. The lack of angry responses seemed to shock Greenberg. “There’s so much less about race,” he leaned over to tell me.
Prejudice, however, remained very real. The old complaints about African Americans had affixed themselves to immigrants. Dearborn, which has a thriving Muslim immigrant community, is a short drive away. Just as Macomb’s whites had once accused African Americans of prospering at their expense, members of Greenberg’s focus groups spoke openly about being displaced by immigrants. “We need to take care of home first,” one participant said, as if the immigrant neighbors weren’t also living at home. When asked to explain their greatest hopes for Trump, many cited his promise to build a border wall.
There was a strong element of self-loathing in the hostile view of immigrants. A 60-year-old woman described her work as a cashier at Kroger. What she hated, she said, was waiting on immigrants who didn’t bother to smile. “They act like they can’t do that, even.” Another woman described going to sign up for Medicaid: “I’m looking around at all these people that can’t even say hello to me in English.” Greenberg’s subjects had expected to occupy a higher rung in society. That they exist on par with newcomers to the country feels like a betrayal of what they thought to be the natural order.
It’s one thing to know that nativism exists; it’s another to hear it espoused so casually in the presence of strangers. Many of the voters Greenberg had gathered seemed beyond the grasp of any plausible Democratic appeal, their hatred of immigrants racialized, paranoid, and unshakable. But not everyone harbored those convictions. To test their view of multiculturalism, Greenberg played a Coca-Cola ad that had aired a few weeks earlier, during the Super Bowl. The ad, a rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung in a babel of languages, represented the corporate bet on the Obama coalition. Plenty of people objected to it. “I just don’t know why they can’t all sing it in English, since it’s America,” one woman blurted out. But the ad also seemed to have performed its intended trick, spurring a patriotic appreciation for the ethnic patchwork of the country. The anger directed at the ad was counteracted by defenses of it. “That’s the way America should be,” one man explained. “Multicultural’s a good thing—it really is.”
The focus groups were designed to probe for weakness in Trumpism, to test lines of attack that might neutralize his appeal. Once Greenberg has earned a room’s trust, he introduces new ideas to it. His moderator asked the subjects whether it worried them that Trump had stocked his administration with Wall Street chieftains. That piece of news, it seemed, hadn’t traveled widely in Macomb, and it consistently rattled the groups. “It’s going to be a lot of the same old garbage,” one man groused. Concerns about Trump’s temperament did nothing to dislodge the participants’ support—the connection these voters felt with Trump was personal and deep—but the fact that he might align with traditional Republicans annoyed them to no end. (The groups reacted angrily when shown photos of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. People described them as “shifty” and “for the upper class.”) What many Macomb voters value about Trump is that he represents an unaligned force in American politics. That’s the very quality that in earlier election cycles led them to Obama.
The spectacle of Democratic elites flagellating themselves for their growing distance from these voters has the whiff of the comic—the office-tower anthropologists seeking to understand Appalachia from their Kindles. But there’s another way of putting the problem. If the stagnation of the middle class and the self-reinforcing advantages of the rich are among the largest issues of our time, the Democrats have done a bad job of attuning themselves to them. The party that has prided itself on representing regular people has struggled to make a dent in the problem—and at times has given the impression of indifference to it. A healthy republic can’t afford for a seething populace to fall deeper into its hostilities. A healthy party, arguably, ought never to write off a whole category of voters. Greenberg’s focus groups begin to hint at a way that Democrats can stay true to their principles and still reverse some of their losses with the white working class—but will their leaders pursue that path?
It’s hard to forecast a front-runner for the 2020 presidential nomination so many years in advance. Anita Dunn, the communications czar in the early days of the Obama White House, told me in March that a group of party insiders had recently met socially and compiled a list of potential contenders, both those actively exploring a run and those who were likely mulling the idea. It had 28 plausible names on it—and that didn’t include oddballs with a delusional sense of their own potential. Donald Trump profited from such a densely populated Republican field in 2016, which raises the possibility of an outsider similarly prevailing in a many-sided melee among Democrats.
