(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 16 November 2016.)
In its over 180 years of existence, the Democratic Party has completed a remarkable ideological and geographic transformation. Originally a staunch defender of Southern slavery, the party now wins the support of most nonwhite voters. Once an advocate of rural interests against coastal elites, the party now draws much of its strength from cities and coastal areas.
Oddly enough, the party had its roots in the so-called Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1800-24), which was formed to oppose the Federalist Party run by Alexander Hamilton. It underwent a number of changes in direction that teetered between identity politics and economics.
In 1830 the party formed under the populist wing led by President Andrew Jackson, who introduced the Indian Removal Act to force Indians from their homes. This was later followed by support for the idea of “manifest destiny” that asserted (white) Americans were divinely entitled to the North American continent, and for the defence of slavery.
From the late 1800s to the end of World War Two, the party defended farmers against big-city capitalists and supported the active use of government to try to improve people’s lives. This culminated in the sweeping New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt.
After the war, the Democrats focused on identity again and became the party of the civil rights movement, which caused a splintering with its supporters from the South and the Northern working class.
The party now has strong backing from well-educated professional elites living in major coastal cities, who have embraced social cultural diversity and identities such as pro-choice, gay rights, women’s rights, ethnic minorities’ rights and the environment.
But many less educated rural and suburban voters, especially those in the Rust Belt and Appalachia in the heartland of America, have crossed over to the Republican Party, where they feel more at home among social conservatives.
Interestingly, although the progressive image of the party continues to command loyalty among poor voters even when union power has declined precipitously, that loyalty is eroding, particularly in the heartland where economic stagnation has been prolonged.
These areas are in dire need of public investment in schools and infrastructure, and they have been neglected since the 1970s. Since John Kennedy, they have regarded the Democrats as increasingly being led by East Coast intellectuals. To them, Clinton was the epitome of the Democratic Party’s kowtowing to Wall Street.
The Obama presidency also brought some major setbacks for Democrats, who ended up with full control in a mere 11 state legislatures against 30 for the Republicans. The number of states where Democrats control both the governorship and the state legislature has been cut to 7 — the fewest since the Civil War.
To understand where the rank and file American working class is coming from, I recommend reading J D Vance’s autobiographical Hillbilly Elegy, published this year. Mr. Vance grew up in a decaying steel town in Ohio and offers a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald Trump. He speaks to the heart and soul of these forgotten people, who have long given up hope and for whom poverty is a culture.
After reading Hillbilly Elegy, you can also understand why there was a left wing Bernie Sanders insurgency in the Democratic Party. It failed partly because there was no support from a party leadership that was too focused on social and cultural identity issues, and partly because many of the forgotten white underclass had already gravitated to the Republican Party.
The American working class is so disillusioned and distressed that they were prone to the anti-establishment revolt that happened last week. It took an outsider called Donald Trump to find the perfect host body in the Republican Party and became its president elect in 2016.
An investigation of voter estrangement has never felt more urgent. Perhaps the Democratic progressive wing will unify under a leadership around Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders. They will probably inherit the Clinton-Obama organization machine and make peace with the cultural elites and the rich.
They may try to lead a populist revolt from within the party just as Andrew Jackson did before. But they will also need to reconnect with the white underclass that has gone over to the Republican Party. If Trump fails to deliver on his promise to help them, the Democrats might have an opening. Poverty among the underclass is, however, not as easy a problem to crack when it becomes a culture, as many New Dealers tend to forget.
Photo: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs