Democrats' challenge

Reconnect with working class

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a concession speech after being defeated by Republican president-elect Donald Trump in New York on Nov 9, 2016.
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a concession speech after being defeated by Republican president-elect Donald Trump in New York on Nov 9, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

The difference between winning and losing could not have been more stark for the Democratic Party last week.

In the days leading up to Tuesday's election, the expectations that the party's candidate Hillary Clinton would win had some on the left gleefully predicting the implosion of a Republican party beset by internal squabbles. Yet now, the spotlight is on the disarray within the Democratic Party as it faces the prospect of spending years on the sidelines of power.

A battle is already brewing between the progressive and moderate wings of the party over who will be the new party chairman. At a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staff meeting last Thursday - the first after Mrs Clinton's shock defeat - one attendee reportedly disrupted the party chairman's speech and stormed out. According to the Huffington Post news site, the staff member yelled: "You backed a flawed candidate, and your friend (former DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) plotted through this to support your own gain and yourself."

The re-emergence of talk about the way the party had treated Mrs Clinton's rival Bernie Sanders during the primaries is emblematic of what many Democrats now say went wrong - the party had failed to properly address the needs of the working class.

And it was the disenfranchised working class that ultimately decided the election. The assumption that the party could disregard large swathes of the country while relying on increasing diversity in the urban areas to seal victory was also shown up as false.

As Dr Aaron Houck of Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, noted: "They've been counting on demographic trends, a more diverse and young electorate, to bail them out. It may eventually happen, but not yet."

While President Barack Obama proved to be a skilful enough politician to simultaneously appeal to the disenfranchised and enact economic policies the group opposed, Mrs Clinton could not.

And thus there is now pressure for the party to find a message that does not just regard rural voters as unpersuadable.

Mr Robert Reich, who was secretary of labour under president Bill Clinton, wrote on his blog: "I believe it necessary for the members and leadership of the Democratic National Committee to step down and be replaced by people who are determined to create a party that represents America - including all those who feel powerless and disenfranchised." The party too often reflected the goals and values of the moneyed, he said, adding: "This must change."

What that change looks like is uncertain, said analysts. In hindsight, the party should not have ignored the fact that Mr Sanders, a self-described socialist, won 47 per cent of the vote in the primaries. While it is hard to say whether Mr Sanders could have beaten Mr Trump, the two had nearly identical economic messages.

Stll, Cornell University professor of American politics Elizabeth Sanders is optimistic the party will adapt: "The thing about the Democratic Party is that, when they've been in the minority, they've found their soul."

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Reconnect with working class'. Print Edition | Subscribe