The missing Democratic narrative

In the fall of 2015, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton discovered something disturbing: the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans—and only them—had sharply increased over the previous 15 years.  Most of this increase was from an alarming explosion in the number of suicides and “poisonings” from drug overdoses among this population.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was on his warpath toward the Republican nomination.  And he was winning heavily in the distressed communities that Case and Deaton studied, cleaning up in the counties with the highest middle-aged white mortality rates.  These places were littered with the skeletons of abandoned factories, but were ghost towns when it came to jobs and degrees.  The misery and desperation was ripe for Trumpism.

Case and Deaton had landed upon the most troubling and violent indication of what is a larger existential unease within much of the country.  Deaton speculated that these Americans had “lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress.”

Donald Trump became president-elect last week in part because he filled in that narrative with what had gone wrong.  For “the forgotten men and women of our country,” as he called them, who feel that they have been forcibly displaced from the American economy and society, Trump provided a story grounded in resentment and named culprits.  They’d been shafted by Washington elites cutting bad trade deals that ship jobs overseas, he told them.  They’d been cast aside for immigrants pouring over the border with drugs and crime, he warned.

This narrative aligned with what many people want to believe and what they see around them.  They see shuttered manufacturing sites that once employed thousands.  They see superstores where nothing is made in America or by Americans.  They see neighbors and family members consumed by opioids.  They see the lives of minorities and immigrants who “cut in line” ascending, while theirs languish.

Liberals can and should object to the honesty and intolerance embedded in Trump’s tale.  Yes, we’ve done too little to cushion workers from the dislocations of trade.  But neither Trump nor any other politician is bringing wide-scale manufacturing employment.  And while immigrants are an easy scapegoat, they have little impact on the wages or employment of native-born Americans.

Trump’s story is a manipulative con.  But it’s the only one that Americans were offered in this election.  Hillary Clinton did little to offer a competing narrative that spoke to the continuing anxieties and inequalities of millions of Americans.  For all the progressive policy ideas Clinton developed, she never synthesized them beyond the contentless message “Stronger Together.”  The reach of her campaign left her unable to develop a message with any specificity.  Hoping to rout Trump by a historic margin, she crafted a tent so big that it collapsed in on itself.

This has revealed a fundamental problem for Democrats.  For six years, the party has gotten walloped in virtually every national and state election  where Barack Obama’s name has not been on the ballot.  As he exits the national stage, the Democrats can no longer depend on his coattails.  They need to win by standing for something that connects with voters.

There is one clear narrative percolating within the Democratic Party.  And it’s coming from the party’s left flank.  Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are interpreting the election results as reflecting widespread frustration with an economy rigged by and for the wealthy and powerful.  In their version, there has been a thirty-five year project of deliberate government policy and tax cuts that redistributed money to the most well-off.  This hollowed out the programs, investments, and institutions that once upon a time created a thriving and secure American middle class.  The wealthy reached the highest rung of the social ladder and then pulled the ladder up behind them.

This too makes for a compelling story.  And there’s a good deal of truth to it.  The growth in inequality in the United States closely corresponds with the onset of the Reagan revolution and the shift toward supply-side economics.  At the same time Reagan was slashing taxes on the rich, deregulating industry, and implementing free market reforms in the early 1980s, inequality began rising.  Economists on the left argue that these kinds of unbalanced tax cuts and reductions in public programs increase inequality.  As inequality boomed, incomes for the middle stagnated.  And for those becoming displaced and rendered obsolete by the economy, the bottom fell out.

This would be an exceptionally opportune time for liberals to start loudly making this case to the public.  With unified conservative control of Washington, Republican leaders are gearing up to pass a round of massive tax cuts tilted heavily toward the wealthy.  Both Trump and Paul Ryan have proposed trillions of dollars in tax cuts.  They’ll just need to sort out whether half of all the benefits will go to the top 1 percent (Trump’s plan) or if 99.6 percent will (Ryan’s).

These tax cuts will inevitably rob from important social spending on education, healthcare, food assistance, and poverty programs.  They will suck more money out of the very communities that need it the most.  This will exacerbate inequality, not reverse it.

By offering up this kind of narrative, Democrats can accomplish two things in one fell swoop.  First, they can counter the fraudulent story that Trump has successfully sold so far.  Second, they can show that Trump never had the back of working people—that he’s looking out for his interests and those of his class by passing yet another typical Republican supply-side tax cut.

To build a party that isn’t dependent on one man, the Democrats need to contextualize and offer solutions for the discontent afflicting many Americans.  Trump did that, even if his pitch was a working-class sham.  To mount an effective opposition and win back power, Democrats need to offer voters a narrative of their own.

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