Just think of how when you listen to young kids on the playground, the words you frequently hear are, “My turn, my turn.”
Democrats are fond of playing identity politics. “Back then” it used to be blue-collar workers, farmers, immigrants and even small businesses. As we moved past the New Deal, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt it became African-Americans. Ms. Roosevelt also helped to clarify that women would be an important constituency of Democrats.
As the 1960s moved to the present, the quiltwork of Democrats came to include the elderly, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and urban professionals. Demographers and pollsters loved to slice and dice the populations and Democrats have always felt that the way to win the game is to have the greatest number of puzzle pieces in their pile.
But every time that a group gained its own recognition as a political force, it meant that another piece was taken from the core of “we.” Who was left behind without an identity?
The answer is that those left behind were those with whom no one else wanted to be associated. By a process of elimination, that became white men, particularly those who were neither economically well off or well educated. There were also the women who broke bread with them and shared a bed at night. What these people lacked was a source of pride around which they could rally. Virtually everyone else had left them.
These people may have been considered red necks, but that identity only went as far as niche TV or music; not an open political force. In fact, many of these people did not and do not hold more prejudice than the rest of us. But there was still a certain shame about them. The went about doing their business and when it became time to vote, they often did it with anger and disdain.
George Wallace tapped into them in the 1960s and 70s. Richard Nixon did as well. Nixon called them the “silent majority” and indeed they were a big part of those who gave him a near majority in 1968 and a real majority in 1972.
But when it came to the Democrats identifying these voters as a constituency, there was always a certain reluctance. The chic thing to do was to have the educated, the “people on the move,” women, and ethnic minorities at the vanguard of the coalition.
The low point for the Democrats may have been 1984 and 1988 when their candidates, no matter how well-intentioned, were boring white men. Something had to change. By 1992, the party had Bill Clinton who would be considered by some to be America’s “first black president.” That mythology broke the log-jam.
Two more not-so-exciting white men did not fare well for the Democrats in 2000 and 2004. Then the Democrats started playing “my turn” politics for real in 2008 and 2012 with Barack Obama and 2016 with Hillary Clinton (who came in a close second for the nomination in 2008). By 2020, it will have been sixteen years since a white male will have been the Democratic nominee for president.
For those forgotten Americans (and we’re still looking for a better name for them. You can help us with our informal poll by voting here.), the celebrations for Barack Obama and the breaking the glass ceiling with Hillary Clinton may have just been too much. They used to think that all the turns were theirs. Now they wonder if their turn will ever come again with the Democrats.
This does not mean that Democrats need to go back to nominating white men. What it does mean is that the “forgotten Americans” who voted for Trump need to be as tightly woven into the fabric of the Democratic party as any other group. They can’t just be the “left-behinds” or “them.” First, Democrats need to come up with a respectable name for them; then Democrats need to get beyond hating them and finally Democrats need to embrace them along with every other group.