Since the harrowing, soul-crushing Democratic defeat in the 2016 elections (and ever since), liberals have been desperately wracking their beleaguered brains trying to devise a strategy to reclaim any modicum of control before the 2018 election cycle. Triumphantly, they announced their new platform, “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” thinking they had seized upon a guaranteed win. I beg to differ.
The new platform revolves around three principal aims: “(1) Raise the wages and incomes of American workers and create millions of good-paying jobs; (2) Lower the costs of living for families; (3) Build an economy that gives working Americans the tools to succeed in the 21st Century.” In short, their plan is to court white working class voters. The party appears to have assessed its electoral failures to be the result of focusing too much on “identity politics” and framing too many issues in terms of social justice, rather than concentrating on the economic woes of the middle class.
And so, they’ve removed references to race, religion, immigration, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, even SES/class from the new platform. (Don’t worry, A Better Deal still explicitly promises to “make it a national priority to bring high-speed Internet to every corner of America” though. Y’know, the most urgent matters.)
Now, I’ll readily admit the Democratic establishment’s messaging on economic issues was perhaps subpar during the last election cycle, especially after they worked to push Bernie further and further off stage. But relegating “social justice” issues to some dark, dusty, forgotten corner of the attic until it’s a more convenient time to trot them out? That undermines the most fundamental values the Left purports to swear by.
The Democratic establishment is saying with A Better Deal, “people of color, religious minorities, women, LGBTQIA folk, immigrants, poor people, and other underprivileged communities: we value your vote and agree that you face some challenges in America today. But, please, for the sake of the greater good, we have to put your struggles on the back burner. It’s not that we don’t care, promise, it’s just that your struggles are… divisive. So we’ll focus on white working class concerns for now, and then once we win more elections, we’ll get back to you. Pinky swear, we will. Until then, remember to vote Democrat. K thx, bye.”
Not only does this egregiously belittle and denigrate the continued— and now intolerably heightened— threats to minority and underprivileged communities under the Trump administration, but it actively undermines social justice causes in the most duplicitous repudiation of the Left’s professed desire for a more egalitarian society.
“But wait!” you cry. “Economic justice is social justice! Once we fix growing income inequality, regulate Wall Street, and stop companies from outsourcing American jobs, it will naturally result in better conditions for minorities! And once we appease the white working class, even they will be more amicable to minority concerns!”
Now, I concede there are, for instance, some highly racialized aspects to many of our most pressing economic concerns. We can see it in the way that impoverished communities are disproportionately communities of color and the continuing wage gap. Economic and racial justice are, most certainly, inextricably tied. But economic justice is not enough for racial justice. As Senator Elizabeth Warren said in 2015, calling upon the doctrine of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Economic justice is not — and has never been — sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross on the front lawn.” Making the argument that just addressing the economy will also solve racism is much the same as claiming that a colorblind worldview will solve racial problems: “if we ignore race, then racial disparities will melt away of their own accord.” But the thing is impoverished people of color face different, unique challenges from impoverished white people (that’s the whole principle of intersectionality, y’all), and if you don’t address the very real effects of compounded inequality you simply cannot achieve a just, egalitarian society.
And that intersectional, inclusive, holistic understanding of egalitarian justice is now more necessary than ever in Trump’s America. Marginalized communities are under attack from all sides; no one’s been spared. From Trump’s deafening silence on hate crimes to his apparent endorsement of police brutality, and from his continued insistence on the Muslim ban to his newly found insistence on the Trans Military ban, one thing is indisputably clear: this is not the time for the Left to distance itself from social justice causes.
Many political scientists and pundits are speculating that the key questions of the 21st century are “who belongs?” and “who is an American?”, and Trump is making it increasingly clear that, for him, women, immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, the poor, and LGBTQIA folk, among others, have no place in his vision of America.