The current politics of the Democratic Party make it less likely than usual that the nominee will be a centrist in the traditional mold. During the Democrats’ long losing streaks in the late 20th century, the party ritualistically engaged in postmortems that propelled it toward the center. That was the natural cycle of politics: Getting repeatedly clubbed by conservatives suggested trekking in a more conservative direction. But as a candidate, Trump placed little priority on traditional conservative positions, and often flouted them. His victory suggests a very different set of lessons, lessons in tune with the mood of the Democratic Party’s base.
Since 2008, energies have been building on the left—fueled by growing inequality, mass incarceration, and the inevitable frustration with a party that held the White House for eight years but couldn’t deliver everything activists wanted. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter arose. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist captured 43 percent of the primary vote. Then Trump was elected, an event that was received by the party as a catastrophe and that has extended the activist spirit to a far broader audience.
Anger and activism are an opportunity for Democrats to grow their nucleus of supporters motivated to vote in midterm elections. The main question is whether those energies will be channeled in a way that reinforces the long-building demographic divide in American politics or in a way that—at least to some extent—blurs it. Or to put it another way: whether the Democrats accept the continued outflow of the white working class into the arms of the GOP as a fait accompli, or whether they try to stanch it.
There are in fact two different lefts in bloom today, with differing understandings of American politics. One strain practices what its detractors call identity politics—it exists to combat the bias and discrimination that it believes is built into the system. What it seeks isn’t just the protection of minorities’ and women’s rights, but the validation of minorities and women in the eyes of the national culture, which it believes has marginalized them.
The cultural left was on the rise for much of the Obama era (and arguably, with the notable exception of Bill Clinton’s presidency, for much longer). It squares, for the most part, with the worldview of socially liberal whites, and is given wind by the idea that demography is destiny. It has a theory of the electorate that suits its interests: It wants the party to focus its attentions on Texas and Arizona—states that have growing percentages of Latinos and large pockets of suburban professionals. (These states are also said to represent an opportunity because the party has failed to maximize nonwhite turnout there.) It celebrates the openness and interdependence embodied in both globalization and multiculturalism.
While this cultural left has sprung into vogue, the economic left has also been reenergized. It has finally recovered from a long abeyance, a wilderness period brought on by the decay of organized labor and the libertarian turn of the post–Cold War years. As the financial crash of 2008 worked its way through the Democratic Party’s intellectual system, the economic left migrated from the fringe protests of Occupy Wall Street to just outside the mainstream. While the cultural left champions a coalition of the ascendant, the economic left imagines a coalition of the despondent. It seeks to roll back the dominance of finance, to bust monopolies, to curb the predations of the market. It wants to ply back the white working-class voters—clustered in the upper Midwest—whom Greenberg deemed persuadable.
Neither strain of activism has much disagreement with the broad goals of the other. On paper, they can peaceably coexist within the same platform. But political parties can have only one main theory of the electorate at any given time—and the prevailing theory tends to prioritize one ideology. The Republican Party’s pursuit of the South shaped its view of race; the Democratic Party’s wooing of professionals led it to embrace globalization.
The tensions between the cultural left and the economic left were evident in the last Democratic primary, and they have persisted. In a November talk after the election, Bernie Sanders railed against identity politics with an abandon that would have been foolish on the campaign trail. “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me,’ ” he complained. In a way, this squabbling is a prelude to the next presidential primary, a contest that will be packed with candidates, each attempting to show him- or herself as the truest champion of minorities or women or the working and middle classes. Seeking victory, candidates will accuse their competitors of not authentically believing in the cause they themselves elevate most highly.
In March, I visited Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the many denizens of Capitol Hill widely thought to be considering a presidential run in 2020. When I stopped by his office, late in the evening, he was sporting an Apple Watch and preparing to speak at the SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas. The semiotics of Cory Booker are highly intentional. He is the embodiment of the Obama coalition—his moderate economic views comfort professionals while his pursuit of racial justice pleases the cultural left. On the wall of his office hangs a map of Newark’s Central Ward, a high-mileage conversation piece that allows him to note that he still lives in the same poor, mostly black neighborhood where he launched his career: “I go back and live in the community with median income for individuals of $14,000 a year.” At the same time, he has defended Wall Street and Big Pharma—positions that endear him to elites.
