This election Democrats blew their populist message with the working class. Many are calling for the Party to focus an economic message that prioritizes the interests of rural working class whites. They say it should not cater agendas to women, people of color and other groups. Calls to propel a vision to uplift economically distressed voters through a color-blind lens is misguided. It’s the wrong lessons to learn from this election.
After their historic loss, Democrats should shine a light on the racially coded language Republicans have been using to divide the country and pummel public programs to lift all people up. To tackle the economic anxiety gripping the nation, Democrats must elevate topics of racism and xenophobia in order to address issues surrounding class and economic dislocation.
Trump’s ascendency to the Oval Office is a culmination of a half century of Republican dog whistling their agendas to divide working people based on racial lines. While Trump has been incoherent in much of his views, his Administration is producing predictable officials and lobbyists to usher in an agenda that strangles government’s ability to uplift low-income and middle class Americans.
Republican Strategist Lee Atwater famously coined a way for conservatives to win elections in the Deep South and drive agendas to pull in white voters and limit government’s reach. Trump exploited these methods, expanding Atwater’s electoral map.
Trump sold his populist agenda by railing against free trade and elites from both parties being out of touch. He brought out resentment and division amongst low-income people of all stripes. He casts undocumented Mexican immigrants looking to escape street violence and poverty as rapists and drug cartel kingpins. He called for a sweeping ban of asylum seekers from Syria and war torn nations in the Middle East. He began a birther movement to delegitimize President Obama. Donald Trump took a page from the Republican playbook, riding racially divisive rhetoric to win enough white votes to take the White House.
For years, Republicans punched down to move up, advancing austerity by stoking people’s prejudices and fears. As Republicans champion big business and freedom they pushed large tax cuts for the rich and helping their donors and business friends with perks. They slashed spending for reproductive health services, higher education, and our safety-net. Billionaires like Donald Trump are immune to the direct impacts of these divestments. Such proposals have and continue to rob us of our future.
Republicans cast safety-net programs for mostly slothful, unpatriotic people of color. When President Ronald Reagan attacked welfare and family assistance programs as programs abused by ‘welfare queens’, he invoked images of unemployed single black mothers living off the government dole. By painting this racially charged image on the program, he pummeled its universal support.
The frontrunner to be our next Secretary of State, 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, presented an America of takers and makers. He complained that half of America don’t pay taxes but want the rich to pay for their food, housing, education, health care and overall wellbeing. This view is wrong. Among those that don’t pay federal taxes, 61 percent pay payroll taxes. These folk had jobs. Because of Jim Crow and exclusive immigration laws, many people of color are poor. Some rely on public assistance. Romney casts them as unworthy people dependent on the very rich to pay for their cots to sleep in.
Ironically, programs to help the very displaced workers that sent Trump to the White House are starved for resources because Republicans slashed funding for public universities, community colleges, workforce development, and apprentice programs to improve their stake. Some Republicans still advance trade deals that prioritize multinational firms’ interests over ordinary people. While Trump has pivoted away from that strain his economic agenda certainly hasn’t. His plans and programs will hurt workers.
Republicans have made it appear that the only people that stand to benefit from government and public investments are low-income people of color requesting a handout. Public investments support the needs of an entire populace to secure their financial footing and invest in our children’s future.
To be sure, Democrats have dog whistled their way to win elections. They have pivoted their main allegiances away from average people and organized labor. The Democratic establishment caters too much to campaign bundlers, Silicon Valley tycoons, and Wall Street executives.
Democrats should prop up the nation we are becoming and not the one in the rear view. Progressives can unite around an opposition agenda that embraces rather than shuns diversity.
They should present an agenda that champions progressive solutions and welcomes immigrants, refugees and programs to uplift and protect our vulnerable. This message appeals to all voters, no matter what community they belong.
Republicans have played a key role in destroying our faith in institutions and a widely held belief that ‘we’ truly are ‘the people’ in our multi-racial democracy. It’s vital Democrats organize and counter Republicans’ efforts now. America’s working families are in for some hard times and need an ally. And fast.
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