U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Was the “Obama Coalition” Built on Nationalism or Populism?

Post-mortems of the 2016 Presidential election continue to come in as new data become available, but a primary line of interpretation seems to be already set. A new analysis by Nate Cohn of the New York Times came out just before Christmas, and it is full of data which fall neatly in place alongside that congealing story: Hillary Clinton’s fundamental campaigning flaw was that she abandoned the white working class[1] to Trump; if she had made a serious play for these voters, she would have added a victory in the Electoral College to her (ample) popular vote win.

Cohn’s article is titled “How the Obama Coalition Crumbled, Leaving an Opening for Trump,” and in a sense it is as much a revision of standard narratives about what the “Obama coalition” was in 2008 and 2016 as it is an analysis of 2016. “Campaign lore has it that President Obama won thanks to a young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan ‘coalition of the ascendant’ — an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy,” relying particularly on a surging demographic bloc of Latinx voters. However, hidden in this triumphal narrative was a sticky fact, possibly obscured by bad exit polling: Obama’s electoral base was surprisingly dependent on the support of “whites without a college degree,” who made up 34 percent of Obama’s voters,  a share “larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.” Cohn underlines this surprising fact with two astonishing data points: “Mr. Obama would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all,” and he “would have won Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin” in 2008 and 2012 “even if Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee had been severed from their states and cast adrift into the Great Lakes.”[2]

The interpretation Cohn gives to this set of facts is a fairly standard one: Clinton made her case not to the working class whites that the Obama coalition essentially rested upon, but rather misread demographic and electoral data about the 2008 and 2012 elections and forecasts for the 2016 election and decided she could win without them. Eschewing the economic populism which enabled Obama to  connect with this part of the electorate (especially in the upper Midwest) and pin his opponents down as part of the 1%, Clinton instead chased affluent, highly-educated Republicans disillusioned with Trump.

It is plain that there was a sizable Obama-Trump vote, and that such a vote was largely concentrated among whites without a college degree. How to interpret that fact, however, is not as clear as Cohn (and many others), I think, believe. Cohn states that Obama and Trump “had the same winning pitch to white working-class voters,” which was to blame their opponents for the decades-long patterns of job loss in manufacturing and extraction industries, typified by autoworkers and coal-miners. Cohn points out that Obama was unable to address the latter constituency effectively, and his weakness in coal country was “a harbinger of just how far the Democrats would fall in their old strongholds once they forfeited the mantle of working-class interests.” Trump found success, meanwhile, by hammering at the issue of trade, a territory where he could effectively align Clinton (partially through her husband) with the global forces wiping out the U.S.’s blue collar jobs.

Cohn provides some more surprising data suggesting some continuity between Obama’s appeal and Trump’s: exit polls suggest that “Trump won 19 percent of white voters without a degree who approved of Mr. Obama’s performance, including 8 percent of those who ‘strongly’ approved of Mr. Obama’s performance and 10 percent of white working-class voters who wanted to continue Mr. Obama’s policies. Mr. Trump won 20 percent of self-identified liberal white working-class voters, according to the exit polls, and 38 percent of those who wanted policies that were more liberal than Mr. Obama’s.”

Implicit in Cohn’s analysis are a few hypotheticals: what if Clinton had tried to salvage at least some populist credibility with the white working class? What if a more populist candidate had run for the Democrats (e.g., Sanders)? Put a bit more forcefully, if it was Obama’s populism that delivered him wins in 2008 and 2012, why the heck couldn’t Clinton just copy his playbook? And if she could not or would not, why in the world couldn’t Democrats coalesce around someone who could?

These are questions which I have heard many people on the left asking, and they clearly need an answer. But there are some underlying ideas here—about populism and class, about nationalism and race—that I think need to be addressed first. Because I am not persuaded that we understand Obama’s appeal to the white working-class very well without talking about nationalism, and I am absolutely unconvinced that Democrats could have won with an exclusively economic populism, that is, with a message wholly about reforms of Wall Street and a more robust set of social democratic institutions or policies.