Just before making my way to Booker, I had met with Bernie Sanders. Interviewing Sanders requires some fortification—and my exchange ended when he peremptorily dismissed me from his office for asking a question about his political relationship with Elizabeth Warren. (Sanders had expected Warren to endorse him in the 2016 primary, and her failure to do so sent him into a funk.) I recounted the episode to Booker, along with Sanders’s thoughts about the future of the Democratic Party, which were characteristically splenetic: “Whatever the Democratic Party has been doing for the last several decades has been a dismal failure,” he had grumbled. But Booker waved this argument away. “I’ve heard the dire assessments before,” he told me.
Booker said that he has no interest in high-minded discussions about the future of the party and pointed to the map on the wall. “I want my voters to know that I am authentically fighting for them.” He wanted me to know that his political program consisted of an unbending commitment to his community—and that he had little patience with attempts to change the party’s image in order to appease critics of the cultural left. “I don’t see any evidence of a problem with so-called identity politics,” he told me. The term itself bothered him, he said: Too many people were throwing it around without bothering to define what they meant by it.
The underlying moral logic of Booker’s case is unassailable. Identity politics might make for a fair description of the environment on some college campuses. But the issues that Booker described as his driving passion—the depredations of private prisons, hefty sentences for nonviolent drug offenders—are hardly akin to protesting that a cafeteria’s attempt at bánh mì is cultural appropriation. Recent (and compelling) scholarship blames liberals for their complicity in the scourge of mass incarceration, what Booker calls the “new Jim Crow,” a term he borrows from the title of Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book. This critique of the party, which lands on Bill Clinton and the tough-on-crime era over which he presided, is harsh and fair. Over the past few years, Clinton himself has conceded the excesses of his administration’s agenda. Hillary Clinton was pushed to apologize for a speech she gave in 1996 fomenting fear of “superpredators.” And in fact, her campaign went further than Barack Obama’s had in blaming structural racism and implicit bias for the struggles of many African Americans.
This belated recognition makes the present moment fraught. After years of neglect, African Americans have finally received a spoonful of the attention that should go to the party’s most loyal voting bloc. The prospect of the party’s attention turning back to the same white working class that rejects multicultural America will not be met eagerly by many on the left—particularly given the shadow cast by the politics and policies of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
As Booker pressed his case, it was not hard to imagine the campaign he might run. Racial and criminal-justice issues would provide him a platform, and his point of differentiation would be his willingness to trumpet it to the whitest audiences—the starkest evidence of the authenticity he claims. He joked about being asked to stump for senators in red states (“Are you bringing me out because of the large black vote?”). More earnestly, he said that the skin color of his audience wouldn’t cause him to make any adjustment: “The message to Montana voters is going to be no different” from that in Newark or elsewhere. Reduced to its essence, his strategy would seem a straight continuation of Hillary Clinton’s.
Booker’s opposite number, in some ways, is Elizabeth Warren, the great hope of the populist left. Before there was a resistance to Trump, Warren had prefigured its combative style. In moments designed to spread virally across Facebook, she would ask sharp, angry questions of bankers and regulators. (“Did you have your eyes stitched closed?” she said last year to a former Federal Reserve official who was testifying that nothing in the data had suggested a mortgage meltdown in the run-up to the 2008 crash.) Her latest book is called This Fight Is Our Fight. The book before that: A Fighting Chance.
I first spoke with Warren just after she lucked into another such viral moment. The night before, Mitch McConnell had stopped her from speaking out against Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. In words destined for college-feminist T-shirts, he accused Warren of transgressing a rule intended to preserve the Senate’s bonhomie: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” As I walked with Warren across the Capitol, she seemed almost punch-drunk after a night of fawning press coverage and little sleep. She stepped with the bounce of a lottery winner. A few weeks earlier, she had found herself reamed by anti-Trump forces for voting in committee to confirm Ben Carson to the Cabinet, a vote that was unexpectedly condemned as a concession to tyranny. McConnell had restored her bona fides.
Warren’s social-media moments create the impression that she is radical. But in fact, she didn’t spend her youth protesting, and she never joined a movement. Voter-registration records from the early ’90s list her as a Republican. “I sound like I come from the left” to people on the left, she told me. “I don’t sound that way to a lot of folks on the right, or a lot of people who are just fundamentally apolitical.”
