In recent years it seems that we’ve seen the ideological gap in this country transform into more of an ideological chasm; liberals and conservatives have both retreated into their respective corners and appear ready to duke it out for the foreseeable future. Yet the mere presence of such a stark ideological division does not necessarily mean that either of the two major political parties are in a position to take any votes for granted, a lesson that Democrats were forced to learn the hard way during this election.
Many Democratic strategists simply assumed that the same coalition that propelled President Barack Obama to two terms in the White House would do the same for Hillary Clinton, but it’s clear now that this was not the case. As the votes rolled in on election night and Democratic strongholds such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin flipped red for the first time in years, many disheartened liberals were left scratching their heads and wondering how their support could have splintered in such a dramatic fashion.
If there is one lesson to be learned from these defections, it is that the party must do a better job of appealing to working-class white voters going forward. While the Clinton campaign focused heavily on emphasizing Trump’s weaknesses and on promoting important social causes, the campaign lacked a strong economic message, which may have inevitably led to her downfall in the Midwestern states in which she faltered. The message of “Stronger Together” is certainly a lovely sentiment, but it seems to have done little to inspire blue-collar voters to go to the polls, as exit polls showed Donald Trump defeating Clinton by 30 points among whites with no college degree in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
It’s clear that for the party to succeed in the Rust Belt going forward, it will need to craft a strong economic message and dedicate a great deal of time and energy toward winning back many of the working-class white voters who decisively swung Republican this year. Strangely enough, the solution to this issue may in fact lie with the loser of the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders.
Despite being defeated by Clinton in the primary, it’s clear that the populist policies of Sanders struck a chord in the Midwest. By attacking free trade proposals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and stressing the unfairness of the current economic system, Sanders was able to pull off surprise victories in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As a result, in the aftermath of the general election, many Democrats have been forced to confront the uncomfortable question of whether or not the results would have been the same had Sanders been victorious during the primaries.
While this election has certainly humbled me into realizing that nothing can ever truly be known with certainty, it does appear that Sanders would have been more successful among the demographics that Clinton struggled with throughout the course of the election. With this in mind, the Democratic Party may believe that realigning their platform with Sanders and the progressive wing of the party offers the best chance to succeed in future elections. Not only would this shift toward more progressive policies aid in their courting of working-class white voters, but it would also greatly aid the party in attracting young voters, one in 10 approximately of which voted to elect a third-party candidate this year.
The support that Sanders received from young voters throughout the primary season is certainly well-documented, but the raw numbers are absolutely astonishing, as a study found that as of June, he had received more votes from voters under the age of 30 than both Trump and Clinton combined. The DNC is certainly aware of this phenomenon, as Clinton did, in fact, shift away from many of her centrist views and embrace more progressive policies throughout the course of the general election. As the party turns its attention to the next generation of potential Democratic voters, it seems plausible that they will begin to employ this strategy from the get-go in future elections and truly embrace progressive politics.
This is not to say that the Democratic Party must immediately distance itself from its more moderate positions, but rather that it needs to show tangible progress that it is working toward change within the party’s infrastructure. This progress is already beginning to reveal itself, as Tim Ryan has emerged to challenge Nancy Pelosi’s reign as the Democratic speaker of the House. While Ryan’s bid is certainly a long shot, the fact that he is even willing to challenge her in the first place represents a positive change in the eyes of many to what at times can seem like an oligarchic hold on positions of power within the party.
So, yes, this election is over. The ubiquitous attack ads will come to an end, the SNL spoofs will become less frequent and hopefully our political system will start to feel a little less like a never-ending episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and a little more like a functioning government (fingers crossed!). Yet for the Democrats, this election is only the beginning of a long period of soul-searching. The party must revamp its central message in order to appeal to the American working class, and must also find a way to energize the ever-growing number of liberal youths throughout the country. Unless party leaders are willing to commit to making wide-sweeping changes, and truly embracing the progressive policies that many Americans are clamoring for, the party could remain a minority for years to come.
Jeff Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.