Or maybe not.
The racial dynamics have shifted since Bill Clinton has been in office.
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The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton relied on voters who were unfriendly—even hostile—to racial liberalism. And it moved accordingly. Bolstered by the economy as well as these cultural moves, Clinton would claim the center of American politics, winning an easy re-election and eventually ending his term as one of the most popular presidents in recent memory, despite scandal and an impeachment attempt.
But that was then. Today, those voters—among them millions of working-class white men—are lost to the Democratic Party, in a shift that began under George W. Bush but accelerated under the presidency of Barack Obama. Democrats today win a smaller share of white voters—and the white workers in particular—than ever before. The home for those voters is in the GOP, under Trump, who turned a substantial majority with working-class whites into an overwhelming one, enough to win Ohio and Iowa and possibly other Midwestern states. But there’s been a backlash to this backlash. Trump’s success with working-class whites has come at the expense of the Republican Party’s historic advantage with college-educated and professional whites, who now favor Hillary Clinton. Increasingly, the Democratic electorate is shorn of those voters who are skeptical of racial and cultural liberalism or who vote on that skepticism.
Hillary demonstrated her distance from racists just as her husband used Sister Souljah to demonstrate his independence from black interests.
Bill Clinton distanced himself from anything that smacked of identity politics or traditional liberalism. Hillary Clinton has not. This speaks to a larger reality in American politics. Racism—either virulent or implicit—is the enemy of progressive political coalitions. It’s either an obstacle to building those coalitions in the first place, or it’s a part of the process that unravels them. White departure from the Democratic Party cost it the Oval Office for nearly 20 years, and the effort to win those whites back yielded a disappointing and myopic centrism. But now those whites aren’t as central to Democratic presidential fortunes, and it has given many in the party the space they need to move in a more liberal direction. And looking at the tenor of Democratic policy debates over the past year—debates over how the welfare state should expand, not if it should—they have. Which is to say that the great upside of this shift is for the blacks, Latinos, and young people who form a critical part of the Democratic Party’s national electorate. Their demands for criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and broader economic reform—as channeled through the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders—aren’t a deal-breaker for national Democratic politicians.