Each of our parties is acting crazy, thanks to its own elites. The Republicans are acting crazy thanks to the narcissism and entitlement of the right-leaning business and professional classes. The Democrats are acting crazy thanks to racial politics—specifically, the angry racial politics of upper-middle-class white liberals.
One irony of recent American politics is that the exodus of wage-earning whites from the Democratic party has tended to make the rump of white Democratic voters more affluent, better educated, and more doctrinaire leftist. According to Pew, about 35 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners are white “solid liberals.”
Solid liberals are left-of-center on both economic and social issues, and they are pessimistic about American society. One presumes that they are pessimistic about other people in American society. The solid liberals are also the best educated and most affluent segment of the Democratic party’s factions.
The weakness of solid liberals is that they are electorally nothing, absent alliances with less affluent, less ideologically rigid, and less secular groups. This creates all kinds of complications. The largely white and affluent solid liberals are notionally egalitarian and opposed to white privilege, but they include many of the most privileged whites in America. How can they participate in a coalition that is largely poorer, less educated, and darker-skinned than they are, while maintaining their comfortable position (both economically and socially)?
One solution would be for them not to maintain their privileged position, but instead to prioritize the interests of the poorer, less secular, and more moderate parts of their coalition. But that hasn’t happened so far. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics opposes increasing immigration, but their position is entirely unrepresented in the Democratic party. It seems possible that the Democrats will throw away a winnable Senate seat in Alabama because they have nominated a pro-abortion extremist against a Republican who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and ephebophilia (probably better that you don’t look that up).
Even ten years ago, Democrats were willing to nominate candidates who were culturally conservative (or at least willing to pretend to be culturally conservative) in order to replace conservative Republicans with somewhat-more-liberal Democrats. What changed?
The first thing was the alleged coming of the “emerging Democratic majority,” which was supposed to be brought about by demographic change and a larger nonwhite share of the electorate. This Democratic majority has been a little late in arriving, but that isn’t the only important part of the story.
Many liberal whites wanted to be rid of the culturally conservative, economically liberal, working-class white voters whom Democrats had courted in the previous decade. Upper-middle-class whites were embarrassed by these people. After all these centuries of white privilege, they never managed to get into a good school—or even a state college—and now they were making demands about trade and immigration.
One of the themes that emerges from Shattered (a chronicle of the Clinton campaign) is that the Clinton operation didn’t want to make a strong play for working-class white voters in swing states. The Clintonites thought these voters were disposable. It was left to Barack Obama to point out that he had done better than Clinton in many heavily working-class white areas, because he had done those voters the courtesy of treating them as though they were as important as any other American.
In one sense, it was easy for Obama. He didn’t risk being called a racist by playing to working-class whites. This is the dilemma facing affluent white liberals: They want to lead a coalition in favor of equality, but their identity places them under suspicion.
And they do want to lead. Hilary Clinton’s slogan was “I’m with Her.” That is why the loudest yelps about white privilege come from pale-skinned students at the most expensive liberal arts colleges. The strategy is to make the bad whites a justification for the privilege and power of the good, solidly liberal whites. See? We are using our position to make America a better place (and living rather well in the meantime).
This helps explain the biggest rhetorical difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama’s rhetorical vision included all but the most right-wing of Americans. Millions of working-class whites felt that Obama was talking about them, too, when he said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
And many of those same Americans knew that Hillary Clinton was talking about them when she ranted about the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” deplorables.
The Trump administration, for all of its obnoxiousness, seems most to have irritated affluent white liberals, rather than the nonwhite and relatively poor who are supposedly Trump’s great targets. Part of this is ideology, of course, since affluent white liberals are the most extreme segment of the Democratic coalition. But part of it is the rage of a privileged class.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.
Photo by Lorie Shaull via Creative Commons. Image cropped.