Thanks to Donald Trump it seems very likely that the White House will stay in Democratic hands.
Additionally, the Republicans could lose control of the United States Senate and will likely lose seats in the House of Representatives if Trump loses as badly as some polls and other indicators suggest he might on November 8.
In this context, Democrats should be celebrating wildly, one would think. Well, in the short term, provided that the party collectively doesn’t take anything for granted and fights with everything it has for the next couple of months, 2016 should be a very good election year for Democrats. For the same party to hold the presidency for three consecutive terms is itself significant.
At the same time, the picture isn’t entirely rosy. The reality is that Republicans control a solid majority of governorships and state legislatures, as well as both houses of the Congress. This is a by-product of the overarching challenges facing the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party has become a party primarily of the East and West coasts and of the upper Midwest. It has an advantage in presidential election years when the turnout of racial minorities and young people is higher and, therefore, is well-placed to eke out victories in perennial battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida and, to a lesser extent, Ohio. Other states with shifting demographics, such as Virginia and Colorado, are also more favorable to the party in elections with higher voter turnout than they once were.
A lot of these people were made to feel unwelcome in a party that has shifted well to the social and cultural left and, some would say, endorsed identity politics. Those whose religious conviction helps shape their political conscience have been put off by the party’s liberal stances on abortion, marriage equality and the relationship between church and state. Disadvantaged white voters also question why racial minorities should receive favorable treatment when it comes to accessing higher education and employment.
In spite of these dramatic differences in perspective, the Democratic Party always made the case that it better addressed the economic concerns of these Americans insofar as it has always advocated for labor unions and stood against the corporate greed that so often emanates from “big business and Wall Street.” And the party traditionally adopted a more skeptical posture about the use of American military force, mindful that “Middle America” has typically been disproportionately affected by foreign wars and conflicts.
But it can be argued that Hillary Clinton, at least judging by her past votes and rhetoric on trade and military interventionism, effectively abandoned these Americans. While moving ever leftward on social and cultural issues in response to the demands of well-financed special interest groups and individual constituencies, countless other Democrats have, too.
Although he is a flawed messenger, Donald Trump is speaking directly and appealing to middle to lower middle class, white men and women, who once found a natural home in the Democratic Party, in a way that the GOP’s two presidential nominees before him, John McCain and Mitt Romney, did not. Some more politically adroit Republicans are also doing so – and are managing to build political bridges, not tear them down, in the process.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean articulated the problem the Democrats have with so many white Americans when he awkwardly claimed that “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” while running for president in 2004. He could have said it much better, but Governor Dean had a point.
His party needs to take it on board for what remains of the current campaign and in future. Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine (US Senator from Virginia), was an ideal choice because he is a moderate with an unblemished electoral record in a swing state where there are plenty of pickup trucks and Confederate flags. He should be deployed accordingly in the coming weeks. Bob Casey Jr. (US Senator from Pennsylvania), Joe Donnelly (US Senator from Indiana) and John Bel Edwards (Governor of Louisiana) – and their fellow moderate to conservative Democrats – have parts to play as well.
If the Democrats continue to alienate men and women whose loyalty they once enjoyed, they, like the GOP, may allege that theirs is a “big tent,” but in truth, it will still be an inhospitable place for millions of Americans. That’s not right. And it’s not good politics.
* Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist for IrishCentral.com and TheJournal.ie.