Explanation No. 3: The economic message. Bound up in both the above problems, critics contend, was a campaign message that focused more on social issues and embracing diversity—“stronger together,” “who we are”—than on themes of economic justice. “This [result] is the culmination of a long-term process that began quite a long time ago, of the Democratic Party walking away from working-class people and working-class issues over the years and becoming the party of the professional class,” Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal!, said on a broadcast of NPR’s Diane Rehm Show on Monday. Frank’s book, which came out in March, urged the party to eschew corporatism and return to its economic-justice roots.
Clinton talked about taxing the rich, redistributing wealth, and creating various new benefits, like paid family leave. But she rarely talked about jobs—a message that would have resonated with the working class of all races. Her “America is already great” message didn’t carry far beyond the degree-rich elites who are indeed doing fine these days, particularly against Trump’s message of right-wing economic populism. (The Clinton official contended that she campaigned vigorously on the economy and noted that, according to exit polls, Clinton won the majority of voters who said the economy was the most important issue.)
Clinton also chose temperament as the main line of attack about Trump, painting him as erratic, unqualified, and bigoted—“unfit,” in her terms—rather than as an out-of-touch rich guy who couldn’t understand regular people’s struggles. In my own conversations with African American voters, they were often bothered less by Trump’s racism, which struck them as nothing new, than by his having inherited wealth and never having had to earn his position. Clinton might have thought she was too privileged herself to pull off an attack on Trump’s material circumstances, but she allowed Trump to cast himself as a workingman’s candidate virtually unopposed.