Donald Trump will force the Democratic Party to make a fundamental decision
Barring an asteroid or some equivalent political upheaval, it looks like the 2016 presidential race will be Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. And it says a lot about the character of the GOP that it's about to nominate a bigoted, fascistic billionaire. But once the general election gets underway, Clinton and the Democrats will face a moral reckoning of their own.
There are three ways to go up against Trump: option one, address the new wave of populist anger directly, and try to add as many Sanders voters, and maybe even potential Trump voters, to the Obama coalition as possible; option two, try to bring in the more cosmopolitan Republicans who would never pull the lever for Trump; or option three, do nothing and just try to pull off 2008 and 2012 again.
Since option three would increase Trump's chances of winning, the Democrats will probably pick the first or second options. Which they choose will say a lot about what makes the Democratic Party tick.
Option one will require a sharp left turn on economics, built around big and simple ideas: big infrastructure investment and more jobs, a public option, a $15 minimum wage, national paid family and sick leave, expanding Social Security, maybe even something as ambitious as a universal child allowance. If Trump is going to take the stage at debates and say "build a wall and deport the immigrants," Clinton will need a better retort than "non-refundable income-scaling tax credits for certain classes of Americans."
How this will help solidify the Sanders vote behind Clinton should be obvious. But it will also help neutralize a lot of Trump's appeal and maybe even bleed off some portion of his support. A kind of bellicose, raised-middle-finger embrace of xenophobia and bigotry is one of the two fundamental forces in American society Trump is drawing on. But the other is the very justified feeling among many working-class whites that they've been effectively abandoned by American society. Support for Trump is intense in the South, but it's also intense in other places that map less cleanly onto America's history of racism. Trump's most devoted voters come from places that are less educated, that are poorer, where jobs and people are fleeing and where those left behind are literally less healthy and dying faster. They're more sympathetic to economic liberalism and show no interest in cutting big entitlement programs.
How many Trump voters the Democrats could actually bleed off is an open question. But at minimum, you'd think they'd want to outbid Trump where they can. Economic issues are where the Democrats are supposedly capable of moving left without betraying the rest of their moral and political commitments. One of the biggest reasons Hillary Clinton is clenching the Democratic nomination is her years of outreach to African Americans and Latinos — the retail politics and slow, ground-level work of speaking to community after community and church after church, and earning their familiarity and trust. There's no reason the party could not put together an equivalent project to reach the white working class.
The problem is, option two will require the Democrats to take the exact opposite approach. The Republican voters most likely to be turned off by Trump are urban or suburban, upscale, and well-educated. They may not be as leftwing as most Democrats on social issues and identity politics, but they're more cosmopolitan than the rest of their own party. In many ways, they're natural allies of the professional urban whites in the Obama coalition, who themselves tend to lean right on questions of unions, the welfare state, job creation, and general economic policy. Courting these disaffected GOP votes will require Clinton to lay off high-end tax hikes, and to start stumping for thing like free trade, reductions in government spending, work requirements for welfare programs, or cuts to Social Security.
If the Democrats' commitment to racial justice, women's advancement, and progressive social and identity politics is a natural outgrowth of a broader belief that societies are judged by how they treat their weakest members, then the white working class is very much worthy of the Democrats' economic aid. But if the Democrats' cosmopolitanism is more about the upper class' moral hygiene — demonstrating its superiority by "knowing which fork to use," as Clive Crook put it — then, like many upper-class Republicans, they may well respond to Trump's rise with open contempt for the working class.
The party absolutely should not move right on women's issues, racial justice, immigration reform, or questions of identity politics to try to counteract Trump. But it should push as far as it can to see how many downscale Americans, many of whom do have ugly attitudes in those realms, can be convinced to set those impulses aside and enter the Democratic tent in the name of economic populism.
Will the Democrats become the party by and for the professional upper class, and rely on the GOP's increasingly poisonous tenor to keep poorer nonwhite voters in its ranks? Or will they rededicate themselves to lifting up everyone who has been left behind in American society, by either economics or prejudice? Who will they reach out to, engage with, and fight for?
We're about to find out.