Preventing The Next Trump

How Democrats lost the working class, and what they must do to reclaim it.
04/03/2017 10:38 am ET
Donald Trump speaks to supporters during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on November 9, 2016.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks to supporters during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on November 9, 2016.

Democrats are feeling a bit better these days. Obamacare is looking safe, the Republican caucus continues to be incapable of agreeing on the right way to zip their fly and shoes are dropping on a near daily basis in a Russia treason probe, like stilettos from Imelda Marcos’ closet. As we’ve watched Trump’s approval plummet to historic lows and Make America Great Again signs quietly vanishing from the American heartland, Democrats have decided that perhaps it will be enough for us to resist and wait around for the inevitable impeachment. Don’t kid yourself. We may do well in the midterms, we may even dispatch with this Trump and still find our nation imperiled. Look around the world. Trump is far from an isolated phenomenon. In my new book Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World, I detail why until we address the underlying forces that gave rise to this malevolent character we will be left vulnerable to the rise of another Trump. Except next time, we may not be so lucky as to have our demagogue’s democracy destroying fascistic tendencies mitigated by sheer incompetence.

The central issue riling the developed world is the fact that our global economy has polarized into a relatively small, highly rewarded, knowledge economy and a low-skilled low wage service sector which caters to the whims of the fortunate.  We can pretend all we want that if everyone got a college degree, then everyone could have access to a middle class life, but this is pure fantasy. There are simply not enough good jobs to go around and this situation is only going to become worse. Globalization has led to an international wage race to the bottom. Automation has undercut the number of workers required to do any particular task. The most common jobs in our new economy are in the low wage professions of fast-food worker, sales clerk, and cashier. To add insult to injury, all three of these most common professions, as well as many more, are likely to be taken over by robots in the not so distant future. Some researchers estimate that nearly half of our jobs are threatened by automation. Towns across middle America are already emptying out as the brightest young people flee what is increasingly an economic apocalypse. We tend to think of these crumbling towns as relics of the past when in fact, on our current path, they are harbingers of the future. In case you are reading this and thinking “I’m a professional ― phew, that won’t happen to me,” well, I have news for you too. Lawyers, accountants and doctors are not safe, these jobs are all also subject to the same automation trends, albeit more slowly. Because these groups have economic and political power, through membership in the donor class, they may be able to keep the robots at bay a little longer, but the result will be the same. The machines don’t just drive trucks better than we do, they read MRIs better than we do, they read litigation documents faster than we do and they find tax loopholes better than we do. H&R Block is already using IBM Watson to do people’s taxes-how long do you think it will be before they are doing higher level tax accounting?

So the economic apocalypse is coming, and the wage stagnation and economic decline of blue collar America paints a grim picture of what’s to come. Perhaps even more telling than the economic statistics, however, are the numbers on wellbeing. In nearly every county in the country, deaths from drug overdoses have jumped. Suicide has also spiked, reaching a thirty-year high. The number of lives lost to this collapse of well-being is about the same as the number of people who died during the AIDS epidemic. The root cause of this national crisis of deaths of despair is a lack of the kind of employment that can give one pride, purpose, and a sense of hope for the future. This despair also creates fertile ground for the nativist us-versus-them politics which is Trump’s stock-in-trade, as the struggling look for someone to blame. We are dealing with an economic transformation the size of the Industrial Revolution that is happening at the speed of the Internet age and it is leaving millions in our country behind. This central reality is what Democrats must address to prevent the next, more terrifyingly effective, Trump. In Reversing the Apocalypse, I provide a roadmap for just what must be done to avoid this terrible future. Here are the outlines of that plan.

A party committed to Freedom from Want does not end welfare as Clinton did in the '90s or come to the table in search of a Social Security slashing 'Grand Bargain.'

First, we must reconnect with our party’s historic belief that in the wealthiest country the world has ever known, every American citizen deserves a decent living. This is what FDR championed as Freedom from Want in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech. The freedoms cited in this speech were repeatedly mentioned by our World War II soldiers as the principles that they fought for.  It was a commitment to Freedom from Want that drove our greatest national social programs, from the New Deal Era through the War on Poverty, and made unions, those bastions of worker solidarity, our great allies. Over the years, however, and particularly in the post-Bill Clinton Democratic party, we have abandoned a universal commitment to Freedom from Want. Instead, we have become infatuated with the Silicon Valley and Wall Street winners in our meritocracy. In our new philosophy, all will be well if only every child, irrespective of race, gender, or other identities, can compete on a level playing field for their spot in this modern hierarchy. If you’ve got the particular linguistic and symbolic manipulation skills prized by our modern economy, then you can claim one of the cushy well-compensated slots that come with flexibility, respect, and good health insurance. If you didn’t win this particular genetic lottery, then you’re left to scramble for a low-paying, precarious job serving the winning overclass.

To be sure, removing the discriminatory barriers that hold black or Latino or trans children back is a worthy and noble project, but it’s not an answer to the central challenge of a polarized and unequal economy. Given the fact that there are not enough slots at the happy end of the meritocracy for everyone, this philosophy implicitly consigns a large portion of the population to an unstable, low-wage misery. What’s more, while a commitment to improving the meritocracy at least has some message for the marginalized groups who suffer from discrimination, it offers nothing to white workers for whom the meritocracy is already thought to be working. White workers have white privilege, which means essentially that the system already works for them. Following this logic, if you are a white man and can’t make it, then the problem must be you. Of course, we do realize as a party that people, even white workers, are suffering.  So when we open our charitable hearts to offer a minimum wage hike or an unemployment check to black, white and brown people, we expect working class whites to support us. Often these working class whites don’t support the Democratic Party, because their self-concept is such that they view themselves as productive middle class workers and think this type of assistance is not really for them, despite the fact that this self-concept is not often in line with their current situation. They also rightfully find such an approach condescending. People don’t vote for condescending leaders, even if in the short term the condescension comes with some minor economic benefits and even if the policies themselves-like minimum wage and unemployment insurance-are sound. Ultimately, a minimum wage and unemployment based approach is not a real answer to the disappearance of good jobs and it is not a national level inspirational message that can form the unifying banner of a national party ― which is what the Democratic Party once was, and could be again.

In contrast, the policies that follow from a universal commitment to Freedom from Want are quite different from those looking to perfect the meritocracy. A party committed to Freedom from Want does not end welfare as Clinton did in the ‘90s or come to the table in search of a Social Security slashing “Grand Bargain.” For starters, such a commitment would embrace direct Federal government job creation, if that’s what’s required to reenergize workers, families, and communities. Given the scale of the economic transformation we are currently living through however, we must think even bigger than that. As we move towards a future where jobs are not only low wage but increasingly scarce, we must lay the philosophical groundwork for an entirely new compact between citizens. In this new compact, we would essentially say to the tech innovators displacing workers the following: “We encourage you to break new ground and we want America to lead the way in the automation advances of the future. But in exchange, you will pay some of the incredible fortunes you acquire into a Social Security for All fund so that every citizen will have a share of the remarkable prosperity which is possible in this future.” In this way, we can all cheer on the success of the innovators and capital owners. The better they do, the better we all do!

Karen Vermilya, of Onaway, Michigan, stands in line to enter the 'Our First Stand: Save Health Care' rally with Sen. Bernie S
Rachel Woolf via Getty Images
Karen Vermilya, of Onaway, Michigan, stands in line to enter the 'Our First Stand: Save Health Care' rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders, members of the Michigan congressional delegation and local elected officials at Macomb Community College on January 15, 2017 in Warren, Michigan.

Obviously, this is good for your average citizen, but it is also good for those who find themselves at the top end of the new economy, because it promises sustainability. It promises an economy that works and provides the opportunity for satisfaction for all, that is built to last and that puts money in consumers’ pockets. All of these things contribute to the kind of society we want to live in and raise our children in. In this society, we do not have to live in gated communities and put bars on our windows. We do not have to close our eyes and our hearts to destroyed lives, towns, and entire regions of our great nation. And, we do not have to fear the rise of a populist destroyer of our democracy like Donald Trump.

