In last Sunday’s Inquirer, Pastor Nicolas O’Rourke, the organizing director of Philly’s Working Families Party and a leader of the local progressive movement, penned an op-ed confirming that, now that the election was over, the jockeying for political IOUs had begun.
“It was our work, our connections with voters, and our vision that brought [Joe Biden] to victory,” O’Rourke wrote. “Biden owes our movements a great deal of thanks for getting voters out to the polls for him…As usual, the Democratic Party played to a mythical swing voter while taking Black and brown voters for granted.”
In a post-election joint statement, local progressive and Democratic Socialist leaders, like Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier, as well as state rep Liz Fiedler and State Senator-elect Nikil Saval, echoed O’Rourke’s clarion call.
Tell me if this isn’t an apt description of what we need right now: “A liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
Politics is about understanding when you have leverage, and then cashing it in. Make no mistake what O’Rourke et al are up to. Some might call it spin; they’re going about the business of trying to build leverage—even when the facts aren’t on their side. Because any fair-minded analysis of the election has to conclude that, yes, Trump’s petulant voter fraud claims are specious, but so too are these progressive victory laps.
The truth is, Biden’s outperformance of Hillary Clinton in the pragmatic center of our politics was the difference between winning and losing. According to exit polling, Biden won independents by 14 points (Trump won them last time) and won 64 percent of self-described “moderates.” He also did eight percentage points better than Clinton with working class voters. He took 36 percent of white voters without a college degree, up 6 percentage points over Hillary. Not only that, Biden significantly outperformed Hillary among seniors and in the suburbs. Despite record turnout of 65 percent, on the other hand, Philadelphia actually produced less of a plurality for Biden than Hillary had posted.
This tells us a number of things. For one, that Bernie Sanders was wrong when he proffered that, if only ever more progressives turned out, a new majority would emerge: “The key to this election is can we get millions of young people who have never voted before into the political process, many working people who understand that Trump is a fraud, can we get them voting?”
Ruy Teixeira, the progressive demographer, explained the difference-maker in a smart New Yorker autopsy. “The theory that Biden would win, to a great extent, because he could reduce the white, non-college deficit turned out to be true,” he tells John Cassidy.
In other words, the masses aren’t as progressive as the progressives would have us think. We need more data on this, but it seems likely that, as vulnerable swing state congressional candidates have complained, calls to defund police, embracing socialism, and a seeming tolerance of looting were a drag on down-ballot Democrats. (Sanders and his local acolytes are keen to tell us that public opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting Medicare for All, for example, but they leave out that, when told that such a program would result in 160 million Americans losing employer-based healthcare and the obliteration of the health insurance industry—with its tens of thousands of middle class jobs—it kinda loses its progressive appeal.)
It should come as no surprise that, post-election, a phalanx of interest groups are now boxing each other out in the hopes of cashing in their chits. It’s natural, on some level, harkening back to the famous JFK quote: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” It’s also a sign of the times. Politics has become a short-term “I got mine” game.
But beyond all the spin, there just may be a harbinger of hope in this year’s election results. It will take some doing, but Biden has the opportunity to be the first politician since Robert Kennedy to build a coalition driven by both African-American and white working class support.
In other words, the masses aren’t as progressive as the progressives would have us think.
This was the strategy presciently laid out two years ago for Democrats by Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive, independent think tank. In a Century Foundation report titled “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy” and an op-ed in The New York Times, Kahlenberg held up Kennedy’s stirring 1968 presidential primary campaign as a model for a worker-based, multi-racial political coalition that—and tell me if this isn’t an apt description of what we need right now—offers “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
Yes, Kennedy was the beloved brother of a martyred president, but, during his inspiring run of primary victories prior to his tragic assassination, he’d found a message that resonated with groups that had long been purposely set against one another. And so this scion of a dynastic family set out trying to persuade both groups that they were stronger together. “We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests,” RFK told legendary New York newsman Jack Newfield.
And so we got Kennedy’s populism without racism when he’d call out wealthy tax cheats on the stump, just as we got his liberalism minus the elitism when he’d call himself an “Opportunity Democrat” and argue for rewarding work rather than perpetuating a welfare system that, he held, had demeaned its recipients. He’d hold up the innovative public/private economic revitalization program he’d instituted in Brooklyn as an example of what it means to invest in people, at the same time that he’d condemn the lawlessness of looting without apology, always reminding voters that law-abiding inner city residents and businesses deserve the same expectation of safety as those in the suburbs.
Kennedy was a uniquely gifted politician, with a more finely-attuned ear than even his brother. (If you’re unfamiliar with the ’68 Kennedy campaign, read Jules Witcover’s account of it, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy, or just check out this moving video.
Rather than pander, he challenged the voter, as at Notre Dame during the Indiana primary, when Kennedy was booed by his anti-war base for wanting to abolish college draft deferments. “You’re getting the unfair advantage while poor people are being drafted!” he bellowed. Once, when asked by a college student who was going to pay for the social programs he was proposing, he responded, “you are,” before connecting his response to an ethos his otherwise odious father had instilled in the Kennedy brood: To whom much is given, much is required.
This was, in its frankness and its soaring, heartfelt rhetoric an atypical campaign. Kennedy would close his stump speeches by appealing to the inner idealist in all of us: “As George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘Some men see things as they are and say why/I dream things that never were and say why not?” (During a torrential downpour in Indiana, the candidate ad-libbed: “As George Bernard Shaw wrote, head for the buses!” he yelled, leading a run to shelter.)
Could Kennedy’s upstart and ill-fated ’68 campaign provide something of a roadmap for Joe Biden, a way to unite Blacks and working-class whites on a common agenda? Kahlenberg thinks so. “During one of the debates, Trump was goading Biden and saying he wouldn’t even say the words ‘law and order,’” Kahlenberg said when I caught up with him earlier this week. “And I thought Biden’s response was pitch perfect, and something right in keeping with Robert Kennedy. He said, ‘I’m for law and order, with justice.’ A lot of Democrats won’t say the words ‘law and order’ because they’re afraid of sounding racist. Of course, when Trump says those words, it is racist. But Biden putting those three things together—law, order and justice—was perfect, because it’s where Americans are.”
Biden has the opportunity to be the first politician since Robert Kennedy to build a coalition driven by both African-American and white working class support.
Building such a coalition won’t be easy, of course. It would mean that progressives, when in conversation with whites who shower after work, would have to resist the urge to effectively say, “What you don’t understand about yourself is…” by telling a middle-aged factory worker he is “privileged.” It would mean that AOC, et al give up trying to force utopian policies on those who represent unsafe districts. It would mean being okay with universal policies that disproportionately benefit African-Americans, as opposed to those that directly target African-Americans; think, student debt forgiveness or the $15 minimum wage as opposed to reparations for slavery, likely a non-starter without control of the U.S. Senate.
For Biden, it would mean governing from the middle out—something he was clear about in the election, and rewarded for, especially by African-American voters. Rather than paying back individual groups by pursuing, say, D.C. statehood and the slashing of federal police funding, he’d do well to prioritize an infrastructure plan that puts Black and White workers to work, together.
If he does that, and if progressives don’t go to war with the Biden administration, which would only presage the surrendering of the House in 2022, they will be embarking on a vision first given voice by a star-crossed pugilistic idealist in the turbulent Sixties: “You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color,” Bobby Kennedy said then. “I think there has to be a new kind of coalition to keep the Democratic party going, and to keep the country together: Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids.”Header photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr