Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently stated at a New York fundraiser: “You can put half of Donald Trump’s supporters into what I call a basket of deplorables.” While she was referring to the most extreme Trump supporters, her characterization is an exhibition of why Democrats are losing white blue-collar voters, some of whom share the economic populism of the Democratic Party.
Members of the Democratic high command are often befuddled as to why these voters are not a core part of the Democratic constituency. They believe that white blue-collar voters that support GOP candidates are voting antithetical to their own economic interests. Yet Jason Miller, a Trump Communications advisor, pointed directly to the problem the Democrats have by stating that Clinton “revealed her true contempt for everyday Americans.”
The Republicans have been successful in framing a master narrative of their Democratic counterparts as cultural and intellectual elitists who look down upon bourgeoisie America. Less relevant than the candidate’s personal wealth and background is their perceived attitude toward voters without college educations. Trump has become a tribune of white blue-collar workers, despite a patrician pedigree.
Trump is channeling the rhetoric of Republican Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Richard M. Nixon who directly asked for the support of “the silent majority.” He uses Nixon’s terminology in calling for “law and order.” Like Nixon, Trump is a populist on economic issues. Both men appealed to white working-class voters.
It was Nixon who declared: “The time is at hand to bring comprehensive, high-quality health care within the reach of every American.” In addition, he instituted wage and price controls, and raised the federal minimum wage. Trump, unlike most Republicans, pledges to “not touch entitlements,” harangues against free trade deals, and supports a federal raise in the minimum wage.
It was Nixon who exploited the undercurrent of virulence leveled at intellectual elites. In 1952, he was selected as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, in part for his anti-elitist persona. The Democratic Presidential nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, had an urbane aura about him and was not afraid to use big words while on the stump. His head was conveniently shaped like an egg. Nixon capitalized on this perfect storm by mocking Stevenson as an “egghead.” The term stuck to Stevenson.
Stevenson was cognizant that he could not win the election by relying on his fellow intellectuals. An enthusiastic supporter approached him and said: “Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you.” Stevenson replied: “Madam that is not enough. I need a majority.“ The quick-witted Stevenson averred: “Nixon is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump for a speech on conservation.” He also made light of his new handle by exclaiming: “Eggheads of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your yokes.”
During his own run for the Presidency in 1968, Nixon turned his Vice Presidential running mate, Spiro Agnew, out to excoriate the cultural elites. Agnew avowed: “Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the Government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!” In 1969, Vice President Agnew admonished: “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
In most Democratic primaries there is a candidate who garners most of their support from upscale members of the party. They are popular in Academia with cocktail partygoers and college students. The candidate is likely to emphasize his/her social inclusiveness, and speak in a professorial cadence. However, they fail to catch fire with white blue-collar voters. They are also usually countered by candidates whose target audience is blue-collar voters.
Intellectually-oriented Democratic candidates include Eugene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Mo Udall in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Bruce Babbitt in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008. Of those, only McGovern and Obama won the nomination.
McGovern, who pledged to end the war in Vietnam, could not extend his net beyond his base intellectual constituency from the primary. He was bashed in the General Election as the candidate of “Amnesty, Acid, and Abortion.” Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, a native Texan, gave a tepid endorsement, and did not campaign with him. He told his former aide Bobby Baker: “George McGovern? Why, he couldn’t carry Texas even if they caught Dick Nixon fu*** ng a Fort Worth sow.”
When Agnew campaigned in Charlotte, NC in 1972, and announced the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, Jesse Helms, protestors jeered. Helms got up to the podium and pointed to a group of young singers on the stage. Helms said: “Isn’t it nice that the majority of young people are represented by them instead of that [pointing to the protestors]. Helms then exclaimed: “And that one with the real long hair, that’s George McGovern.” The Republican crowd erupted in pandemonium. Despite hailing from a humble background and serving his country in WWll, McGovern was framed as out-of-touch with blue-collar voters.
Many Democrats distanced themselves from McGovern, or out of political necessity even endorsed his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. In fact, Nixon garnered 42% of the Democratic vote that year.
In 2008, Obama, a former Constitutional Law professor, was viewed by some in the Democratic Party as an elitist. This was more cultural than economic, as Obama was raised by a single mother and was not a product of opulence. Obama exasperated the elitist concern when he explained the mindset of dislocated workers at a San Francisco Fundraiser: “ They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” Primary rival Hillary Clinton, who is now trying to shed the elitist label, herself blasted Obama, contending: “If you want to be the president of all Americans, you need to respect all Americans.”
However, Obama was able to solidify support not just from upscale Democrats, but also from African-Americans and Independents to pocket the nomination.
Obama defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the General Election, competing on a political terrain hospitable to Democrats. The incumbent Republican President George W. Bush suffered from a dismal 28% job approval rating on Election Day.
With Obama being the exception, Democrats tend to win the Presidency when they can shed the elitist label. Lyndon B. Johnson did this by spending time on his Texas ranch. Jimmy Carter did this by teaching, emphasizing his roles as a veteran, peanut farmer, and Sunday school teacher, and Bill Clinton did this by accentuating his humble Arkansas roots.
John Judis, the author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed America and European Politics, maintains: “Much of Trump’s appeal lies in his opposition to trade pacts that put American workers in the position of competing with people in authoritarian countries who work at starvation wages.” Judis believes “Clinton could attract some of these voters by taking clear and compelling stands on economic issues.”
Former Democratic political operative Brian Miller candidly explains why he thinks many Democrats cannot shed the elitist label: “For the most part they are cultural elitists. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing for me to think I’m better than a lot of people. A lot of Democrats think the same way. It’s hard not to feel that way when you see a lot of the people at Trump rallies ignorantly screaming racist remarks and waving Confederate flags, blindly following this megalomaniac.”
Trump knows that white blue-collar voters will overlook his economic portfolio if they think he understands their values and needs rather than trying to imitate them.
Hillary Clinton played into Trump’s hands by calling half of his supporters “a basket of deplorables.” For Hillary to offset a galvanization of white blue-collar voters, it is incumbent upon her to recapture the support she once had with this critical constituency in 2008.
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