Second, this new message of broad economic security and prosperity requires effective messengers who can win outside our coastal enclaves. Democrats have made it a point to value diversity—as well they should! A diversity of backgrounds brings different experiences and approaches to the table and helps make sure the entire tableau of the American experience is represented. But we really only champion a certain type of UN multicultural diversity. If you consider the Democratic House caucus, we have racial and gender and some religious diversity, but like the rest of congress, we are utterly lacking in current socioeconomic diversity or professional diversity.  You may find some “up by the bootstraps” stories, but the moral of these stories speaks to the promise of the meritocracy for all, and the bottom line is these are all individuals who have in one way or another permanently punched their ticket to the American good life—the life of choice rather than necessity.

The blessed sense of stability members of Congress enjoy, coupled with the reality of having something to lose by upsetting the apple cart of the current system, takes the edge off any desire to push for larger systemic changes. If you’ve gotten yours so to speak, it’s hard to propose something as radical as an entirely new economic compact, even if you have some understanding of what’s going on for your fellow citizens, even if you care. So, as we think about new messengers, we must include people who break up the economic, professional, and geographic homogeneity of the current Democratic Caucus. We need to reach outside of the ranks of the professionals toting master’s degrees from prestigious universities, outside of the creative class havens, outside of the folks who feel like they’ve got a lifetime ticket to the happy side of the job polarization divide. This will come as somewhat of a shocking proposal for a party that has centered itself around lionizing a particular kind of Harvard intelligence, but we need to run some McDonald’s workers, nurses, teachers, and truck drivers. We need to expand our idea of what a leader looks like to include folks who don’t have a college degree, who weren’t president of the debate club, who haven’t found a ticket into the upper echelon of our stratified society.

We have to give candidates the flexibility to channel their communities on cultural preferences.

Finally, we must adjust the issues on which we demand purity from our candidates. There are two things that should be required and enforced of every Democratic candidate running anywhere in the country. First, they must side with working Americans over Wall Street and big corporations EVERY SINGLE TIME. Second, they must be completely committed to an open, tolerant, and pluralistic society where the voice of one is given exactly the same weight as the voice of another regardless of identity and where immigrants are welcomed and celebrated as a great source of dynamism in our society. These should be the bedrock principles on which there is no compromise. Instead of these principles, in recent years we have instead placed culture at the center of our party. This approach has led to near irrelevance in most of the country and has failed even to inspire the demographic groups to which our message was directly tailored! Consider that in 2016, we were the Black Lives Matter party, yet African-American turnout dropped. We were the Planned Parenthood Party, yet low income women who are statistically more likely to have an abortion, fled in droves. We were the undocumented immigrant party, yet our margins with Latinos actually declined. Economics are central to every American family and yet we’ve treated them as the sideshow. The result has been uninspiring for all.

Let’s be honest here, if we are serious about winning again in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, or frankly any part of rural America, we have to give candidates the flexibility to channel their communities on cultural preferences. Issues like guns and abortion are not just about policy, they are also a powerful symbol for voters of whether or not you are one of them. There are still Democrats who win in places like coal country, but they frequently do so by pairing a central, die-hard commitment to working people with a cultural conservatism that’s reflective of their communities. While these Democrats do not fit the profile of the national Democratic Party, they should not be considered any less of a “real Democrat” than those who check all the cultural boxes but sell out working Americans to Wall Street. If we want to win, if we want to govern, if we want to do the morally right thing by fighting for a life of dignity for every citizen of this country, voters must know that when it comes to fighting for the great American working and middle class, we will never waver.

These changes in philosophy, leaders, and approach are radical. As I lay out in Reversing the Apocalypse, we must offer a new economic compact and embrace new leaders in order to win again. I know none of this is easy, however the alternative of leaving our nation vulnerable to another treasonous enemy of the state is unacceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear that our own President colluded with the Kremlin in an act of war against our country. How will we respond? In October of 2016, Hillary Clinton told New York Times writer Mark Leibovich that she was “the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” The apocalypse has arrived.  Now we must not only do the essential work of resistance, we must also lay the groundwork to ensure that if we manage to reverse this particular apocalypse, another does not arrive in its wake. If we succeed, we will provide a model for the world to defeat their own Trumps and create an inclusive prosperity. As unlikely as it seems, the Democratic party just may be our last best hope to save the world.

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