Nor is Warren’s driving obsession wealth redistribution. That’s important politically, because many Americans simply don’t begrudge wealth, and “inequality” as a clarion call hasn’t stuck. (Indeed, Democrats have begun to shift away from inequality as a label for what ails America’s economy and culture. Some fear that white voters who are predisposed to racial resentments hear the word as code for a desire to transfer wealth from whites to blacks.)
Rather, Warren is most focused on the concept of fairness. A course she taught early in her career as a law professor, on contracts, got her thinking about the subject. (Fairness, after all, is a contract’s fundamental purpose.) A raw, moralistic conception of fairness—that people shouldn’t get screwed—would become the basis for her crusading. Although she shares Bernie Sanders’s contempt for Wall Street, she doesn’t share his democratic socialism. “I love markets—I believe in markets!” she told me. What drives her to rage is when bankers conspire with government regulators to subvert markets and rig the game. Over the years, she has claimed that it was a romantic view of capitalism that drew her to the Republican Party—and then the party’s infidelity to market principles drove her from it.
Trump managed to exploit populist anger in part because he could go places ideologically that no Democrat would ever travel. As a matter of politics and policy, Democrats will never be the party of economic nationalism. Its voters are, on balance, more globalist than the Republican base. They tend to live in places that have prospered from trade and technology. They typically support immigration. But Warren has begun to outline the possibilities of a new center-left populism—one that gets beyond wealth redistribution alone.
At the core of Warren’s populism is a phobia of concentrated economic power, an anger over how big banks and big businesses exploit Washington to further their own interests at the expense of ordinary people. This fear of gigantism is a storied American tradition, descended from Thomas Jefferson, even if it hasn’t recently gotten much airtime within the Democratic Party. It justifies itself in the language of individualism—rights, liberty, freedom—not communal obligation.
There’s a growing consensus among center-left economists that the dominance of entire industries by a few enormous companies is one of the defining economic problems of the era. The issue has gravitated toward the mainstream of Democratic Party thinking partly due to the work of Barack Obama’s in-house economist, Jason Furman, a protégé of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Furman revolted against the behavior of business leaders who came to call at the White House. Many of them didn’t seem especially committed to capitalism. With their privileged access, they groveled for favors that would further their dominance. “They were like the Chinese,” he told me recently. “They craved certainty. They wanted everything planned.”
Everyone can plainly see the lack of competition in many sectors—the way that there are five big banks, four big airlines, one dominant social-media company, one maker of EpiPens. What’s more, a small set of institutional investors—BlackRock, Fidelity, Vanguard—holds stock in a vast percentage of public companies, so even sectors that look somewhat competitive are less so than they appear. CVS and Walgreens, for instance, have a strikingly similar set of major shareholders. The same is true for Apple and Microsoft.
Furman argues that such business concentration is a leading cause of inequality and wage stagnation. Warren has come to believe in this same idea. As a senator, she can see how the ills of finance—the industry’s concentration, its abuse of political power—have been replicated across the American economy. Last June in Washington, she gave an important speech, naming a long new list of enemies—oligopolistic companies like Comcast and Google and Walmart, which she blamed for sapping the life from the American economy. “When Big Business can shut out competition, entrepreneurs and small businesses are denied their shot at building something new and exciting.” In making a Jeffersonian argument, she has begun to deploy Jeffersonian rhetorical trappings. “As a people, we understood that concentrated power anywhere was a threat to liberty everywhere,” she argued. “Competition in America is essential to liberty in America.”
Warren has not committed to running for president, either publicly or, according to close associates of hers, privately. But if she does run, she will likely seek to channel working-class anger toward behemoth firms, their executives, and the government officials who coddle them. It’s not a terribly complicated case to build, since the headlines are so packed with the rent-seeking exploits of those firms: the continued predations of banks on their own customers; airline overbooking; life-saving allergy injections that cost hundreds of dollars; cable companies exacting ever-higher fees; the exposure of low-level workers to such erratic hours that it becomes impossible to establish a daily routine; a broad indifference to consumers.
