Democrats and their continued failure to address pseudo-populism

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 12:28pm

–

Joe Biden has won the presidential election, despite a rough election night and a win closer than pollsters originally thought. Exit polls that came after the election revealed some stunning statistics. CNN exit polls reported that from 2016 to now, the share of Democratic voters in Black men and women dropped 9%, Latina women dropped 5% and Latino men 8%. The number of Republicans increased by 2% among white women and dropped 8% among white men. Despite people of color and women still leaning Democratic, President Donald Trump over-performed with every demographic excluding whites.

Now, despite what late-night talk show hosts might say, this is the voters’ fault,  which is unfortunately a product of faults with Democrats. Trump has managed to appropriate the messages of populism by appealing to fear and convincing the white working class that their interests have been ignored by the ruling class. And, considering the exit polls, his coalition keeps growing more diverse. Don’t get me wrong, I voted for Biden and believe he was the lesser of both evils (although not the end goal). But the Democrats’ tepid neoliberalism plays right into the Republicans’ pseudo-populist messages and represents the abysmal state of class consciousness in the United States.

Dividing the working class was always a strategy of the wealthy. It’s not a radical theory that a divided enemy is easier to subjugate. An article by scholar Steven Schuman, published in 1989 in the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, states “Capitalism thrives on the creation of conflicting self-interests among fractions of the working class.” Racism has become a tool of the wealthy to divide working-class people: siccing them on each other instead of unifying them as a single group.

Black voters still overwhelmingly vote blue, but the margin has slightly narrowed. Some have attributed this failure of the Democrats to Trump’s advertising. Others have said that Democrats have lumped all people of color together, despite them being diverse and incredibly heterogeneous.

It’s a combination. This predicament is partly due to the Democrats’ failure to match the appeal of Trump’s pseudo-populism, ineffectively trying to recapture the working-class vote that has been manipulated by a demagogue. Democrats have failed to refute the idea that they represent nobody but the coastal, educated elite.

U.S. wages have stagnated for years, since the 1960s even. Reaganomics was an abject failure for the working class, shuffling money into the pockets of the wealthiest individuals. Reagan himself damaged Black Americans’ living conditions extensively, arguably more than any other president in modern history, with his upscaling of the War on Drugs and the destruction of inner-city urban neighborhoods. Reagan was also notoriously horrible for class unity, a dog whistler and even vetoed the extension of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. 

Unsurprisingly, Reagan is a president who closely mirrors lame-duck President Trump, the latter adopting a lot of the rhetoric of the former. Reagan was the first to use “Make America Great Again.” Reagan was an “outsider” to politics, someone who was more in tune with the ordinary man despite his fame as a star beforehand and his status as a wealthy elite. Sound familiar? And like Reagan, Trump’s populism resulted in more benefits for the wealthiest than the people who most needed government assistance. Under Trump’s tax cuts, the wealthy paid a lower rate than the lowest bracket, further worsening the trend of wealth stratification in the United States.

According to the World Inequality Database, in 2019, the top 1% had 18.7% of the pre-tax income in the U.S., and the bottom 50% had 13.5% of the pre-tax income. There’s an astronomical level of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Income inequality has increased greatly over the past couple of decades, the ratio of income between the 90th percentile and 10th percentile being 12.6. The ratio of income inequality in this country has grown 39% since 1980, and our Gini coefficient — a measure between 0 and 1 of the distribution of income across a population — is 0.434. The lower the coefficient, the better. For comparison, we are the highest among G-7 countries, the intergovernmental group of the world’s largest developed economies, which leaves us higher than almost all other developed nations. It greatly contrasts with the rhetoric Trump spews on the daily, making baseless promises to the working class.

With that in mind, it should be easy to point that out and sweep the working class vote. Yet, the stats don’t show that. Working class white people have more in common with working class Black people than they think.

Wages are stagnating all the same under the rule of the elites. Nationalized health care can benefit all low-income people. Bewilderingly, the states that vote red are ones that overwhelmingly benefit from the Affordable Care Act, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats should be able to convince these people to vote in their own interest. It really shouldn’t be hard. But the Democrats continue to fail at uniting the working class. They continue to play into the Republicans’ wishes to divide and conquer. 

The old guard of Democrats would rather keep it that way (Hillary’s old “deplorable” comment comes to mind). Both parties are beholden to the interests of capital, both taking massive amounts of money from donors through campaign funding and lobbying. But the Democrats have demonstrated some initiatives when it comes to class, like making steps toward better healthcare with the ACA and protecting reproductive rights, along with working toward goals like better education on a state-by-state basis. The Democrats can lay claim to many advances toward making the U.S. more equitable, but their incompetence in bridging gaps makes the failure of the pollsters’ prophecy of “blue waves” seem a bit more rational.

The Democrats haven’t done enough to erase the wider-than-ever class divide Reaganomics created. In many places, the will of Democratic voters has gone unacknowledged by their blue legislators. Some Democrats went against the ACA, filibustering against a public option. Sixteen Democrats voted to deregulate Wall Street from the policies that were instated after the financial crisis in 2008. There is no doubt the wealthy influences a party that has long claimed to represent the working class. The internal strife between the neoliberal and progressive wing should say enough about whether or not the Democratic Party is working for the average American. There is more work to do.

So, what’s my point, exactly? Democrats need to consolidate their ranks in favor of more progressive policies. Populism has become a buzzword since Trump was elected, and Democrats need to understand that it’s sometimes used as a tool. They need to make efforts to refute their standing as urban elites. They need to follow through on their promises and unite a disparate country. Changes need to be made, to make sure the people who’ve had their lives ruined by corporatism and greed get retribution. Joe Biden’s presidential platform looks promising, despite my cynicism. I wish it went further on police reform, and on student debt, but it’s leagues better than what preceded it.

However, the talk about a coalition with Mitch McConnell worries me. One might as well let Dick Cheney dictate foreign policy. The threat of a return to status quo looms over Biden. But I hope my qualms are squashed for the sake of the party, and for the sake of this country.

Sam Fogel can be reached at samfogel@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.