How identity and economic interests collide to create our current political climate
There really is no debate
It has become fashion among Democrats to debate which approach is the best one to defeat Trump: an economic message or an identity one.
Those who argue that Democrats should focus on an identity-based message point to Obama, and how his appeal to young people and African-Americans increased their turnout dramatically.
On the other hand are those who point to Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign, and argue that her focus on identity politics doomed her with the larger electorate. Instead, they argue that on economic issues, and unlike with social issues, Democrats represent the majority views, and a campaign focused on economic issues will be successful in bringing back the Obama-Trump voters to the party.
In reality, both arguments oversimplify the issue. Obama was able to excite young people with his charisma, and the possibility of electing an African-American president brought that group to the polls. He also spoke to the economic anxiety of many working class white people, thus creating the Obama-Trump voter phenomenon in the first place.
Clinton, on the other hand, lost for a variety of reasons. Her inability to develop an economic message was only one reason for her defeat. The biggest reason was that she was a terrible candidate, who ran a chaotic campaign, and who never really developed a rationale for her election. Trump had a clear message — whatever you say about him. Clinton never did.
Both these examples point to the reality, which is that the choice between an economic argument and an identity-based one is a false choice. The two are actually inextricably interrelated.
Consider the following. A recent poll of African-American voters conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Black Economic Alliance found that economic issues top the list of concerns of African-Americans. Ironically, then, the way to appeal to African-Americans is to talk about economic issues that matter to everyone.
What’s more is that poll found that reparations are one of the few economic issues that did not generate majority support, unlike better jobs, laws against wage discrimination, job training and a higher minimum wage. All of those other issues generated supermajority support.
The irony, then, is that African-Americans very much agree with most Americans of all stripes. These issues find overwhelming support both among African-Americans and the U.S. electorate as a whole. Indeed, the economic views of all Americans are surprisingly homogeneous.
So it seems like the answer should be simple: Democrats should simply emphasize an economic message to win. There is something to that argument. After all, part of what hobbled the Democrats in 2016 was that Trump had no record. He could claim anything he wanted and there was really nothing to counter it with.
So, for example, when he claimed, repeatedly, that he would get rid of Obamacare and provide everyone with “something terrific” that would provide better coverage at less cost, there was little Democrats could do to dispute that claim other than launching into a policy debate. Those rarely win votes. Now, based upon his time as President, we know his position on health care is a lie.
Healthcare, of course, is not the only issue like that where Trump stands against the position of a supermajority of Americans. His tax cut that was little more than a give-away to the very rich is broadly unpopular. Same for Trump’s attacks on environmental regulations. Trump has even managed to turn his signature issue, immigration, into a negative.
So it seems like defeating Trump should be a no-brainer. But anyone who has argued with Trump supporters, as I have, know that issues alone will not win the election.
The problem is that we have separated ourselves into several tribes with distinct political views. The Pew Research Center has divided us into eight groups based upon our political views. Four of these groups lean Democratic, four Republican. But again, this typology is based upon our views on issues which, as Trump has shown by rallying Republicans around traditionally non-Republican issues, are fluid.
Instead, much of our perspective seems to be based upon the people we associate with. Consider the following. Democrats have big leads among the better educated, more urban voters. But think of who these voters associate with.
In college, most students will have interacted with other young people from very different backgrounds. They will know African-Americans from middle and upper-class backgrounds who have done well in school. Indeed, African-American women, who formed perhaps the most critical piece of the Democratic coalition, and who played a key role in electing Doug Jones to the Senate in Alabama, are now the most highly educated group in the U.S. College-educated whites will know these African-Americans personally. Similarly, they will know the children of recent immigrants, who also tend to be educated at a very high level.
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It is not surprising, then, that college-educated Americans will have positive views about African-Americans, immigrants, and other minorities. These are the people they had positive relationships with in college.
What’s more is that a lot of college is about self-actualization. As a result, people who have been to college respect others who are following their own paths. At college, we were allowed to find our own direction, so we the rights of others to do so as well. Thus a greater respect for difference.
On the other hand, non-college educated whites in most of the country, geographically speaking, rarely come into contact with anyone different from them. Their perception of African-Americans is created by the media portrayals of gangland violence. They have no personal experience to counteract that perspective. Similarly, their experience with immigrants likely includes farmworkers or other low-wage employees rather than highly-educated professionals. This isolation is what drives their perceptions.
The perceptions of each group will be reinforced by the people they associate with. College-educated urbanites will generally socialize with other college-educated urbanites. Rural non-college educated voters will talk with others like them. To each group, the other one’s perspective becomes completely foreign.
As a result, whatever the issues profile, the divisions will remain. Fortunately, by emphasizing one issue or another, we might be able to peel away a few people who would otherwise support the other side. The Republicans are masters at such wedge-issues like abortion, which push individuals to the Republican party who would otherwise likely vote Democratic.
Given the even split between the two parties, taking a few voters from the other side might be enough to win the election. Democrats certainly have good issues to succeed in that effort. But any expectation that there will be wholesale abandonment of one party or another is likely unrealistic given the echo-chamber most of us live in.
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