A Three Point Plan To Fix the Democrats and Their Coalition
It Can Be Done But It Won’t Be Easy
The Republican Party, according to Democrats, has given rein to some of the darker impulses in the national psyche, has shown flagrant disregard for democratic norms and offers little to the American people in terms of effective policy. There is considerable truth to this indictment and Democrats have not been shy about making their case in uninhibited language (“semi-fascist”, “ultra-MAGA”, etc.)
Yet Democrats cannot decisively beat their opponents as this election seems likely to show once again. The party is uncompetitive among white working class voters and among voters in exurban, small town and rural America. This puts them at a massive structural disadvantage given an American electoral system that gives disproportionate weight to these voters, especially in Senate and Presidential elections. To add to the problem, Democrats are now hemorrhaging nonwhite working class voters in many areas of country.
The facts must be faced. The Democratic coalition today is not fit for purpose. It cannot beat Republicans consistently in enough areas of the country to achieve dominance and implement its agenda at scale. The Democratic Party may be the party of blue America, especially deep blue metro America, but its bid to be the party of the ordinary American, the common man and woman, is falling short.
There is a simple—and painful—reason for this. The Democrats really are no longer the party of the common man and woman. The priorities and values that dominate the party today are instead those of educated, liberal America which only partially overlap—and sometimes not at all—with those of ordinary Americans.
This has to change. I offer here a three point plan to put the Democrats on a different path where they might reasonably hope to be once again the party of the common man and woman. I won’t pretend that will be easy but I think given political will it can be done. Perhaps the results of the 2022 election will help concentrate the mind as the prospect of the 2024 election looms (President Trump anyone?)
Here are the three parts of the plan, explicated in several of my recent posts and collected here in one convenient package.
1. Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues
2. Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda
3. Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism
Let’s take them each in turn.
Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues
This is not optional. Many Democrats wish to believe the contrary and offer as proof the abortion issue where the party, thanks to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, has been able to occupy center ground in opposition to significant parts of the GOP who wish to ban the procedure. But crime isn’t the abortion issue. Immigration isn’t the abortion issue. Race essentialism and gender ideology aren’t the abortion issue. Even the abortion issue isn’t the abortion issue once you get past opposing bans and start having to deal with the nitty-gritty of setting some limits on abortion access (as the public wants).
The sad fact is that the cultural left in and around the Democratic party has managed to associate the party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. These unpopular views are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by the cultural left. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.
As a direct result of these associations, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
Instead, Democrats continue to be weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding the party as a whole is very difficult, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism. Democratic candidates in competitive races certainly try to rebrand on an individual level but their ability to escape the gravitational pull of the national party is limited.
This matters a great deal. The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on, say, abortion and select economic issues and ignore sociocultural issues where they are viewed as out of the mainstream is absurd. Culture matters and the issues to which they are connected matter. They are a hugely important part of how voters assess who is on their side and who is not; whose philosophy they can identify with and whose they can’t.
Thus, to even get in the door with many working class and rural voters and make their pitch, Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously and their views on culturally-freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance is stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues.
With this context in mind, consider some recent poll results. The latest NBC poll tested which party voters preferred on a number of different issues. Republicans were preferred over Democrats by 36 points on border security, 23 points on dealing with crime and by 19 points on immigration. All three of these ratings are the highest net advantages for the GOP ever found on the NBC poll.
In the recent New York Times/Sienna poll, voters by 15 points (49-34) say Democrats have gone too far in pushing a “woke” ideology on issues related to race and gender, rather than not far enough. This balloons to a 23 point margin (53-30) among all working class (noncollege) voters, 36 points (61-25) among white working class voters and 39 points (59-20) among rural voters.
In the same poll, voters, by 31 points (61-30) endorsed the idea that “gender is determined by a person’s biological sex at birth” rather than an identity that can be divorced from biological sex. Among all working class voters the gap was 43 points (67-24), among rural voters it was 51 points (70-19) and among white working class voters it was 54 points (73-19).
