See this article published in Politics Means Politics
During the week of September 25th, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was scheduled to speak on the campus of UC Berkeley.
As part of ‘Free Speech Week’, a student organized event that has since been cancelled, Bannon was set to join other conservative commentators on the historically liberal campus.
Despite the negative implications for freedom of expression, the event cancellation may be a net positive for UC Berkeley. Several events at the campus, recently, involving conservative speakers have ended in violence at the hands of anti-fascist (otherwise known as ‘Antifa’) protesters.
In February, right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos canceled his speech as protesters ran over barricades, shot commercial grade fireworks at police and ignited fires with Molotov Cocktails. After the smoke settled, $100,000 worth of damage had been done.
Earlier in September, extensive measures were taken to secure the campus ahead of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s speech. Though the event ended peacefully, nine people were arrested and $600,000 had been spent on protecting the venue.
Though some may applaud the cancellation of ‘Free Speech Week’, Democrats should nonetheless obtain a copy of Bannon’s proposed speech, and consider it along with his strategies concerning economic populism and identity politics, to develop a plan for recapturing the support of working class voters.
One of Bannon’s most influential contributions to the Trump campaign was his message on economic populism. In his role as CEO of the campaign, Bannon identified several issues with the Democratic Party’s platform that alienated working class voters and pushed them toward Trump.
The first issue was the Democrat’s message on free trade and immigration, issues that Bannon held as inextricably linked to wages and jobs in the minds of working class voters. As party nominee Hillary Clinton continued to support globalizing forces that were gutting blue-collar jobs, Bannon saw her economic policies turn working Americans toward his populist message.
Bannon also spoke about the growth of ‘crony capitalism’, which creates large amounts of wealth for a small group of elites. This form of exclusive exchange, according to Bannon, objectifies workers instead of equitably benefiting the middle-class.
With the 2016 election, Bannon saw an opening as Democrats focused their attention on wealthy donors. This turned many voters concerned with wealth inequality to Trump, who in turn promised them economic salvation.
Bannon also surmised that Democrat’s use of ‘identity politics’ would assure victory for Trump. By appealing to the electorate through the lens of race, and labeling their ideological opponents as ‘deplorable’ and ‘white nationalists’, the Democrats neglected to address important economic issues, and alienated many working-class voters in the process.
While Bannon’s postmortem critique of the 2016 election may seem self-serving, the strategic problems he identified offer Democrats a blueprint for reclaiming the electoral support they have surrendered over the past decade.
Most importantly, the Democrats must focus on economic policies that raise wages and create jobs for the future. This means combating their reputation as elitists, engaging working-class Americans to earn their fidelity and offering legislation that improves their economic condition. By announcing their ‘Better Deal’ plan, Democrats have taken a step forward, but more work is needed.
Additionally, Democrats need to curb their use of identity politics, employed primarily to shame the opposition and win minority votes. While all politicians must condemn specific acts of bigotry, broadly labeling certain constituencies as racists becomes a politically isolating strategy.
This was true with the Democrats in 2016, particularly Hillary Clinton, who alienated many Trump supporters by calling them a ‘basket of deplorables’. This cast those who shared Trump’s views, perhaps some who voted Democrat in the past, as unworthy of her attention. For a Democratic Party looking to broaden its base, that type of strategy is anathema to its electoral agenda.
Whether you share Bannon’s views, it is clear that he understands the mood of the American electorate. Several of the strategies he employed during the 2016 campaign, especially concerning the economy, paid large dividends for his candidate on election day.
Given Bannon’s proven ability to read voters, and match policy to the priorities of the working class, Democrats should review his strategies and marry them with their own social policies. This will require, of course, that Democrats set aside their unbridled distaste for Bannon.
But if such a feat is possible, Democrats will have a better chance of crafting the type of policy that promotes broad economic prosperity, eschews rhetorical battles of identity, and carries them to the White House in 2020.