The victory of Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia’s gubernatorial election this week was an important and necessary triumph for decency in American politics. Republican Ed Gillespie had run a Trumpist campaign of racial fear-mongering. Had he won, Republicans across the country would have picked up on the signal that Trumpism continues to work wonders, that appeals to racial and cultural resentment provide a ticket to political success. The cancer in the White House , already malignant, would have metastasized.
Of course, it wasn’t just the governor’s race, and it wasn’t just Virginia. From Georgia to Maine to the state of Washington, voters signaled their repugnance for the Trump presidency and its enablers in the GOP. The silver lining of the Trump presidency is that it has given rise to a tremendous burst of activity on the left, with new people—especially women– coming into politics and organizing a Resistance that, now having scored its first major triumph at the polls, has been energized for 2018 and 2020.
Democrats, fairly united for now in their euphoria, are likely to differ in their takeaways from Tuesday’s results. Tuesday was very much a revolt of educated, suburban voters against the manifestly unfit man-child in the White House. It also represented a re-awakening of what’s sometimes called the Obama coalition—single women, minorities, LGBTs, millennials, and educated professionals—who have been particularly repulsed by the right-wing social agenda. Trump’s base in the rural white working class (WWC) seems to have held pretty firm for the GOP.
So, as some were arguing even before Tuesday, maybe the Democrats should focus their advantages in identity politics and more or less give up on the WWC. I think that would be wrong, both politically and morally. Politically, it doesn’t make sense to write off over 40% of the voting population. Democrats may never again recapture anything near majority support among the WWC, but they don’t need to; if they can just take back 10 or 15% of the WWC voters they lost in 2016, they can put together a winning electoral coalition. And it’s morally unacceptable to advocate writing off such a large chunk of the population in a democracy. The WWC, particularly in the rural rust belt, has suffered real hardship in recent decades, one symptom of which is the current opioid crisis. A political party that aims to represent the less privileged sectors of our society cannot be indifferent to that suffering. I don’t see why “working people” can’t be one of the identities the Democrats embrace. I’ll make my case for that view in a future post.