The fruits of that education were on display in “Transformative Politics.” Written during Mr. Obama’s final semester, the manuscript updated Bayard Rustin for the age of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Fisher’s plan hinged on recruiting blue-collar whites back into a reborn version of the March on Washington coalition. According to Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher, these votes could be won over with a platform that appealed to both the values and the material interests of working people. That meant shifting away from race-based initiatives toward universal economic polices whose benefits would, in practice, tilt toward African Americans — in short, “use class as a proxy for race.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher didn’t pretend that racism had been expunged from American life. “Precisely because America is a racist society,” they wrote, “we cannot realistically expect white America to make special concessions towards blacks over the long haul.” Demanding that white Americans grapple with four centuries of racial oppression might be a morally respectable position, but it was terrible politics. “Those blacks who most fervently insist on the pervasiveness of white racism have adopted a strategy that depends on white guilt for its effectiveness,” they wrote, ridiculing the idea that whites would “one day wake up, realize the error of their ways, and provide blacks with wholesale reparations in order to expiate white demons.”
Economics were a safer bet. Blue-collar workers of all races, Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher wrote, “understood in concrete ways the fact that America’s individualist mythology covers up a game that is fixed against them.” But this pragmatic streak also could also be a trap for reformers hoping to bridge the racial divide. “If it has been working-class whites who have been most vociferous in their opposition to affirmative action,” Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher wrote, “this at least in part arises out of an accurate assessment [that] they are the most likely to lose in any redistributionist game.”
Mr. Obama rejected the idea that appealing to Reagan Democrats required giving in to white grievance. Chiding centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council — chaired at the time by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas — he warned against retreating in the battle for civil rights. Moderates scrambling for the middle ground were just as misguided, he argued, as anti-racists implicitly pinning their hopes on a collective racial epiphany. Neither understood that bringing the conversation back to economics was the best way to beat the right. Instead of trimming their ambitions to court affluent suburbanites, Democrats had to embrace “long-term, structural change, change that might break the zero-sum equation that pits powerless blacks [against] only slightly less powerless whites.”
You might think it’s strange to hear Mr. Obama sounding like he’d just come from a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America. But even though his days as a GQ Marxist were in the past, he brought an appreciation for class politics with deep roots on the left into the next phase of his career.
All the pieces of Mr. Obama’s plan fit together: an electoral strategy designed to make Democrats the party of working people; a policy agenda oriented around comprehensive economic reform; and a faith that American democracy could deliver real change. By mixing political calculation with moral vision, Democrats could resurrect the March on Washington coalition and — finally — transform politics.
Holding the different elements of this program together was easier on the page than in real life. By the time of Mr. Obama’s star-making turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his policy ambitions had narrowed considerably. But he continued to follow key elements of the game plan outlined in “Transformative Politics.” When Mr. Obama scolded pundits for slicing America into red states and blue states, it wasn’t a dopey celebration of national harmony. It was a strategic attempt to drain the venom out of the culture wars, allowing Democrats to win back working-class voters who had been polarized into the G.O.P. And it elected him president, twice.
That makes what came next even more important. After the 2012 campaign, analysts (misleadingly) attributed Mr. Obama’s victory to a majority powered by young, diverse and highly educated Americans. With Donald Trump on the ascent, moral and political considerations appeared to point away from Bayard Rustin’s March on Washington coalition and toward what came to be known as the Obama coalition — an alliance that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the majority that a younger Mr. Obama envisioned but has become the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Today we are living in the world the Obama coalition has made. Yes, Democrats have won the popular vote in each of the past four presidential elections. But thanks to continued losses among blue-collar voters — including Latinos and a smaller but significant number of African Americans — the Obama coalition has remained a pipsqueak by historical standards. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the average Democratic margin of victory was 14.9 percentage points. Since 2008, it’s been 4.4 percentage points.
The party’s record in the midterms has been even shakier. Democrats held unified control of Congress for all of Mr. Roosevelt’s presidency. In the Obama era, divided government has been the norm. And no, that’s not just because of gerrymandering. House Republicans won the national popular vote three times in the past 12 years — 2010, 2014 and 2016 — and there’s a good chance they’ll do it again this November.
What does all this mean for Democrats? Although politicians and journalists like to say we’re confronting unprecedented threats to democracy, the party is facing the same basic problem that has bedeviled Democrats since the breakdown of the New Deal coalition in the 1960s. An electorate divided by culture isn’t going to deliver the votes that Democrats need to build a lasting majority.
The crisis of democracy, then, is really a problem of the Democratic coalition. So long as elections keep being decided by wafer-thin margins, the odds of a divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral College will stay high, voters in small rural states will continue to hold the balance of power in the Senate, and Republican election deniers will get new grist for conspiracy theorizing. Even if Democrats manage to take office, they won’t have the numbers to push through reforms that might break this electoral stalemate.
In a party where the spectrum of debate runs from Joe Manchin to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s no shortage of suggestions for what to do next. As the left calls for a comprehensive reworking of American society, moderates have made it clear they never again want to hear the words “Green New Deal,” let alone “defund the police.” Meanwhile, pundits and strategists advocating “popularism” have captured attention — and infuriated Twitter — by urging Democrats to ignore their activist base so that they can run on issues that poll well, downplay controversial positions and keep their policy ambitions modest.
What’s missing from all this is a vision for transcending the divide between the party’s rival sects, a plan for both winning elections and securing lasting change — in short, a program for transforming politics. The shrewder popularists are right to emphasize the dangers of Democrats bleeding support with the working class. But electoral victories will go to waste unless they lead to structural changes that break American politics out of its current doom loop. And even though campaigns to establish a pro-democracy popular front might keep a Trumpified G.O.P. out of power in the near term, a coalition elected to protect the status quo is unlikely to do much more than buy time until the political cycle eventually puts Republicans back in office.
This content was originally published here.