Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election did more than paint the executive office red. With Republicans at the helm of the federal and most state governments, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads. This three-part series looks at what they are doing to get back on track.
WASHINGTON (CN) – Unable to fashion a golden ticket to the White House from Hillary Clinton’s 3-million-vote lead over Donald Trump, Democrats begrudgingly began the process of introspection. Courthouse News spoke with four experts to figure out what became of the blue-collar Democrat.
"Don't look for rationality,” said Marvin King, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Mississippi. “That's not useful here. We're dealing with Americans."
While he awaits peer-reviewed studies on the issue, King offered up a theory on how the Trump campaign drew out the traditionally white base Democrats thought they had on lock.
Think "economic dislocation," King said. "Not folks without jobs, but those who feel they're relatively underemployed. They might have a job and are paying bills, but in the last eight years, wages stagnated, and they didn't move forward."
Couple this with emphasis on identity politics over policy, he says, and voters who no longer felt represented by the Democratic Party came running to a message of inclusion.
Marvin compares 2016 party defection to the allure of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.
"He was able to skillfully create this narrative that white, working-class people are paying for benefits they don't receive, like affirmative action," Marvin said of the Gipper.
Feeling that someone was giving voice to their concerns, the white working class turned turn to Reagan in droves.
The Democratic Party opted to "double down on identity politics then," Marvin said.
"They said, anyone who is not a white male, you are welcome. That's not their intent nor their strategy necessarily,” Marvin noted, “but it's easy to caricature Democratic policies as favoring nonwhite males. If you feel the Democratic Party cares more about females or black males or Hispanic females, then your sense of attachment to the party dwindles."
Ted Ownby, a historian colleague of Marvin’s at Ole Miss, is director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. As what he called a "student of the American South,” Ownby said he was not surprised by the defection.
"The traditionally Democratic voter in the past few generations have been floaters,” he said. “They're the ones that move from perspective to perspective more readily than Republicans do."
Like the Reagan administration and Nixon before that, Ownby agrees, the "language of the silent majority" regained control.
The persistent campaign message by Trump – that he understood the plight of Americans who felt pinched by the government – was persuasive enough to cut through old party firewalls.
Chock it up to globalization in part, says Ownby, but laying blame on it alone doesn't do justice to more complex forces at hand.
"It's harder to pin down but I would argue it's a backlash by swing voters against several years of a liberal president who also is, not insignificantly, African-American," Ownby said.
Stressing the importance of not generalizing voters, Ownby speculated like King that lack of inclusion could be responsible for the Democrats’ undoing.