One of the lessons of the presidential defeat of the Democrats in 2016 is that Hillary Clinton paid minimal attention to the voters who “had no identity.” We’re actually talking about those who are not part of the mosaic of the identity politics that has become fundamental to the Democratic Party ever since the 1960s.
These people excluded from the mosaic are often known as white, sometimes as poor whites, or even as angry whites. But Donald Trump took a page out of George Wallace and Richard Nixon’s playbook in 1968 and referred to them as “forgotten Americans.” There is nothing demeaning about that and it has the cachet of other identity groups of including a victim status.
But there was a time when the so-called forgotten Americans were in the political tent of the Democratic Party. It was a time when identity was based more on economic well-being rather than ethnic identity. It was at the time that Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932 and he saw that the route to getting America moving again was not trickle-down economics, but rather priming the pump from the bottom. Having the government be the distributor of income to those who were poor was much more efficient and effective than leaving it to unrestrained capitalists. In fairness to Republicans, it must be said that FDR’s distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt took many steps in his 1901-1909 presidency to curb the abuses of unbridled capitalists.
In his book Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank argues that the Democratic Party has gotten away from its roots as champions of the economically oppressed and become much more concerned about protecting professional classes and ethnic minorities. He wisely points out that there is no logical reason to exclude the “forgotten Americans” from the coalition except that they are an easy punching bag for professionals and minorities. “Forgotten Americans” and those who speak on their behalf are constant fodder for late-night comedians and elitists elsewhere in our society.
Democrats seem to have learned part of the lesson. They are making more of an effort to “talk the talk;” to include “forgotten Americans” in their lists of special interest groups. This is not without difficulty for Democrats. As Thomas Franks points out in his previous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, “forgotten Americans” are concerned about something besides the economic considerations that were so fundamental to the New Deal and even the Great Society. They have become joined at the hip with so-called “values issues.” Barack Obama may have summed it up best at a time when he thought that he was off-the-record, and he talked about those Americans who “cling to God and their guns.”
What would help Democrats would be if their leaders would do more of “walking the walk” with those among us, of any ethnicity, who are getting short-changed. For Democratic leaders such as Obama and Hillary Clinton, this could mean going back to their roots – what they did in their twenties.
Barack Obama was a community organizer. He walked the streets on the south side of Chicago where tenants were being taken advantage of by the Housing Authority. On a daily basis, he worked with the very people that the New Deal Democratic Party wanted to help.
Certainly, Barack Obama is entitled to a break after the stresses of the presidency, particularly with the vitriolic hate of Republicans like Mitch McConnell. But does there come a time when Obama can step away from the life of fund-raisers and hobnobbing with the likes of Richard Branson and instead live in a world where he is closer to the people who are most in need of the Democratic Party.
In her twenties, Hillary Clinton worked for the Children’s Defense Fund and also as an attorney for the Senate Watergate Committee. She was clearly in the legal trenches for those who were oppressed. Her “Goldwater Girl” days were long past, and she was a champion for social justice.
It is not unprecedented for a former president or presidential candidate to get back in the trenches. Look no further than Plains, Georgia and Jimmy Carter.
What would it say, what would it mean to the Democratic Party and those who run with under its banner if Barack Obama spent a couple of days a month knocking on the doors of economically depressed people and used his legal skills to provide protection for them? What would it mean if Hillary Clinton argued cases for the Children’s Defense Fund?
It would be interesting if Obama and Clinton re-acquainted themselves with “the other America,” if even on a limited basis. The message to Democrats should be that our constituents include everyone, and we never should be above being with “the people.”