Democrats and Liberals Must Get Back To Economic Basics | Opinion

Something rather telling happened in early December, after the bipartisan "Problem Solvers Caucus" initially unveiled its new COVID-19 relief stimulus package. This new package, unlike its March predecessor, did not include any direct stimulus checks, nor did it include the crucial federal unemployment benefits that millions of out-of-work Americans have been relying on to feed their families through the COVID recession. In protest, two senators took to the Senate floor to introduce their own legislation that would dispense direct payments of $1,200 to working-class American families. And just as the coalition that had omitted the checks had been bipartisan, so, too, was the pushback; the two senators were Democrat Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri.

The Talmud tells us that God always preempts a blow with what heals it, in this case seeding a new, bipartisan populism into the fertile grounds of the Senate's bipartisan abandonment of the working class. As such, it was a snapshot of American politics today: Many on both sides of the aisle have abandoned labor, while a precious few, also on both sides, seem to have recognized this fact and wish to remedy it. In other words, as is more often than not the case in America, more unites us than divides us.

You would not know this from the rhetoric of our politicians and our media, where the other side is constantly vilified in Manichean terms. But the truth is, for decades now, the Democrats have replaced their erstwhile commitment to working-class Americans—to protecting their jobs, their families, their children's futures, their dignity—and have instead become the bastion of the educated. We are facing an impending national divide between an urban, college-educated liberal America and a rural, working-class conservative one.

Evidence for this cropped up most recently in the results of the presidential election. In 1980, the Democrats won just nine out of the 100 highest-income counties across the nation. In 2020, Biden won over half of them, along with a staggering 84 of the 100 counties where people are most likely to have a college degree (Trump won just 16). Compare this to 1980, when Democrats won just 24 of these counties—and the Republicans took a whopping 76 of them. It was the affluent and college-educated who delivered for Biden in Georgia, while the Democrats lost big with minorities—Muslims, Latinos and even Black men, who doubled their support for Trump to 18 percent according to exit polls. Trump won a higher share of the Bronx, which is only 9 percent white, than he did of Manhattan.

As Chris Arnade put it, "while the racial gap is decreasing, the education gap is solidifying and becoming multiracial." And yet, faced with the challenge of an increasingly diverse and alienated working class, the Democrats replied with rhetoric tailor-made for their new base—affluent, urban college grads. Faced with working-class Americans whose jobs had been outsourced to Mexico and China, they chanted "Abolish ICE!" and voted to decriminalize illegal border crossing. Faced with working-class Americans watching footage of cities being torn up by looting and rioting all summer, they vowed to "Defund the Police!" Faced with Americans who went to the polls in search of someone who would guarantee them a job and a paycheck in exchange for honest work, the Democrats chanted "Free College!" and vowed to abolish student loans.

These slogans were revealing. College-educated Americans are much less likely to live in a part of the city where they might need to call the police, and much less likely to work in an industry that might be threatened by someone who doesn't speak English and can't work legally. They certainly can't envision a dignified life while employed in the service sector—and, of course, it is they who are saddled with student loans. Faced with the college divide, the Democrats preached to their choir; Trump was a white supremacist, they said over and over, while minorities in working-class neighborhoods were planning to vote for him.

Worse, Democrats called anyone who disagreed racist ("If 'defund the police' offends you, then I'm sure 'abolish slavery' would've offended you too," read a popular and widely circulated tweet, though 81 percent of Black Americans told Gallup they wanted police to spend the same amount of time or more in their neighborhoods). For years now, but especially in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the "racial reckoning" that followed it, we've been living through a moral panic around race. It stems from the mainstreaming of "critical race theory," an academic framework recently popularized in bestselling books that casts race as the most important and immutable fact of American life, and racism our most stubbornly enduring scourge. So deeply entrenched is this line of thinking that people who dissent from it are mobbed online, cruelly shamed, chased out of their jobs and, in some cases, public life altogether. Persuasion—or the idea that one gains power by convincing other people that one is right—has been replaced by the fear of humiliation and joblessness.

Pfizer manufacturing plant in Michigan
Pfizer manufacturing plant in Michigan MORRY GASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

These two aspects of liberal culture today—the narrowing of the focus to college-educated Americans and a moral panic perpetuated through woke sloganeering—are two sides of the same coin. It's Angela Davis gracing the cover of T Magazine—and a Cartier watch being advertised on the back. It's the Squad doing makeup tutorials and calling for total student debt cancellation—the benefits of which would go to the top 40 percent and would be shouldered by people standing in food lines or stealing baby formula because COVID took their jobs. It's the Big Tech environmentalists taking their private jets to their climate change conferences—where they bray about banning fracking.

Policies like student loan forgiveness and open borders flatter the vanity of affluent liberals, masquerading as social justice while further burdening the working class.

If this is the future of American liberalism, liberals deserve to lose. Big.

Instead, what I believe the future of American liberalism should be is a movement that wields a power whose source is persuasion, and whose focus is on building a strong working class and restoring the dignity of every American.

In the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, power is not something that one person or group wields to oppress another, as it is in critical race theory. It is what is produced between people when one is persuaded by the other. This is how a political community is established, and where it gets its legitimacy, Arendt argued: "Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow."

The way to pursue a politics that prioritizes the dignity of every American is not with clapbacks on Twitter, but by asking of each and every political and cultural issue: How does this look to working-class Americans? This is how you create power at the bottom to rival that of the billionaires and tech moguls at the top.

A politics that truly prioritizes the working class would abandon symbolic fights waged with maximalist slogans that seem designed to alienate even those who agree. Perhaps counterintuitively, a liberalism that was truly liberal—truly focused on debate, civil discourse, the consent of the governed and equality before the law—would be one that was much less overtly political. We have allowed politics to seep into every aspect of our lives at the expense of knowing how to govern. Policies that most Americans agree upon—background checks for gun purchases, a public health care option, a $15 minimum wage, the legalization of marijuana—seem impossibly out of reach. It's because along with abandoning the working class, liberals abandoned the desire to persuade; why bother, when you can just call your political opponents racist?

But a political community that derives its power from persuasion—for example, from persuading the working class that part of this country's abundant cornucopia of blessings is still theirs for the having—would mean doing the opposite: recognizing what the actual problems are and finding those on the other side of the aisle willing to help solve them. It would mean recognizing the huge efforts Republicans have been making to end the carceral state, for example, or even their newfound desire to address police brutality. It would mean finding pro-union Republicans and joining hands with them to fight for the little guy against the mighty.

What this perspective will reveal is that while many Americans are liberal socially and economically, and many are conservative on both fronts, there are a lot of Americans—a lot of working-class Americans—who are socially conservative and economically liberal. Instead of discarding them for their values, instead of mocking their religious commitments or calling them racist, true liberals would seek to engage and better understand. With overwhelming consensus across the nation about issues like LGBTQ rights, the evils of racism and the importance of diversity, having respect for the worldview of the working class doesn't require abandoning civil rights. A bipartisan American populism can be used to realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beloved Community," through a politics that elevates above all else working Americans and the dignity of all Americans.

This what I hope is the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party. Whether that future will be realized is something I leave to others.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is opinion editor of The Forward. Twitter: @bungarsargon.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.