Even more lop-sided, the poll asked voters whether they supported or opposed “allowing public school teachers to provide classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to children in elementary school (grades 1-5)” Note that this stipulation is actually stricter than the one in the Florida law that aroused such horror in Democratic circles. Voters responded by 43 points (70-27) that they opposed allowing such a practice. Among all working class voters, the margin was an astronomical 58 points (78-20), among rural voters it was 63 points (80-17) and among white working class voters it was an amazing 71 points (84-13).
As David Leonhardt put it in a recent New York Times essay:
It is…unclear whether Democratic politicians and voters are interested in making the compromises that would help them attract more voters. Many Democrats have instead embraced a purer version of liberalism in recent years, especially on social issues. This shift to the left has not prevented the party from winning the popular vote in presidential elections. But it has hurt Democrats outside of major metropolitan areas and, by extension, in the Electoral College and congressional elections.
Just so. Leonhardt also traces this dynamic among Hispanic voters in a column based on the Times survey. Leonhardt looked at a subgroup of Hispanics who seemed to be moving right. These were voters “who said they had voted for a mix of Democrats and Republicans in recent elections and said they were planning to vote Republican this year”. Leonhardt found:
More were registered as Democrats than Republicans, despite their voting intentions this year. They were even more heavily skewed to the working class (with about 80 percent not having a bachelor’s degree) and the young (with almost 60 percent under 45) than Hispanic voters as a whole. More than half were men, but the group also included many women.
By a wide margin, people in the subgroup said that the Democratic Party had moved too far left on social issues. By an even wider margin, they said that economic issues like jobs, taxes and the cost of living would influence their 2022 voting more than social issues like guns, abortion and democracy would.
At the root, the Hispanic voters drifting to the right appear to be pocketbook voters, focused more on their daily lives than divisive national debates.
There’s a signal there if Democrats care to receive it. Perhaps their embrace of “a purer version of liberalism…especially on social issues” has not been a particularly good idea. If they ever hope to overcome their structural obstacles to electoral and governance success, there really is no choice but to move to the center on cultural issues. It’s a prerequisite for everything else they want to accomplish.
Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda
Voters do not think much of Democratic management of the economy. Despite considerable legislative activity that impacts the economy and a very tight labor market, Republicans are consistently preferred to Democrats on handling the economy. In the most recent NBC poll, Republicans have a 19 point lead over Democrats on dealing with the economy, the largest lead for the GOP ever recorded by this poll.
Obviously this has a lot to do with high inflation and energy prices, along with lingering supply chain problems. In the last year, real wages for workers have actually gone down, because wage increases have not kept pace with inflation.
Democrats can argue that these are merely episodic problems along the road to something much better. But voters are not convinced and they can be forgiven for their skepticism. The truth of the matter is that Democrats’ theory of the case on the economy leans heavily on the idea that a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and a rapid move to a clean energy economy will—eventually--result in strong growth, a burgeoning supply of good jobs and a rising standard of living for all. So far the results have not been impressive.
This theory reflects the priorities of Democratic elites who are primarily interested in redistribution and action on climate change. But voters, especially working class voters, are interested in abundance: more stuff, more growth, more opportunity, cheaper prices, nicer, more comfortable lives.
Thus to reach and hold these voters, the Democrats need an abundance agenda. Right now, they don’t have one. Sure, they have a climate agenda. But the two things are not the same.
Start with the fact that climate change, while having very, very high salience for Democratic elites, has low salience for ordinary voters, particularly working class voters. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate this. In a Gallup “most important problem” poll this year, climate change came in at a very modest 2 percent (open-ended response). A Pew survey asked the public about a lengthy series of policy priorities and whether they should be a “top priority” to address in the coming year. Dealiing with climate change came in 14th overall and among working class (noncollege) voters.
Surveys have repeatedly showed that, while the public mostly acknowledges climate change is ongoing and they are at least somewhat concerned about it, the issue is not so salient that they are willing to sacrifice much to combat it. In a an AP-NORC survey testing this, less than half of working class respondents said they would be willing to pay an extra dollar on their electricity bills to combat climate change and just 23 percent would be willing to pony up $10 a month.
No wonder Democratic messaging around a Green New Deal tends to rate poorly. Testing by Blue Rose Research for Data For Progress found this message on a Green New Deal ranking in the bottom third of possible Democratic messages to voters:
“The Green New Deal decarbonizes our economy while ensuring we leave no community behind, including job transitions for miners, labor rights, healthcare and wages. We are running out of time to act on climate. We need a Green New Deal now.”