To be blunter, I don’t think Sanders’s message would have gained the Democratic ticket very many votes among whites without a college degree, because I don’t think those Obama-Trump voters were looking for a merely economic form of populism. They were looking for nationalism, and Sanders would never have given them the nationalism they desired.[3] If you don’t buy that, minimally I’d like to suggest that nationalism provides a second thread linking the Obama and Trump appeals to the white working class.

It probably will not take much convincing for me to suggest to you that a large part of Trump’s appeal was built on nationalism. His much-vaunted slogan, “Make America Great Again,” does that without any subtlety. To make the case that Obama’s appeal to future Trump voters was primarily one of nationalism may take a little more explication. But here is where we need to think more deeply about Obama’s place in recent U.S. history and the peculiar nature of his political talents.

Like many of the most successful Presidents, Obama was able to speak in a way that resonated differently among different groups, and nowhere was that more the case than in the way he spoke about the United States. To that “coalition of the ascendant,” Obama offered a personal story about a multi-racial and cosmopolitan man who had proved by dint of his own life story that there remained some truth to the national myths of merit and equality of opportunity. Obama was evidence that, at least sometimes, the system of meritocratic higher education and political ambition worked. After eight years of an administration that time and again seemed to demonstrate the essential hypocrisy of meritocracy—starting from the top, the Bush Presidency specialized in appointing and promoting people with excellent resumes and stupid (if not also dangerous) ideas—Obama’s election and administration offered a sort of balm to those whose lives and careers rested on the validity of meritocracy. If the best the Ivy League could do was George W. Bush, then why bother? But if the best the Ivy League could do was Barack (and Michelle) Obama, perhaps meritocracy was not wholly broken.

To those whose lives and careers orbited around other institutions and who observed other principles of leadership, Obama offered a different kind of redemption. I do not think journalists—other than perhaps David Finkel and a few others—or historians or any other public intellectuals have taken the full measure of the sense of shame and embarrassment that the Iraq War delivered to those families touched by men and women in the service, or who were affected by it in some way. The incredible success of American Sniper, which almost wholly sidestepped the larger issues of the war and especially of its origin, is one measure of a deeply felt need to find some source of pride in the wreckage of a national disgrace. I think voting for Obama provided another vehicle for purging some of the shame and embarrassment of Iraq, particularly among the white working class, or that part of the white working class who voted for Obama one or both times.

It is interesting to note that both Presidential candidates who served in Vietnam have lost (Kerry and McCain), while all three with very questionable records in regards to military service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump) have won, while Trump even very publicly insulted McCain’s status as a former prisoner of war. Whether something like that—a subtle stain of disgrace or embarrassment—may attach to future Presidential candidates with Iraq War records, I suppose we will just have to see. But the larger point is that it is at least plausible that one of the primary sources of Obama’s appeal to those working class whites who did vote for him was his absolute distance from the shame of the Iraq War. Running for re-election, Obama effectively made the claim that he had cleaned up Bush’s mess, or was in the process of doing so. (Osama bin Laden had been killed in 2011, while ISIL would not be on the radar screens of most American voters until 2014.)

In both 2008 and 2012, Obama was in a sense clean of the worst American sin: losing. That was, I’d argue, the core of a nationalist appeal which Obama offered many people who badly wanted to feel like the United States wasn’t run by a bunch of losers. That this was essentially the same promise and the same pitch that Trump—who loudly dissembled about his own record on the Iraq War—offered suggests the real nature of the thread connecting Obama and Trump for this group of white working class voters identified by Cohn. Trump, like Obama, offered a way to make America a nation of winners again.

Clearly, this nationalist appeal cuts transversally across issues of race, and the interaction of these two factors was enormously potent in the case of Trump’s campaign. But for those searching for a way to wrap their heads around the possibility of an Obama-Trump voter, I think nationalism is where we must begin. Obama is one of the most effective nationalists in recent U.S. history, even as his foreign policy trended away from the unilaterialism of George W. Bush. In many ways, those voters who swung to Trump in this last election understood Obama’s nationalism much better than his highly-educated “base” did—or perhaps they received the message he intended for them, and we received the message intended for us.

[1] For the sake of convenience, I’m going to use “working class whites” and “whites without college degrees” interchangeably. This equation is problematic, and the problem it skips past is actually one of the more significant in interpreting the nature of the Trump vote. Certainly, not all people who do not have a college degree would be classified in the working class on the basis of income (and vice versa) but there is enough overlap to hold this argument together for the time being.

