In the endless search for the magic key that Democrats can use to unlock the hearts of white people who vote Republican, the hot new candidate is “respect.” If only they cast off their snooty liberal elitism and show respect to people who voted for Donald Trump, Democrats can win them over and take back Congress and the White House.
There’s almost nothing more foolish Democrats could do. I’m not saying that the desire for respect isn’t real. As a voter says in “The Great Revolt,” a new book by conservative journalist Salena Zito and Republican operative Brad Todd, “One of the things I really don’t get about the Democratic Party or the news media is the lack of respect they give to people who work hard all of their lives to get themselves out of the hole.” Nor am I saying there aren’t liberals who express elitist ideas, because there are.
But the mistake is to ignore where the belief in Democratic disrespect actually comes from, and to assume that Democrats have it in their power to banish it. It doesn’t come from Democrats. Where does it come from? An entire industry that’s devoted to convincing white people that liberal elitists look down on them.
It’s more than an industry, actually: It’s an industry plus a political movement. The right has a gigantic media apparatus and party devoted to convincing people that liberals don’t respect them.
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If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.
This machine is extraordinarily powerful. It may not be able to guarantee Republican victory at the polls, but it absolutely can determine how conservatives — including those Trump voters — view what happens on a day-to-day basis in the political world.
For example, in March 2016, Hillary Clinton spoke at a town hall about how to revitalize communities that had been dependent on coal but had been devastated by a loss of jobs driven mostly by automation and the fracking boom that made natural gas cheaper than coal. Here’s what she said:
“And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.”
That’s pretty respectful. It acknowledges the people’s hard work, their sacrifices, their contribution to the rest of the country. And yet because she also acknowledged that all those millions of coal jobs aren’t coming back, but said it in a way she would surely have liked to rephrase — “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — the only thing anyone remembers is that one half-sentence, which was immediately turned into “Hillary hates coal miners! She wants to destroy their lives!”
We see this again and again: Democrats bend over backward to show conservative white voters respect, only to see some remark taken out of context and their entire agenda characterized as stealing from hard-working white people to give undeserved benefits to shiftless minorities.
So, Democrats: White Republicans are not going to vote for you anyway, and their votes are no more valuable or virtuous than the votes of any other American. Don’t try to come up with photo ops showing you genuflecting before the totems of the white working class, because that won’t work. Explain what you believe in, and why it actually helps people.
And never stop telling voters how Republicans are screwing them over. The two successful Democratic presidents of recent years were both called liberal elitists, and they countered by relentlessly hammering the GOP over its advocacy for the wealthy. And it worked.