The Roseanne Test

Column: Which matters more: economics or identity politics?

March 30, 2018

In February, Chuck Schumer delivered a lecture at the McConnell Center of the University of Louisville. The center's namesake, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, listened as Schumer described the Democratic strategy for the midterm elections. "You cannot just run against Donald Trump," Schumer said. "It is the job of we Democrats to put together a strong cohesive economic group of proposals aimed at the middle class."

Now, it just so happens that there is a major economic issue waiting to be addressed by the two major parties: the cost of health care. Health care emerged as a voter priority in last year's elections in Virginia and Alabama. GOP polling finds that health care is a top-three concern for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. A Pew poll last week found that a majority of respondents said health care costs affect the financial situation of their household "a lot." Fifty-five percent of Americans worry more about health care costs than other issues, according to a Gallup poll released a few days ago. Health care is a traditional Democratic issue, a historical advantage that the party should be ready to exploit given the Republican majority's failure to repeal and replace Obamacare.

So, naturally, Democrats are talking about immigration. Not long before Schumer's trip to Kentucky, the Democrats briefly shut down the government over the DACA program. Last week, when Trump reluctantly signed the massive omnibus bill, Nancy Pelosi crowed about Democrats restricting funding for Trump's southern border wall and limiting resources available to border patrol and ICE. In recent days Democrats have been up in arms over the Trump administration's announcement that it will re-instate a question on citizenship in the 2020 census. "Undocumented immigrants might be afraid to respond, even though courts have ruled that citizens and non-citizens must be counted," wrote Crooked Media's Priyanka Aribindi. "If immigrants are undercounted, many communities won't get the funding or representation in Congress that they deserve."

Well, yeah. That's kind of the point.

It's noteworthy that this census controversy erupted the same week that the revival of 'Roseanne' debuted to record ratings. Roseanne Barr has announced, to jeers from preening liberals and cheers and curiosity from the audience, that both she and the character she plays on television support Donald Trump. Of course it makes perfect sense that the fictional Roseanne would back the president: She represented avant la lettre his base of white voters without college degrees, hard-working parents and now grandparents from the middle of the country whose lives were changed by de-industrialization and whose concerns have not been fully reflected in either the cultural or political discourse of the last quarter-century. As Roseanne tells her sister, a member of the Resistance, in the premiere: "He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he'd shake things up." That is an excellent summation of why Trump won. The fact is that economic necessity is far more important than the identity politics of Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, and YesAllWomen to members of the white working class, whose numbers are larger than we on the coasts assume.

My guess is that Roseanne Conner would react to the census news with her trademark sarcasm, with apathy caustically expressed, or even with shock that the questionnaire doesn't already ask respondents their citizenship status. It is simply commonsensical for the government to want to know how many people are citizens, how many are permanent legal residents, how many are temporary immigrants, how many are here illegally. And if indeed that knowledge results in changes to the distribution of money and House seats, which is by no means certain, it does not necessarily follow that Democrats would be harmed. Believe it or not, there are millions of Democrats who are, you know, American.

But Roseanne might also wonder why Democrats are so interested in directing taxpayer funds and federal representation to men and women and children who are in this country illegally—why they are placing this population, which avoided legal avenues of entry, equal to and in public emphasis ahead of the residents of Lanford, Illinois. Reasons must include the Democrats' misguided humanitarianism and ideology of multiculturalism, the power of Hispanic activist groups within the Democratic coalition, and the Democratic interest in maintaining the status quo of low-wage workers in exchange for the promise of future electoral success. And yet none of these answers has any relation to the everyday life of the Conner family as it works, spends, saves, and scrapes to make ends meet. On the contrary, by expanding the labor pool while straining available public resources for schools, hospitals, jails, and relief, illegal immigration leaves the Conners worse off.

Democrats fail the Roseanne Test because they are unable or unwilling to recognize and address the economic and social concerns of the men and women who used to be their voters. With some exceptions—Conor Lamb, Sherrod Brown, Tim Ryan, and perhaps Joe Biden—the Democrats have subordinated the priorities of the white working class to the agendas of special interest groups. This created the opportunity for Donald Trump to blame the situation of the Conners on the institutional and political framework of globalization. They liked what they heard.

This is not to say, however, that Republicans or even Trump will continue to pass the Roseanne Test. Democrats have a track record of using government power to enhance the economic security of everyday Americans. They are more comfortable with the welfare state. After all, they built it. As recently as Obama's reelection in 2012, Democrats effectively portrayed the Republican economic agenda as irrelevant or contrary to the fortunes of Middle Americans. They could do so again, especially if Republicans overreach or forget who put them in office. I have, for example, heard conservatives complain that Roseanne is not one of us. That is true. She is not a conservative. She is the type of swing voter who decides elections.