Commentary: The problem with the Democrats’ messaging

Post-election, two questions are on every Democrat’s mind. One: Why did Donald Trump and Republicans nationwide receive such wide support, despite the incompetent and odious Trump presidency? And two: What can Democrats do to reverse the red wave?

Despite all the angst among Democrats, the answers should be obvious. Trumpism commands growing support, including unprecedented backing from Black and Hispanic Americans, because the Democrats’ emphasis on identity politics and elite culturalism overshadows their proposals to combat economic inequality.

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Identity politics demands action to redress long-standing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. However, for those who don’t fit into these groups, especially white working class and low-income males, the unrelenting drumbeat is a turnoff. To them, all lives matter, not just Black ones.

Further, political action that focuses on race or gender often tends to primarily benefit those who are in the upper economic and social strata. The Black Lives Matter movement for criminal justice reform is a praiseworthy exception. By contrast, affirmative action in employment or college admissions does not reach the masses of people of color.

Overall, the best fix for racial and gender inequality is economic progressivism. A recent op-ed in The New York Times was titled “To Reduce Racial Inequality, Raise the Minimum Wage.” An article in The Nation several years ago “exposed the deep class divide” within the women’s movement and criticized “trickle-down feminism” for not benefiting the masses of women. One writer noted that “it is no accident that the societies ranked as having the most gender equality are the European social democracies, which tend to have the most economic equality, as well.”

Identity politics merges with elite culturalism, in which some well-meaning Democrats give the impression that because of their superior education and income status, they know what’s best for other people. A political scientist found that between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton voters in 2016, “the most dramatic difference … is over sociocultural issues” — not economics.

David Brooks observed that Democrats “have built a cultural blue wall that keeps the other half of the country out.” Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, wrote recently, “Trump is, for better or worse, the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tide … for many people, he’s the only middle finger available — to brandish against the people who’ve assumed they have the whip hand in American culture.”

Few Democratic politicians will agree publicly. They fear backlash: that their views will be misperceived as rejection or trivialization of the valid grievances of Black and Hispanic people, women and the LBGTQ community. Like other civil rights and progressive activists, I intend no such thing.

In the jockeying for the Democratic nomination for president and in Joe Biden’s campaign as the nominee, Democratic strategists debated whether to give preeminence to identity issues that might boost Black and brown turnout, or to bread-and-butter issues that would appeal to swing voters. That is a false choice. We must continue to fight institutional racism and other discrimination. But we can’t avoid the political reality that economic issues and more cultural respect for all working families must be more front and center in countering Trumpism.

Can Democrats get their political act together? The winning playbook is to play down identity politics and play up measures that combat economic inequality — like health care for all, increases in the minimum wage, tax relief for the middle class, strengthening unions, green jobs, affordable housing and college debt relief.

It won’t be easy, even though many Republicans favor most of the measures. The Trump card is the “s” word — socialism. Democrats don’t label themselves (with the singular exception of Bernie Sanders) or their proposals as socialist, but Republicans, in cahoots with big corporations and Wall Street, demonize them as enemies of capitalism and individual freedom.

The remedy is to find a new language and brand for popular progressive programs that fit within what Sanders and others call “democratic socialism within capitalism.” Elizabeth Warren has called it “economic patriotism.”

Hopefully, Biden is up to the task, while cooling the intraparty warfare between progressives and centrists. Already there is a blame game over election setbacks and sparring over cabinet appointments and policy priorities.

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If Democrats don’t unite behind true economic populism more than they have in the past, Trump and his co-conspirators will continue their unholy crusade to divide and economically conquer the interests of American families and workers.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education policy analyst, is a longtime political activist and has managed several campaigns for offices in Maryland and Baltimore. He can be reached at khettleman@gmail.com.