[2] This latter point is to reinforce the fact that, while Clinton may have lost due to a lower turnout among African-Americans, the same rate would not have sunk Obama’s campaign because of his much, much better performance among whites without college degrees.

[3] I’m using “populism” here in the conventional way, meaning something like “tapping into widespread discontent rooted in economic hardship and identifying the affluent as the source of that distress.” But as Jan-Werner Muller argues in his recent (and excellent) What Is Populism?, that definition isn’t really restrictive enough to be of much use. His arguments about the nationalist dimensions of populism have deeply influenced my analysis here, although I’m still using the conventional nomenclature which separates nationalism and populism more than may actually be the case. At any rate, my argument about Sanders would be that his platform is almost wholly based on class, and really many of his ideas (and certainly a good portion of his affect) have no connections with the kind of nationalism that I’m arguing sustained a great deal of Trump’s support this year. If Democrats wanted to run a candidate to undercut Trump’s appeal, they would have been better off with a candidate who had significantly better patriotic bona fides, not one who had a more economically populist message.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a great interpretation of the Cohn article. The rhetoric of US exceptionalism, which Obama also pushed forward in his own particular way, is part and parcel of the nationalism that is described so well here.

    But I am not so sure about the suggestion that Sanders invoked a “merely economic” populism: 1) he also appealed to a “political” brand of populism, through his constant critique of oligarch; 2) he appealed to a “youth”-based populism (not unlike Obama in 2008; it is important to note that the importance of age in voting is often sidelined in these discussions, Cohn doesn’t even mention it); and 3) and perhaps more importantly, Sanders’s discourse on socioeconomic inequality is profoundly moral. Again and again he indicted the immorality of the status quo, which included Hillary Rodham Clinton in the eyes of many of his supporters. Populism is definitely fueled by nationalism, but it also develops as a morality play. I am not interested much on hypothetical questions about the past, but I can imagine Sanders capturing at least some of the Trump voters who rejected HRC a priori, just because of his performance of moral purity, a spectacle which she was unable to pull off.

  2. Kahlil, that is such a valuable point, and clearly one of Clinton’s many vulnerabilities was her inability or unwillingness to engage in that morality play. Her attacks on Trump tended more towards a sort of professional ethic; the one moment that seemed to suggest more was her response to his refusal to pledge to accept the election results.

    But I’d still be disinclined to believe that Sanders could have won back some of those Obama-Trump voters by targeting Trump on moral grounds, because in an important sense Trump’s appeal (and I’d argue Obama’s appeal, for some people) isn’t really affected by moral considerations but instead a more Nietzschean dialectic of winning and losing. With Trump, this was more blatantly about strength and weakness, but with Obama I think it was not that different (again, just within this particular segment of the electorate that voted for Obama one or both times and then Trump). For Obama, it may not have been strength and weakness, but I do think it was about shame and pride. That’s not really a morality play, and maybe that’s another reason to put some analytical space between Obama’s nationalism and his populism.

    • Point well taken, Andy, although I feel uncertain about your certainty in regards to how the so-called Obama-Trump voters would have reacted to Sanders’s rhetoric of morality. Truth of the matter, as you know, is that there are serious limitations to this kind of speculation (which is why I only adventured to say “some voters” and not necessarily enough votes to win an election). What you say here suggests an either/or logic, as if the process of those who voted for Trump entailed x factor but not y. It is important in this regard to separate a bit the rhetoric of a political figure from the beliefs and voting patterns of the electorate, which are profoundly fluid and heterogeneous. Part of what I appreciated from the Cohn piece is that it seemed to take the messinness of this process into consideration. Last but not least, we have no idea if Sanders’s campaign would have also shifted its rhetoric to counter Trump’s dog eat dog brand of exceptionalism, with its own brand of nationalism or cultural populism. But then again, we fall into a game of what ifs, hehe.

