Among the people I love is a sibling who works at Walmart cleaning toilets at night in a thinly populated part of eastern Oregon. She’s been there more than 25 years and has trouble saving a dime and certainly no path to retirement. She’s likely to vote, again, for President Donald Trump.
No matter how much I point out that Trump is trying to take away her health care protections by litigating to kill Obamacare, that his tariffs have made it harder to pay her bills, that he is the most repulsive and creepy man ever to occupy the White House, she holds firm.
Why? One reason is what she hears from the other side. Many Democrats, she says, are dismissive of her religious beliefs and condescending of her lot in life. She’s turned off by the virtue-signaling know-it-alls.
It’s no mystery why so many Democrats can no longer connect to the white working class. Progressives promise free college, free health care, free child care, and scream in bafflement, What’s wrong with you people?
No doubt, some of those people are racist and xenophobic. But many others simply feel insulted and dismissed. And these are voters who can still be persuaded to save our country from a disastrous second term of a corrupt and unstable president.
Barack Obama, still the smartest politician in the land, knows this; a week ago, he rightfully called out the call-out culture that marginalizes so many people who are ready to vote against Trump.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” he said, to a round of applause. “You should get over that quickly.” He was talking about an attitude, not necessarily policies — an attitude that dominates the bullying fringe of his own party. Predictably, he was called out for being paternalistic, with a boomer attitude.
If anyone should feel victimized by social media hatred and cancel culture of a different sort it is Obama. More than a third of Republicans tried to delegitimize him, believing in the monstrous falsity that he was born in Kenya.
Joe Biden has picked up Obama’s charge against the puritanical keepers of undiluted progressivism, in self-defense. He wrote this week of a “my way or the highway” approach that is “condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view.” He said, “It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share: ‘We know best; you know nothing.’”
For the record, I’m agnostic on the Democratic field. I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Trump. Biden, Obama and Nancy Pelosi, along with recent polling and the election results Tuesday, all show that the best way to rid this country of Trump is for Democrats to dial back the condescension of their natural allies and dig into the gritty concerns of daily life.
Pete Buttigieg, looking to pick up the moderate left vote if Biden falters, has already taken Obama’s lesson to heart. “I’m not about being in the right place ideologically, whatever that means,” he said in Iowa last week. “I’m about having answers that are going to make sense.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the recent New York Times/Siena College survey of battleground states is that Elizabeth Warren is not connecting with the very people her policies are supposed to help. Trump beats her or runs even in every tossup state but one. The persuadable voters in these states, many of them working class, say political correctness has gotten out of control, and they prefer someone seeking common ground over someone with a militantly progressive agenda.
It’s worth remembering that nearly two-thirds of all American adults do not have a four-year college degree. Warren, the Harvard professor who recently suggested that moderate Democrats belong with the other party, could be more effective with these folks if she showed more of her daughter-of-a-janitor side.
You can try to win the election by expanding the pool of progressive voters overall. But the inconvenient fact remains that a relatively small pool of working-class voters in the handful of battleground states are still likely to determine the fate of the country next year.
Democrats flipped 40 House seats in 2018 and attracted more white working-class voters — without insufferable wokedness. They hammered away on health care and kitchen table concerns. The same approach helped Democrats pull off an apparent upset in the Kentucky governor’s race this week.
Next year, Trump will be the greatest motivator and unifier for a majority of Americans poised to throw him out. For his core 40%, there’s no crime or debasement that will change their minds. He can indeed shoot someone, as a focus group participant helpfully clarified this week, and likely get a pass from the Cult of Trump.
But for others, those like my sister, a word to Democrats: Talk to them. Don’t talk over them. Save the piety, the circular firing squad, the shaming on social media for after the election. Otherwise, the woke will wake next Nov. 3 to a tragedy.
Timothy Egan is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.