Why did Trump win? Many liberal intellectuals who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, like Paul Krugman, blame the Republican Party. Many left intellectuals who supported Bernie Sanders, like Thomas Frank (author of Listen, Liberal), blame the Democratic Party.
Neither party-blaming claim is entirely convincing. They both ignore the crosscutting identities and sometimes conflicting interests that weaken the Democratic coalition.
Like many of my friends, I wish that Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination. But he didn’t, and we should think longer and harder about why.
In Frank’s account, “Democratic leaders” chose Clinton. If my memory serves me right, primary voters also chose her. I find it hard to believe that the party establishment is as hegemonic as Frank implies. Establishment Republicans obviously lacked the power to sandbag Trump. Establishment Democrats threw some sand at the Sanders campaign, but they did not have the power to sink it on their own.
Sanders’ failures had deeper roots. He never won enough support from black or Hispanic voters, key components of the Democratic coalition. One could argue that he deserved such support on the basis of a clearly articulated socialist politics and his progressive voting record in the Senate. But in his eagerness to hammer the income inequality nail, he put relatively little emphasis on race and gender discrimination, police violence, immigration or family policy. He also did not align himself with the popular Obama presidency, as Hillary Clinton did. As a result, he failed to get much visibility with voters of color or to explicitly mobilize women.
What would have happened to Sanders’ support among non-college-educated white voters if he had spoken out more clearly on issues of race, immigration and gender? We don’t know the answer to this question. But Trump’s popularity suggests that many non-college-educated white voters are comfortable with racist and misogynist views; they might have been turned off had Sanders articulated an explicitly progressive alternative.
Frank also fails to mention the gender and racial differences that marked the presidential vote. Exit polls show that Trump won men 53% to Clinton’s 41%; Clinton won women by 54% to Trump’s 42%. The racial differences carried even more wallop: Trump won only 8% of the black vote to Clinton’s 88%. Gender and race intersected in predictable ways: Clinton carried 93% of black women, but only 80% of black men.
Support for Trump cannot be boiled down to populist dissatisfaction with neoliberal economic policies, although that is one factor. Many groups within the American electorate define their political interests in terms that depart from the traditional left emphasis on income, wealth and class.
We need to ask why these divisions persist and how they might be overcome, even if the answers we find undermine preconceived notions of class solidarity: Many whites, for example, resent public policies that benefit low-income people of color. And many men don’t like the prospect of taking orders from a successful older woman.
The left wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (among others), offers a small but crucial bulwark against the coming Republican onslaught.
This bulwark needs help overcoming political divisions based not just on class but on race, ethnicity, citizenship and gender. It needs a strategy for political coalition-building that goes beyond mere contempt for establishment liberals.