In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US presidential election, Democrats are grappling with a leadership vacuum. There are a few stand-out politicians on the left, including senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Al Franken. But Donald Trump’s victory has led to (understandable) confusion and inertia at a time when many Americans are desperate for leadership.
Democrats looking to reinvigorate the party might do well to follow the lead of California congressperson Maxine Waters. The 78-year-old Waters has served in the US House of Representatives since 1991, but her star has been on the rise since she emerged as one of the party’s most vocal—and blunt—critics of Trump. “I decided to forget about caution,” she told New York Magazine’s The Cut on Wednesday. “I decided to take the gloves off and to go for it.”
This week’s news further cemented Waters’ position as a left-wing hero. First, she argued on the House floor that opposition to Trump was an example of true patriotism. Then she expertly shut down a personal attack from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who said on his show that he couldn’t focus on the speech because of her “James Brown wig.”
“I am a strong black woman,” California congressperson Maxine Waters responded on the MSNBC show All in with Chris Hayes. “I cannot be intimated, I cannot be undermined … I’d like to say to women out there everywhere, don’t allow these right-wing talking heads, these dishonorable people to intimidate you or scare you. Be who you are, do what you do, and let us get on with discussing the real issues of this country.”
Waters’ forthright condemnation of right-wing media came as a relief—and a rallying point—for Democrats sick of mainstream articles urging them to abandon abortion advocacy, or talk less about trans rights, or stop speaking out against sexism and racism. Critics have argued that these moves are necessary to broaden the party’s appeal and win back white working-class voters who swung from Barack Obama to Trump, and are credited with winning the election.
What’s less discussed is the fact that Clinton was supposed to appeal to moderate voters; that was her selling point. Trump is staggeringly unpopular for a president this early in his term; why try to compromise with someone whose support is disintegrating? Democrats are desperate for leaders who will take a principled stand and reject Trump’s politics of hectoring bigotry and cruelty. That’s why Waters is resonating with so many people.
O’Reilly’s attack also shows why the calls for the left to reject identity politics are so hollow. O’Reilly, like Trump, highlights identity every chance he gets. His sneer at Waters was a sneer at her identity as a black woman. He attacked her appearance in order to diminish her opinions, relying on racist tropes about black women’s hair. When Waters said that O’Reilly and conservative media were “dishonorable people,” she was also saying that racist and sexist people are dishonorable. Neither women nor anyone else should pay attention to what they have to say.
Maxine Waters’ clear-eyed rejection of Trump and the Fox News ethos is commendable, but not unique. In fact, black women have been quite consistent in rejecting Trump. Overall, 93% of black women voted for Clinton. In comparison, Clinton won only 80% of black men, and narrowly lost to Trump among white women—52% of them voted for him.
Given that black women were hit especially hard by the financial crisis, and that 23% of black women lived in poverty in 2015, why has this demographic proved so resistant to Trump’s populist rhetoric? Perhaps because they are uniquely positioned to see that Trump and his cronies aren’t anti-elitist at all. Rather, they endorse a particular kind of elitism, which sees white men as superior to women and to black people.
When O’Reilly chortles on Fox News about a black woman’s hair, he is engaging in what James Baldwin called “the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of living is not real.” Waters’ experiences as a black woman mean that she is particularly capable of identifying that laughter and call it out.
Democrats been trying to figure out how to recapture white voters since white Southerns began deserting the party in the wake of the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s (pdf). Now the issue has become particularly pressing once again, with Bernie Sanders saying that he felt “humiliated” that so many members of the white working class voted for Trump.
Expanding the party’s appeal is good. But it’s important not to abandon principle while doing it. Rather than looking to Trump voters, Democrats should take a moment to listen to Waters—who understands the importance of talking boldly about what you’re against, and what you’re for. Waters herself knows how this strategy works. Talking about her connection with young people with The Cut, she said, “What I’m discovering is that, instead of doing outreach that doesn’t connect, if you appear to be speaking truth to power, and if you’re willing to fight, and if you’re willing to take the shackles off this political way that we communicate, they connect on their own. They like what they hear, they like what they see, they’re inspired by it, then they get involved.”