Donald Trump has been a truly disruptive ideological influence, both in America and abroad. The Labour party in Britain used a number of tricks from Trump’s populist playbook to great effect during the general election to keep working class voters in their coalition. The Democrats are now following their example with a populist economic message to set the stage for next year’s congressional midterm elections.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, announced his new policy agenda “A Better Deal” yesterday. It is aimed squarely at the working class voters who helped Trump flip Democratic strongholds across the rustbelt. This new policy agenda’s three main goals are to create high-wage jobs, lower living costs, and provide new skills for American workers. Alongside traditional Democratic policies such as the $1 trillion infrastructure plan touted by Hillary Clinton last year, there is the intention to increase the minimum wage to $15, strengthen antitrust regulators, and create a tax credit for employers who train workers without any qualifications.
Despite Trump’s support for some of these policies during the campaign, it is highly unlikely that any of these policies will be supported by Republicans in Congress. The GOP continues to be consumed by its efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, and wants to move on to cutting taxes. Instead of delivering real change for working class Americans, the Republicans look increasingly like they are governing in the interests of the wealthy elite. With an unproductive Congress and the Republicans’ ideological confusion, there is certainly an opening for the Democrats to find their voice and be more than the party of “#resistance”.
The problem is that the Democrats are also riven by ideological division. Clinton’s defeat was a humiliation for the Democratic centrists who have dominated the party since Bill Clinton’s New Democrats won the White House in 1992. Last year’s Democratic primaries showed there is a strong grassroots desire for radical change after Bernie Sanders came close to winning the nomination. Schumer’s new policy agenda is a first step towards the more progressive economic platform favoured by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, though it is still a far cry from their demands for single-payer healthcare and free college tuition.
America’s political climate has certainly made radical populist economics look more attractive given how many Americans now see capitalism as being "rigged". According to a poll by UnHerd and YouGov, 61% of Americans believe that most big businesses “have dodged taxes, damaged environment, bought special favours from politicians”, and 58% believe the poor “get poorer whilst rich get richer in capitalist economies”. This is a sentiment which extends to millennials struggling to own a home or start a family, as well as working class Americans who see their jobs disappear and opioids flood their streets.
A moderate move towards economic populism combined with vehement anti-Trumpism could help deliver results in next year’s midterms. But it will take a lot more to win back the White House in 2020. The primary race will be a fight for the Democrats’ soul. They could go for a charismatic moderate like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, or a progressive populist like Sanders or Warren. What is clear is that the Democrats will have to address the new political divide between globalism and anti-globalism in order to bring working class voters back into the fold and build a winning coalition.