      • These are all great and necessary points. I think it’s very important not to assume too much about a single factor, but at the same time (not that you’re denying this, clearly), I feel like nationalism is a factor that is not receiving enough attention, at least as a positive principle (in contrast to the negative principle of anti-globalism). I personally would like to follow up on this in the future by thinking more about nationalism, experimenting with ways to use the concept as a central focus for interpretation, even if that means I lose track, temporarily, of alternative interpretations or factors. To me, contemporary nationalism seems like a puzzle we haven’t figured out. Not that I can, but I’d like to try a bit.

  3. Thanks, Andy and Kahlil, for this very stimulating discussion. It seems to me that one of the keywords to play around with, here, is *greed* (which just happens to be one of my research areas, as a nodal point connecting the history of capitalism and political theology). If I can, I will post something more articulate about this soon!

  4. I am curious about the historical context of the “Obama coalition.” How is it unique compared to other electoral combinations since 1988? How does Obama’s nationalism or populism compare with Dukakis in 1988? Or Gore or Kerry? My guess is the coalition Nate Cohn and others are describing may be more accurately be described as the Democratic coalition or perhaps a center-left neoliberal coalition. Perhaps instead of viewing Obama as a transformational presidency, we’ve simply seeing a vacillation of the current political alignment we’ve seen since 1976 or 1980.

    We’ve seen volatility within the electorate the past several years. Ten years ago, the voters put an end to Karl Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority, and those same voters elected a biracial man with the middle name of Hussein to White House and gave his party both houses of Congress to affect “change.”

    Is it any surprise with an extremely slow, uneven economy recovery, the Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats at all levels of government? I am curious why you think the Democrats couldn’t win with economic populism. I am willing to be convinced, but I am skeptical. What is the basis for your assertion? What was the appeal of the Occupy movement if not economic? I remember Bill Clinton campaigning about the inequallity of the Reagan-Bush years in 1992.

    Also, how do we best explain the decimation we’ve witnessed among the center-left parties in Europe that we’ve seen in this age of austerity? Have all of these countries been run by “losers,” or are their living standards being eroded by neoliberal policies that have been pushed by technocrats?

  5. The OP is provocative (in a good way), as Andy’s posts v. often are.

    I’m not, as of now at any rate, esp. convinced by the argument that Obama’s appeal (or a large part of it) to the white working class voters who supported him was his distance from the shame of the Iraq war, nor by the suggestion that nationalism-as-‘winning’ was Obama’s message to these voters. The contention that Obama was “one of the most effective nationalists” in recent US politics I think needs more elaboration, at a minimum.

    The argument about the source of Obama’s appeal to these white voters is rather speculative, which is fine for a blog post, but if this were a longer piece it would need underpinning evidence: e.g., what did Obama actually say that conveyed the alleged message (if he didn’t use the word “winning” and I don’t recall him doing so, what functional or rhetorical equivalents did he use?); and is there any evidence from polling or other sources that white w/c voters who voted for Obama cited this message as a reason for supporting him?

    Second, on the context: yes, Obama played up the Bin Laden raid in running for re-election. However, the withdrawal of active US combat forces from Iraq in Dec. 2011, while it kept his ’08 campaign pledge, was hard to portray as a victory or even really as wiping out a shame, even though admittedly Obama himself had opposed the ’03 invasion and couldn’t be held responsible for GW Bush’s mess (but meanwhile Repubs cd try to argue that Bush’s ‘surge’ of 06-07 and the ‘Anbar awakening’ salvaged at least temporarily an otherwise disastrous situation). Moreover, there was Afghanistan, where Obama had added 30,000 US soldiers in Dec. ’09 and which was not an esp. good situation, iirc, when his re-election campaign was underway. (Though there were periodic ups and downs that I won’t pretend to be able to remember the exact time frames for.)

    Maybe I simply wasn’t attuned to what Obama was saying to white w/c voters and how the message was being received, and if I were to read journalistic or pol sci accounts of his two pres. campaigns I might realize what I missed at the time. But pending that, at the moment I’m not really persuaded that this (‘winning’) was the source of his appeal to them.

    • Louis,
      Totally fair, and I tried to elaborate a little bit on what I think Obama’s message was in the comment below, especially regarding the way Obama fitted the nationalism-as-winning message to his own brand.

