Commentary: The Democrats' destructive politics of righteousness

Whether out of anger or of angst, Bill Clinton spoke from the core of Democratic Party presumption when he told a Westchester County, N.Y., journalist recently that Donald Trump "doesn't know much" but does know "how to get angry white males to vote for him." After all, this was supposed to be the Republicans' season of discontent. Instead, Democrats emerged from the election with less political clout on the national and state levels of government than at any time since 1928. And Hillary Clinton was again denied her appointed role in history.

If Trump pursued the politics of resentment in courting white, working-class voters and their rural cousins, Democrats succumbed to what I call "the politics of righteousness" in overlooking their concerns and underestimating their power. By righteousness I mean the tendency of the Democratic Party to assume ownership of the moral high ground whenever cultural values and social norms are at issue in American politics — and to presume that those who disagree are, as Hillary Clinton put it, "a basket of deplorables."

If Democrats want to recapture their old self-image as "the people's party," their political self-examination will have to go deeper than strategy and further back than millennials can remember. The party's alienation from the white working class began in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There, antiwar protesters and activists for a host of countercultural causes fought the police of Mayor Richard J. Daley while the nation watched on television. As President Bill Clinton later observed in the first volume of his memoirs, Vietnam was only one point of contention in what was really a wider clash between generations, social classes and moral cultures:

"The kids and their supporters saw the mayor and the cops as authoritarian, ignorant, violent bigots. The mayor and his largely blue-collar police force saw the kids as foul-mouthed, immoral, unpatriotic, soft, upper-class kids who were too spoiled to appreciate authority, too selfish to appreciate what it takes to hold a society together, too cowardly to serve in Vietnam …"

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