February 24, 2017 by David K. Sutton
Are Trump Voters Irredeemable?
Reflecting on Trump voters in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidential hell-scape, my mind ping-pongs between ridicule and bewilderment. Do we risk reinforcing the notion of liberal arrogance by saying Trump voters are irredeemable? And if we already believe they are a lost cause, does it even matter? I’m not exactly sure where I’ll end up, but I’m always seeking levelheaded arguments, meaning a degree of compassion for Trump voters might yet be conceivable.
Many liberals argue that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and that the focus should be on rallying the base and fighting voter suppression efforts. Yes, but Democrats flopped in Congress, governor races and state legislatures. Republicans now control 68 percent of partisan legislative chambers in the U.S.
If Democrats want to battle voter suppression, it’s crucial to win local races — including in white working-class districts in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Let’s give it up for the man, because there’s nobody more deserving of the burgeoning resentment and hostility in this country than Donald Trump. And I can appreciate the appetite to unconditionally brandish his supporters with ceaseless rancor, because I’ve been a card-carrying member of this coterie. In our charter we address Trump’s hateful rhetoric on the backs of the powerless and the disenfranchised all while his supporters voted for more. And we confront Trump’s bullying of refugees, Muslims, and opponents, while cogitating that his supporters effectively said, ‘Good work, sign me up.’
No doubt we all know somebody who voted for Trump, and hopefully in most cases these friendships have endured. Where that is true, it is because we recognize the error in making sweeping judgments. We can believe Trump voters are wrong, but we can also believe they are not all uncaring racists. Bigoted Trump voters do exist, but just as likely there are Trump supporters who voted for him for reasons more varied than racism and discrimination.
Even if we believe Trump voters tacitly endorsed discrimination simply by voting for him, wielding that schism as a political weapon likely won’t get us very far at the ballot box. This is not a call to understand or appeal to bigoted views. This is instead a call for liberals and the Democratic Party to better understand how to appeal to these voters. We do not have to embrace views we disapprove of to find common ground. Ever entwined are Democrats, liberals, and identity politics, so when it comes to the rural white working-class, we need to find a way to make identity politics work for us. Because politics is always about who we are as people, it is futile to try to remove “identity” from politics.
“[P]olitics is not and will never be a public policy seminar,” says Matthew Yglesias on Vox. People do not respond to abstract policies, they respond to issues that affect them personally. “People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.” What “identity” should liberals and Democrats appeal to? We will need to figure that out if we wish to win the presidency, let alone flip state and local elections.
We need to understand people are complicated creatures, which is to say identity is complex, so threading this needle will be a challenge. To have any chance of success, we need to learn to recognize when we are using a narrow lens to view the politics of identity. Here’s an illustration using a scene from The West Wing episode The Portland Trip.
Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), is seeking to defeat passage of an anti-gay marriage law. Congressman Skinner (played by Charley Lang), a Republican who is gay, is arguing in favor of the law, leaving Lyman puzzled. But should he really be so surprised? Must Congressman Skinner, a complex human being, be reduced to a single issue? Must he give up his agency and play a role scripted in the minds of liberals and Democrats, just because he is gay? It seems we do this a lot. So, let’s not do this when it comes to Trump voters. We need to skillfully use identity to appeal to Trump voters without making it a singularity.
“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites,” writes J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. “Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.”
There is much economic despair in white middle America. Even if his promises are false hope, Donald Trump is serving it to them in spades. But on the political left, far too often it seems the only thing we have to offer them is flippant antipathy and low-level contempt. We can roll our eyes, talk about white privilege, and a “basket of deplorables,” but it will do nothing more than stoke our arrogance and diminish the Democratic Party’s future electoral chances. The minority vote might be growing and the white vote shrinking, but Democrats face immense geographic challenges. That’s because much of the Democratic voting base exists in populated urban centers, in already blue states. This is in-part why Hillary Clinton won the popular vote while Donald Trump won the electoral college and the presidency. This is in-part why Republicans control the House and the Senate and many state legislatures and governorships.
We can choose the quick hit of dopamine playing right-wing whack-a-troll, or we can take on a constructive approach to winning over parts of the country Democrats have all but abandoned. To offer a suggestion, Democrats should focus on ideals of American optimism and economic opportunity, and do so with a message divorced from racial identity. The Democratic Party must find a way to speak to white working-class voters and appeal to their economic anxiety with a true sense of compassion, while also vehemently defending an inclusive society in a way that doesn’t draw battle lines. That’s at least a start, and I don’t suggest it will be easy.