      You’re right that this argument needs more evidence, but as you point out, this is largely speculative or intuitive–it’s not my current research project and probably won’t become it, although I do hope to follow up with some further reading about contemporary nationalism, and to post some responses to my reading here.

  6. Kurt,
    Please do! I would love a political theology-infused take on all this.

    Brian,
    You raise a lot of great questions, and I don’t think I can answer them all, but I’ll try to give a general answer. My reading of Cohn’s argument is that he makes two points. One, other people have been talking about an Obama coalition as a “coalition of the ascendant,” but their analysis is flawed, overstating the decisiveness of the Latinx vote and other “rising” demographic groups. Two, Obama’s coalition was, however, different in crucial ways from the makeup of previous Democratic electorates. As Cohn writes, “He excelled in a nearly continuous swath from the Pacific Coast of Oregon and Washington to the Red River Valley in Minnesota, along the Great Lakes to the coast of Maine. In these places, Mr. Obama often ran as strong or stronger than any Democrat in history.” I’m not completely sure how much history Cohn’s including in his “any Democrat in history,” but let’s just take Michigan as an index. Obama’s 57.33 and 54.12% of the vote there in 2008 and 2012 easily tops any Democrat’s share since 1964; in 2008 he won by 16.5%. Considering that Dems lost Michigan in every election between 1972 and 1992 (when Clinton won only 44%), that’s not shabby. Cohn attributes this overperformance of historical Democratic outcomes not to extraordinary turnout among African-Americans (although that clearly helped) but to better than usual success among the white working class. A lot of Obama’s success there got washed out in national numbers by the South, I’d guess, and so has been largely hidden from the narrative. So I think it’s fair to say that Obama achieved something that we can’t just explain as the electorate shifting from one foot to the other, or as the ordinary Democratic vote plus a little extra in turnout. Obama connected in ways that no other Democrat had since Johnson.

    Okay, so with that established, we’re left with the populism or nationalism question. As Kahlil pointed out above, I’ve turned this too much into an either-or proposition, but I did so mainly to force us to consider the viability of nationalism as an answer, and specifically an answer for Obama’s unusual degree of success. His overperformance of other Democratic candidates historically, I’m arguing, came from the effectiveness of his nationalism, not from running a more populist campaign than Clinton in 1992 (just 44% of the vote in Michigan) or, say, Carter in 1976 (46.44%, lost to Ford). Where Obama’s additional 10% came from, I’m arguing, was not better messaging on inequality but better messaging on “America.”

    I certainly understand the skepticism, though. Let’s start with Europe first. I do think that the message of many of the so-called populist leaders is about the flaccidity of both national and EU leadership; Beppe Grillo is probably the best example here, but Nigel Farage and the Leave campaign had much the same message: “our leaders are too weak to protect us, to look out for our national interests. They’re losers; they get the short end of every deal. We’re going to start sticking it to everyone else if you put us in power.”

    Was Obama saying this? Not as bluntly, but in both 2008 and 2012, he largely ran against Bush, and beneath the “Hope” and “Change” mantras was a fairly simple promise: “I’ll stop doing stupid shit” (his administration’s watchword). I am arguing that this message connected with many voters–including many white working class voters–whose lives had been profoundly affected by the stupid shit of the Iraq War and by the shame of having been the casualty of someone’s stupidity and arrogance. Obama was saying, “I’m not going to put you in the position of being losers, and I’m going to give you a reason to feel good about being an American.” Yes, Obama was also talking about inequality, but we need to pay more attention to that part of his message which wasn’t about what Republicans were doing to the middle class or the working class, but what Bush and the Republicans had done to the nation by entering Iraq.

    • I find this version of the argument much more convincing than the original one, insofar as its definition of “nationalism” does plausibly reflect a key aspect of Obama’s appeal (“I’ll stop doing stupid shit”). If this is “nationalism,” it is a nationalism entirely compatible with, indeed drawing strength from, the economic populism that also marked Obama’s campaign against Romney (since both promise, as you say, to “give you a reason to feel good about being an American”). I am at a loss, though, to see why we should conclude from this that Sanders would not similarly have benefited from the twinned forces of a (left) “nationalism”/”populism” (I stress “twinned”: they are clearly not at all either/or; rather, complementary).