But the thing is, with this Better Deal platform, those communities don’t have much of a place in the Democrats’ vision of America either. Suggesting that the concerns of marginalized communities can wait for a later, more convenient date ignores the aforementioned threats to those communities. And in the meanwhile— while Democrats are focused on “more important things”— people are literally dying. This whole idea of “waiting until a more convenient time” is antithetical to social progress. It’s not neutral, it’s actively harmful. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” MLK wrote:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
And when the Left starts to actively hinder social justice causes like this, it has turned its back on those high and mighty principles of egalitarianism and progressive justice that it has long promised voters. Democrats love scorning the GOP for calling itself the party of “family values,” pointing out all the hypocritical ways the Right then turns its back on those same values. But with this erasure of so many social justice concerns from the Democratic platform, the Left is no better. It has abdicated any semblance of moral high ground it might have once held.
Look, I can understand the desperation behind this new approach. The Left is scrambling to try to present a unified front in the face of its crippling 2016 defeat. I get that. But the Left has also repeatedly turned away every effort to embrace a more progressive agenda in favor of the same establishment views that led to that defeat in the first place. When Hillary beat Bernie in the primaries but then tried to pick up some of his more radical positions to court his voters, the Democratic party should have realized, right then and there, that rather than trying to become a moderate party, it needed to move further left. And yet, when the Democrats had the option of taking that step by selecting Keith Ellison to be party chair, they doubled down on the centrist wishy-washiness and went with Tom Perez. And this Better Deal is more of the same. But the Democrats for whatever reason expect different results. So my sympathy is wearing thin.
Even if we set aside the moral principles that cause me to be viscerally repulsed by this Better Deal, from a purely pragmatic standpoint this platform is not going to hand Democrats electoral victories by winning over white working class voters. It’s not that easy. The Left screwed up in the 2016 cycle when it basically handed that demographic over to the GOP by not opposing Trump’s populist messaging; and creating this milktoast, watered-down version of populist economics after the fact isn’t going to suddenly change that. And, quite frankly, white working class voters aren’t likely to choose this populist vision of economics when the GOP’s is still so potent. As Michelle Cottle wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s “cruel fantasy, scapegoating certain groups to fuel false hope in others [is] such a soothing, satisfying bedtime story for many Americans that it’s almost irresistible.” Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution, told Cottle, “the Democrats’ Better Deal can’t compete at a rhetorical level with Trump’s Make America Great Again.” Simply put, A Better Deal isn’t compelling messaging. Without concurrently advocating for things like an end to for-profit private prisons, reproductive health rights, and more grants to help people of color and the poor go to school that would set the Left’s populism apart, the Democratic Better Deal simply can’t compete.
And there’s another reason A Better Deal is very pragmatically setting up the Left to fail: it’s taking minority voters for granted. Under this new platform, voters from marginalized communities feel invisible. Democrats are so sure that the GOP vision of the US is so off-putting that they don’t feel the need to court minority votes at all. Basically, the Democrats are so sure that I won’t risk the ability to see my family overseas again by voting Republican, that they don’t think they need to appeal to me at all. Again, I’ll ask, did the Democrats learn anything from 2016? Remember how Hillary was so sure she would carry Blue states that she didn’t bother visiting a bunch of them? And remember how they went to Trump after that? Just saying the other guy’s worse and then resting on your laurels isn’t guaranteeing victory. I want to vote for something I believe in; I don’t want to vote for the Left just because the other side wants to kill me. Democrats— instead of taking minority votes as a given— need to fear the very real threat that if voters feel like the best they can do is choose the slightly lesser of two evils, then they won’t show up to the ballot box at all. Or they’ll risk it on a third party candidate. The Left has to present a convincing image of a more egalitarian society that will protect the rights of its base and continuously demonstrate its commitment to justice if it wants to retain minority votes.
If Democrats really want to learn from 2016, move forward, and wrest control from Trump and his cronies, they have to do better than A Better Deal. Ignoring social justice concerns in a hypocritical betrayal of their promise for egalitarian justice, offering a pale vision of populist economics, and taking the votes of their base for granted isn’t going to win Democrats more elections. It’s handing the election over to the GOP on a silver platter.