Democrats for over a century were associated with the American middle class.
Working-class voters once believed that Democratic-inspired intervention into the economy — minimum-wage laws, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, workers’ compensation — protected their interests better than unfettered free-market capitalism.
Republicans often had trouble selling the argument that an unleashed economy and new technology would relegate poverty to a relative, not absolute, condition — something like suffering with a cheap, outdated iPhone 4 while the better-off could afford an iPhone 6.
Why, then, have Democrats lost the working class — especially white, lower-middle-class voters?
There are several obvious reasons.
For one, high-profile progressives are largely rich, and their relatively small numbers live in a gentrified cocoon. Politicians, academics, media personalities, celebrities, and other Democratic-aligned professionals had just the sort of academic brands or technological, linguistic, cultural, and service skills that were well-compensated during the transition to globalism.
Their out-of-touch privilege, however, led to agendas — radical green politics, hyper-feminism, transgender advocacy, forced multiculturalism, open borders — that were not principle concerns of the struggling working classes. A techie in Silicon Valley, an actor in Hollywood, a trial lawyer in Washington, or a professor at Yale had the income to afford the steeper taxes and higher housing, energy, and college costs that were the natural dividends of their own political agendas.
High-speed rail, expensive graduate degrees, and European-level gas prices are logical aims for elites. They insist that the planet is cooking, that cities are the sole generators of cultural advancement, and that tony academic stamps are proof of knowledge superior to the kind absorbed through religious instruction or pragmatic experience.
In the short term, liberal elites had little clue how the ramifications of their own unworkable ideology always fell on distant others. Before one can damn fracking, guns, traditional religion, and tract suburbia, one has to have a high income that allows for expensive energy, exorbitant college tuition, and $500-a-square-foot housing. Obamacare, with its higher average deductibles and premiums, is far more of a burden than a bargain for the working class.
Race proved a second Democratic Waterloo. The constant push for identity politics, open borders, expanded federal entitlements, and inflated government was based on the idea that an increasingly non-white America would soon swallow up the old European majority, and that would ensure a new Democratic century.
But class is always a more telling divide than race. In contemporary straitjacket Democratic orthodoxy, there is no concession that a white male mechanic could face more economic difficulty than a Latina journalist, African-American federal employee, or Asian dentist. Lockstep obedience to the mantras of diversity, affirmative action, and preferential hiring does not allow that race can be increasingly divorced from class.
Moreover, race is not always either absolute or easily definable.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has to emphasize that he is Latino. Otherwise, based on his name, appearance, and speech, he appears to be just another successful grandee of unknown lineage. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren can cynically claim to be Native American — with all the perks that such lineage entails. Warren knew that no one is quite sure which particular racial percentage qualifies for special consideration or why, much less how racial heritage is authenticated.
To the working class, Democrats appeared to reward Americans not just on the basis of their race, but also on the assumption that some sections of the population have an easily identifiable racial pedigree, and that it has resulted in a proven need for reparations. In a multiracial America, that orthodoxy appears untenable — and unfair to those without claims to the correct genealogy or the money and privilege to navigate around such rules.
Finally, Democrats are now easily caricatured as both snobbish and condescending in the same way bluestocking Republicans used to be.
The hysteria over Sarah Palin’s gaffes in comparison to the more frequent lapses of Joe Biden was due to cultural bias. Palin was ridiculed as an ill-informed, working-class Alaskan mom. Good ol’ Biden earned a smile as an occasionally too candid East Coast liberal.
Snobbery’s twin is hypocrisy. For a liberal, when the poor waste money on $300 Air Jordans, such spending should not be criticized. But for the middle class to supposedly squander cash on a shotgun or Jet Ski is gauche. If an undocumented immigrant has seven children, it is not declared to be unwise family planning with the same disdain shown a Mormon blue-collar roofer with a comparably large family.
If Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, or the masters of Silicon Valley wish to talk about how growing inequality and the unfairness of American life demand more regulations and higher taxes, they should at least show some symbolic class solidarity by now and then flying commercial, eschewing limousines, and avoiding Martha’s Vineyard.
The new bifurcated Democratic party of rich and poor shows a sort of contempt for those who do not share the privileged tastes of the elites and can’t earn their easy sympathy by being dependent on liberal government largesse.
Democrats’ problem is that the working classes are large and know that they no longer fit into what liberalism has become.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing email@example.com. © 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.