      • Len,
        I’m not trying to duck the question, but I’d like to hear from you what Sanders did to make any of his supporters feel good about being American? Sanders framed most of his policy critiques in terms of where the U.S. falls short of other developed countries–in incarceration rates, in paid family leave policies, in health care, you name it. Moreover, he presented those shortcomings as normal for the U.S., not as a short term screw-up by a single President, but an ingrained part of the nation’s political culture.
        Similarly, a comparison between Obama and Sanders is instructive. Sanders, in his debates with Clinton, talked about American foreign policy as fundamentally flawed in ways that led to Iraq, going after Kissinger and US Cold War strategies as much as Bush. Obama directed his criticism (as far as I remember) totally against Bush/Cheney and their advisors. The problem was not an “American” problem, it was at most a Republican problem or a neoconservative problem.

        Clearly, a large number of primary voters found Sanders’s posture of truth-telling and structural critique–maybe we can call it left patriotism–appealing, but I see no evidence for believing that his appeal would extend indefinitely into the general electorate. If you’ve got some evidence why this would have worked, I’m happy to hear it.

      • P.S. The above is not a critique of Sanders’s primary message, just a statement of doubt that it could be characterized as nationalist or that its primary appeal was about making Americans feel good about their country.

  7. I don’t know what would constitute “evidence.” We’re all dealing with the same core data (Cohn’s). The data don’t tell us enough, though, about voter motivation–so we’re inferring motivation on the basis of intuitions. I’m conscious that intuitions about counterfactuals (“what if Sanders had been the nominee”) are especially subject to bias and a kind of question-begging wish-fulfillment, but in this case I think the question-begging is on your end: you’ve committed to rejecting the least complicated explanation of the Obama-Trump supporter (economic populism), but the alternative terms you propose don’t quite cohere yet, at least for me. In any event, I’m not convinced that Sanders’ appeal was ever characterizable as “a merely economic form of populism”; his surprising popularity always depended, in my view, on his capacity to imbue the economic arguments with loftier vision–which might share some territory, in terms of affective gratification, with the “nationalism” or “patriotism” you’re referring to.

  8. Put differently, I think you’re probably right that the appeal of both Obama and Trump (but also potentially Sanders) depend on the mobilization of positive affect (a positive affect importantly undergirded by anger) that might go under the head of “patriotism” or “nationalism,” but I see no reason to divorce this explanation from “economic populism.” They seem, again, totally entwined. Hillary, all too clearly, failed to mobilize this affect–in part because she failed to make the required economic case.

  9. Len,
    I think you’re evading the point by tucking Sanders’s appeal in with Obama’s as “the mobilization of positive affect” without addressing my point that, in Sanders’s case, that affect did not have as its object the United States or “American identity.” My argument has at every step been about the way Obama and Trump both mobilized this particular affect in this particular direction. I’m arguing further that Sanders did not try to mobilize this affect in this direction, and that there is nothing in his record to suggest he would have suddenly turned into a flag-waving American exceptionalist had he gotten the nomination. That’s the evidence I asked for–not a hypothetical, but a moment or action taken by Sanders that would suggest he had some American exceptionalist side that would have come out in the general election.

    Secondly, I don’t see how economic populism is the “least complicated” explanation for the existence of the Obama-Trump voter. There’s not very much overlap between the economic programs that Obama ran on in 2008 and 2012 and the one Trump ran on in 2016. Presuming that economic populism is the core thread tying voter behavior together across these three elections forces us to presume that these voters weren’t listening to a word of what these candidates actually proposed to do, only responding to some indignant affect common to both; economic populism becomes exclusively a style, totally indifferent to content. Apparently these voters could totally miss the fact that for Obama populism meant “quasi-universal health care” and for Trump it meant “Repeal Obamacare,” or that Obama’s economic plans included developing clean energy technology and for Trump it included reviving the coal industry. Far from “least complicated,” arguing for the centrality of economic populism to the Obama-Trump voter seems to require extensive exceptions and qualifications to function.

