Trump Won Because Democrats Have Lost Touch With the Working Class

The Republican nominee tapped into the anger, pain and fear that motivated voters this election.

Marilyn Katz November 9, 2016

Too many people feel left behind—by the economy, Washington and by broad changes in the culture. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Like all pro­gres­sives, I take no joy in the rise to pow­er of a man who trad­ed on xeno­pho­bia, racism, misog­y­ny and fear to pave a path to the White House. But I was not sur­prised by his vic­to­ry. Attacked by my friends for being a nabob of neg­a­tiv­i­ty,” I have long believed that Don­ald Trump could win.

"We must go beyond the borders of our cities and beyond the easy coalitions we’ve relied on if we want to build the kind of mass politics that we know are best for our families, our nation and the fate of the earth."

More than a year ago, I wrote about how Oreo cook­ie mak­er Mon­dolez Inter­na­tion­al planned to ship jobs from Chica­go to Mex­i­co, osten­si­bly, to save mon­ey. I called for a boy­cott. I appealed to elect­ed offi­cials, friends, oth­er Democ­rats, unions and oth­ers. None responded.

But hun­dreds of thou­sands of ordi­nary peo­ple did and, to my hor­ror and sur­prise, so did Trump. It was more than trou­bling that only Trump saw the shut­down of an icon­ic Amer­i­can com­pa­ny as an issue that mer­it­ed atten­tion. It was in that moment I knew he could win. 

How could both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the self-appoint­ed left ignore an issue that not only deprived His­pan­ic and African-Amer­i­can work­ers of well-pay­ing jobs that sup­port­ed their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, but was also a vivid indi­ca­tor of a process — glob­al­iza­tion — that has eat­en away at the core of the nation’s work­ing class?

Trump’s chances grew even more appar­ent to me dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son, as it became clear just how out of touch the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was from the work­ing class. Could Bernie Sanders have best­ed Trump? I’m not cer­tain but I do think, as do many oth­ers, that he was far more in touch with the anger, pain and fear that moti­vat­ed vot­ers this elec­tion. Too many peo­ple feel left behind — by the econ­o­my, Wash­ing­ton and by broad changes in the culture.

How did this hap­pen? One fac­tor in par­tic­u­lar stands out to me: Both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the left have giv­en up/​ abandoned/​ lost touch with the work­ing class.

It was easy to do. As demo­graph­ics changed, Democ­rats and the left were able to cob­ble togeth­er coali­tions of urban­ites, women, African-Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos that won elec­tions with slim plu­ral­i­ties. While I have always been a crit­ic of Todd Gitlin’s and oth­ers cri­tique of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, it may be true that the left aban­doned the fun­da­men­tals of class pol­i­tics and drift­ed into the com­fort of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, mis­tak­ing the abil­i­ty to mobi­lize a slim plu­ral­i­ty for real pow­er, at its peril.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this ten­den­cy to reach out and talk to only those with whom we are most com­fort­able has been exac­er­bat­ed by the vote-tar­get­ing tools devel­oped dur­ing Barack Obama’s elec­toral vic­to­ries and laud­ed by the tech­nocrats who now con­trol cam­paigns. Rather than strate­gies that focus on new con­stituen­cies and per­sua­sion, today’s cam­paigns are built on iden­ti­fy­ing and tar­get­ing a much more nar­row band of vot­ers already most like­ly to vote for a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date — pro­vid­ing a short-term win per­haps, but one with dire long-term consequences.

We are in for a dif­fi­cult period.

Our cities are diverse and will remain bas­tions of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. But right-wing Repub­li­cans will now con­trol all branch­es of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and the major­i­ty of states. We must go beyond the bor­ders of our cities and beyond the easy coali­tions we’ve relied on if we want to build the kind of mass pol­i­tics that we know are best for our fam­i­lies, our nation and the fate of the earth.

Mar­i­lyn Katz is a writer, con­sul­tant, pub­lic pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ca­tions strate­gist and long-time polit­i­cal activist. She is pres­i­dent of MK Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a part­ner in Democ­ra­cy Part­ners and a founder and co-chair of the new­ly formed Chica­go Women Take Action.
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