The approach exudes a Trumplike hostility to Washington elites, but not necessarily to government. And nearly the entire Democratic agenda can be justified through its prism: Obamacare preserves freedom and loosens corporations’ grip on their employees, by allowing workers to switch jobs without fear of losing health insurance. Criminal-justice reform is an effort to secure liberty and equality from an abusive apparatus of the state.
A turn toward populism will never be enough to win back a state like West Virginia, which is now deep-red. And there are legitimate questions about whether a strident former Harvard professor, no matter her Oklahoma roots, can effectively purvey that message to a sufficiently broad audience. But Warren’s brand of populism could help cool white-working-class hostility toward the Democrats and persuade the likes of Greenberg’s focus-group members to switch allegiance again. Empathy with economic disappointment, and even anger over the status quo, might reduce the sense that Democrats are perpetrators of the status quo. And liberal populism would take the party beyond ineffectual arguments about Trump’s temperament. A populist critique of Trump would point to his fraudulence as an enemy of the system, a fraudulence that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with plutocracy.
Whether or not Warren runs for president, evidence for the resurgence of liberal populism can now be seen in numerous parts of the Democratic establishment—not least in the barometrically sensitive form of Chuck Schumer, whose new job as the Senate’s minority leader demands that he understand and distill the mood of his caucus. This March, I met him in his ornate lair just off the floor of the Senate. When I entered his office, Schumer was compressed into the corner of an antique sofa, his tie loosened and his feet resting on a coffee table.
The populists have never considered Schumer one of their own. But as he riffed about the trajectory of the party, he mouthed their talking points. Insufficient fidelity to populist ideas, he argued, had cost Democrats the election: “We didn’t have a strong, bold—populist, if you will—economic message.” He blasted financial elites, monopolies, and Chinese mercantilism. These weren’t stray observations. He has included Warren and Sanders on his Senate leadership team, and traveled with Sanders to rally support for Obamacare in Macomb County.
The party’s movement toward populism, ironically, could also be seen well before Election Day—in the guts of the Clinton campaign. Clinton leaned heavily on Elizabeth Warren’s allies to craft her regulatory apparatus. Heather Boushey, who led economic-policy planning for Clinton’s transition team, told me, “This was teed up to be the most progressive administration in recent American history.” There’s a certain tragedy to that description. Clinton had developed what was in many ways a populist agenda, but she apparently could never get past her own self-consciousness about Wall Street speeches and fund-raising in the Hamptons to make these issues her own.
To win again, the Democrats don’t need to adopt an alien agenda or back away from policies aimed at racial justice. But their leaders would be well advised to change their rhetorical priorities and more directly address the country’s bastions of gloom. The party has been crushed—not just in the recent presidential election, but in countless down-ballot elections—by its failure to develop a message that can resonate with people beyond the core members of the Obama coalition, and by its unwillingness to blare its hostility to crony capitalism. Polling by the group Priorities USA Action shows that a stunning percentage of the voters who switched their allegiance from Obama to Trump believe that Democratic economic policies favor the rich—42 percent, nearly twice the number who consider that to be true of Trump’s agenda.
The makings of a Democratic majority are real. Demographic advantages will continue to accrue to the left. The party needs only to add to its coalition on the margins and in the right patches on the map. Doing that does not require the abandonment of any moral principles; persuasion is a different category of political activity from pandering. (On page 60 in this issue, Peter Beinart describes how Democrats might alter their language and policies regarding immigration to broaden appeal without sacrificing their principles.) A decent liberalism, not to mention a savvy party, shouldn’t struggle to accord dignity and respect to citizens, even if it believes some of them hold abhorrent views.
Victories in the culture wars of the past decade seemed to come so easily to liberals that they created a measure of complacency, as if those wars had been won with little cost. In actuality, the losers seethed. If the Democrats intend to win elections in 2018, 2020, and beyond, they require a hardheaded realism about the country that they have recently lacked—about the perils of income stagnation, the difficulties of moving the country to a multicultural future, the prevalence of unreason and ire. For a Democratic majority to ultimately emerge, the party needs to come to terms with the fact that it hasn’t yet arrived.