    • If the phenomenon under discussion is still the Obama-Trump voter, then yes, my sense is that “style” and “indignant affect”–or, put more positively, a belief that the real direction of a candidate’s policy commitments is indicated by a more diffusely signaled set of beliefs than are captured in a policy platform–have to be where we seek voter motivation. You’re never going to account for an Obama-Trump voter in terms of areas of overlap between either candidate’s actual policy. That’s why we have a problem for interpretation, right? As far as Sanders as “flag-waving American exceptionalist” goes, I still don’t know what would count as evidence, because I still don’t know what counts as “nationalist” for your argument. The Sanders campaign seemed at least as fluent in patriotic kitsch as any other: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nwRiuh1Cug

  10. Actually, the America ad was precisely the kind of thing I was looking for as evidence. But I think if we go back and look at the campaign, it stands out as one of the few instances where this kind of approach was taken. It worked as a brief ad, and as a change of pace from the much more critical attitude of his campaign. I think more of this kind of campaigning would have had diminishing returns.

    We’re clearly getting nowhere arguing hypotheticals about Sanders-as-general-election-candidate. That’s not really the point anyway. The point of my original post was that populism isn’t a sufficient, maybe not even a very good explanation for the Obama-Trump voter because the Obama coalition was tied together by nationalism, not by populism. What I mean by that is, Obama had different messages for different groups of voters (like any successful candidate) but the unifying message was about retaking pride in an American identity. For some voters, this had more to do with the symbolic nature of electing a cosmopolitan Black man; for others, I’m arguing, this had more to do with Obama’s clearheadedness regarding Iraq and with the belief that the US’s global standing would recover with the election of Obama. Bottom line, I think the vast majority of Obama’s voters pulled the lever for him because they felt that the day after Election Day they would be able to hold their heads higher as Americans.

    In order to win, Trump had to peel off some of those Obama voters–and he clearly did. I’m arguing that the lever he used on those voters was nationalism. Those Obama-Trump voters may have also responded to Trump’s populism, but what secured their votes, I believe, was that he promised to do more than just improve their economic standing or stanch the bleeding of manufacturing jobs. He promised a prouder American identity, a feeling of greater national strength and international respect. That is, I’m saying, what those same voters looked to Obama for.

  11. This comment got too long as I was writing it (it’s still pretty long), so I’ve eliminated a lot of graphs that were about other things and cut to the nationalist chase, so to speak. This is not to say I’m definitely accepting Andy’s argument (I’m keeping an open mind on it), but just to offer some reflections on ‘nationalism’ as a campaign theme.

    It seems to me that recent Democratic candidates (with the exception of Obama) have not been effective purveyors of a nationalist or crudely/unabashedly patriotic message, even when they have tried to be. Dukakis rode in a tank and looked ridiculous; Kerry when accepting the nomination saluted and said he was “reporting for duty” and (despite his actual military service) also seemed ridiculous; Bill Clinton’s appeal had more to do with his personal story and forward-looking mantra (“don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”) and when he inserted nationalist themes in his speeches they seemed quite pro forma. And frankly I remember almost nothing about Al Gore’s 2000 campaign except that it was not all that good in terms of ‘messaging’.

    Trump’s ‘make America great again’ slogan was rooted in the covert and also sometimes overt contention that the U.S. is being taken advantage of: China (supposedly) does it on trade, the European and other allies don’t pay their fair share of the defense burden, Mexico sends us (he charged inaccurately) the dregs of its society, and so on. So he was able to link the macro and micro: the theme that the U.S. was being disrespected w/ the theme that particular groups w/in the U.S. were being disrespected. The upshot was a nationalist appeal based on resentments and dissatisfaction, not a nationalist appeal based on a re- telling of a progressively inclusionary national story (which was the implicit message of Obama’s autobiographical trajectory).

    Trump’s slogan was ‘make America great again’ but did he ever talk explicitly about what had once made America great — about the content of the supposedly lost greatness? Not really, except insofar as it includes the kind of mass manufacturing/extraction economy that had started to change as early as the late 1960s/early 1970s. Basically he let his audience fill in the blanks about what had once (allegedly) made America great, allowing his voters to mobilize in response whatever disconnected snippets of pop culture and bad or oversimplified history might have been floating around in their heads.

    Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough for one comment.

Comments are closed.