In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “When we can agree on issues, then we’re going to work with him.” Other leading Democrats echoed his sentiments. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are seeking to realign the Party to “appeal to white working-class voters.”
Democrats are making a mistake.
Since the election, Democratic leaders have already begun to neglect the racialized narrative anchoring Trump’s dramatic rise. The President-elect ran a hateful, bigoted campaign to divide the American people along racial lines — and it worked. Further, Dems are ignoring that Trump’s victory is the logical outcome of 50 years of racial politics that helped fuel the rise of the über-rich, wrecked the middle class, and disillusioned American workers.
The reality is this: We cannot tackle the challenges we face today — economic insecurity, climate change, our failing institutions — until we confront America’s sordid history of racialized politics and pull our country in a new direction.
Racism has always been a strategy to justify the exploitation of land and labor to enrich the wealthy few. Since the Colonial era, racial anxieties have been created and cultivated to serve the interests of the wealthy elite.
Beginning in the 1960s, and continuing to this day, Republicans have relied heavily on strategic racism to win votes and advance a deeply conservative agenda. George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and others pioneered the “Southern Strategy,” disguising segregationism in appeals to “states’ rights” and “law and order.” Ronald Reagan turned this strategy into a weapon against modern liberalism and the new middle class. (Recall, for example, the image of a lazy, conniving, and clearly black “welfare queen” corrupting the social safety net.) Democrats were not guiltless, either: Bill Clinton continued elements of Reagan’s racialized politics. More recently, George W. Bush fueled new racial anxieties towards Arab-Muslims and Mexican immigrants following the 9/11 attacks, while Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe hearkened back to these racial themes.
"We need a democracy that represents all of us. We need a new America united not by common ancestry or the trappings of wealth, but by our shared destiny. We believe that loving America means caring about all its people, regardless of how much they earn or where they were born."
The “Southern Strategy” may have been conceived as a political tool to win votes, but it had real adverse consequences. Fifty years of racialized sleight-of-hand helped drive the GOP’s destructive agenda, which shattered the middle class and created stunning inequality while crippling communities of color.
Donald Trump tapped into the frustration that emerged from the demise of working-class America by — ironically — continuing to employ strategic racism. Trump, though, has turned racial dog-whistles into a dangerous bullhorn. His team has signaled willingness to reinstate an unethical Muslim registry and deport millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants. His Cabinet appointments bear records of white supremacy and anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism. Trump himself is vengeful, unpredictable, and semi-authoritarian. All the while, even though he ran on a populist platform, the President-elect is pursuing an economic agenda that will continue to benefit the wealthy elite while hurting everyday Americans.
It is an alarming situation, and begs the question: what now? Where do we go from here?
One thing is clear: we cannot continue business as usual. Fifty years of racialized politics have failed working-class Americans and imperiled our future. We must instead pursue a vision of a new America that is free from the stain of racism, grounded in connected communities, and nurtured through dignified democracy that reflects our shared destiny.
Congressional Democrats can take three steps now towards realizing this truly American dream.
First, they must vigorously reject the bigotry taking shape in Trump’s Administration. Congressional Democrats are the last line of defense for communities of color, LGBTQ persons, and other threatened groups. Democrats should not “give him a chance” or promise to “work with him” on particular issues — to do so only normalizes white nationalism and hate.
That brings us to the third step: Democrats must reject the influences of Wall Street and corporate interests. They cannot represent American workers and the über-rich at the same time. In an era of economic insecurity and deep mistrust of the political and wealthy elite, Democrats must truly become the Party of the people if they are to succeed.
And what do the people need? We need a democracy that represents all of us. We need a new America united not by common ancestry or the trappings of wealth, but by our shared destiny. We believe that loving America means caring about all its people, regardless of how much they earn or where they were born.
Whether or not Democrats choose to embrace this vision, we the people will. Together, we can create an America for all of us.