Monday, November 27, 2017

If Serwer and Coates Are Right about American Voters, We're Doomed. Good Thing They're Not!

The latest jeremiad on how racist American voters are--and how economics has absolutely nothing to do with the Trump phenomenon--comes in Adam Serwer's widely-read Atlantic article, "The Nationalist's Delusion". That's coming on top of Ta-Nehisi Coates' even more polemical--and very influential--book, We Were Eight Years in Power, which anoints Donald Trump as "America's first white president". In my view, these authors profoundly misunderstand American politics and American voters and have almost nothing useful to say about how the left can move forward in the current period. 

David Atkins of the Washington Monthly shares my impatience with the racial reductionism practiced by these and other authors and has just posted a very good critique of their arguments in a new article, "Democrats Should Reject the Defeatism of Serwer and Coates". It's worth quoting at length.
Donald Trump is a stone cold racist. So are most of his supporters. These facts are incontrovertible, and no realistic analysis of the current state of political affairs can be written without acknowledging them up front.
Unfortunately, those realities have led many intelligent analysts to overinterpret the results of the 2016 election in ways that give too little credit to the majority of Americans, too much credit to center-left electoral strategies, and foster an unwarranted attitude of resignation and defeatism. The fact that Donald Trump and most of his supporters are prejudiced bigots does not absolve the Clinton campaign of its mistakes, nor does it mean that a greater focus on class politics and core economics would have been useless against Trumpism. Far from it. Pretending that Trump tapped into an irrepressible and invincible current of hatred is not only inaccurate, it also leaves progressives no actionable options for winning the country back and repairing the damage.
"No actionable options". That is a very, very important point about this school of thought and I'm always amazed that many people on the left don't seem to understand this. I'm also amazed at how many people seem to have trouble understanding that voters have many different reasons for supporting a given candidate, including a candidate like Trump. Atkins notes:
[D]irect research with Obama-Trump voters has shown that Democrats have lost much credibility on economics with longtime Democratic voters, particularly in rural communities that in some cases flipped over 20 points from Obama to Trump and made the difference in toppling the Rust Belt firewall. Meanwhile, direct qualitative conversations with marginal Trump voters–not the hardcore racists that attend his rallies and make Pepe memes on twitter and alt-right subreddits, but the ones on the fence susceptible to persuasion until the end by Comey and Wikileaks–show again and again that they believed that Trump would at least make an attempt to bring the factory jobs back, reinvigorate their dying towns, and be immune to personal corruption due to his vast personal wealth. Voter suppression made a huge difference in reducing liberal and minority turnout in many of these states, but it doesn’t explain the collapse in Democratic persuasion efforts between 2012 and 2016 in formerly liberal nearly all-white communities.
And I think Atkins' conclusion on how the absurd, defeatist politics of Serwer and Coates must be rejected to move forward is exactly right:
Regardless of strategy, Democrats will no doubt do well in most places in 2018 and 2020 due to a motivated base angry and fearful of the Trump Administration, much as Republicans performed well in 2010 and 2014 after the elections of Obama. Such is our hyperpartisan era.
But in the tougher districts and states, and over a longer time horizon, there is a viable pathway for Democrats to win back many of the Obama voters who flipped to Trump and mobilize the less reliable elements of their coalition without sacrificing any ground on social justice.
If Coates and Serwer are right, then Democrats cannot succeed until rural white voters are somehow shamed out of their prejudices or until enough people of color and college-educated whites are mobilized to take their place. Neither event will happen anytime soon. But there is no need to wait. A more productive path forward is available. But it will require abandoning the defeatism of Serwer and Coates, and respecting the litmus tests of both social and economic progressives within the Democratic tent.

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