Maybe the median voter isn’t terribly interested in a Green New Deal, which is predicated on getting rid of fossil fuels entirely and fast and replacing them with renewables. The median voter’s view is more an “all of the above” approach as captured by a recent Pew question. Pew asked the public which energy supply approach it preferred “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only” or “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources”. The all of the above approach was favored by an overwhelming 67 percent to 31 percent margin.
Maybe instead of a Green New Deal, they’d rather have abundance. It has been a huge mistake for the left to lose sight of the need for faster growth. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and Democrats presumably stand for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes easier the achievement of Democrats’ other goals. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.
Yet many Democrats still regard the goal of more and faster economic growth with suspicion, preferring to focus on the fairness of how current growth is distributed and its potential effect on climate change. This reflects not just laudable progressive goals, but also a general feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling humanity toward doom.
Democrats should set their sights instead on a generally more productive, higher growth, and less regionally unequal American capitalism. That will take some time and require more robust and far-reaching industrial policy and regulatory reform than Democrats are currently comfortable with. What they are comfortable with is collapsing industrial policy to climate policy and collapsing climate policy to renewables. This is highly inadequate and will not produce the desired results.
This is true even with a narrow focus on the energy sector. If there is to be an abundant clean energy future, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite energy technologies (and associated infrastructure) which must necessarily go beyond wind and solar to include nuclear, geothermal, CCS and other possibilities. This will require a considerably streamlined regulatory process—which, it should be noted, climate activists are doing their best to block--plus a lengthy period of backup by fossil fuels, especially natural gas. The rush to renewables has attempted to skip these steps with predictably negative effects on the price and reliability of energy.
The same needs for societal investment and patience apply to a wide range of other technological challenges that could underpin a future of abundance: AI and machine learning; CRISPR and mRNA biotechnology; advanced robotics and the internet of things. These technologies, just like clean energy technologies, need to be developed aggressively and over a lengthy period to unleash their potential.
That’s why it’s inadequate for Democrats to focus narrowly on a clean energy, Green New Deal-type future. Not only is there an excessive focus on wind and solar, but the challenges for an abundant future cannot be reduced to the need for a clean energy transition. And make no mistake: what Americans want is an abundant future not just a green one that, they are told, is mostly necessary to stave off planetary disaster.
In short, what Americans want and need is an abundant economy, of which a clean energy economy (and even more, renewables) are merely subsets or components. That can be a winning vision of where Democrats want to take the economy in ways a Green New Deal simply can’t.
As British science journalist Leigh Phillips has observed:
Once upon a time, the Left . . . promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons . . . that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly . . . is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future.
That should be the Democrats’ mantra: more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. Without that, simply being fairer and greener will fail as a unifying economic offer.
Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism
Let’s face it: today’s Democrats have a bit of a problem with patriotism. It’s kind of hard to strike up the band on patriotism when you’ve been endorsing the view that America was born in slavery, marinated in racism and remains a white supremacist society, shot through with multiple, intersecting levels of injustice that make everybody either oppressed or oppressor on a daily basis. Of course, America today may be a racist, dystopian hellhole, but Democrats assure us that it could get even worse if the Republicans get elected. Then it’ll be a fascist, racist, dystopian hellhole.
Hmm. This doesn’t seem like a very inspirational approach.
It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, Democratic President Bill Clinton was saying “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”. And even more recently, when Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008, he said:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
Perhaps it’s time to revive the spirit of these remarks and give patriotism a chance. As the liberal commentator Noah Smith observed in an essay simply titled “Try Patriotism”:
I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigeur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s…. The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”…. Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character….
This [cartoon] “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.
In short, embrace patriotism and don’t apologize for it. That’s the creed of ordinary Americans even if many activist Democrats reject it. Illustrating this, a survey project by the More in Common group was able to separate out a group they termed "progressive activists" who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic party) and are described as "deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America's direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media".
These progressive activists' attitude toward their own country departs greatly from not just that of average Americans but from pretty much any other group you might care to name, including average nonwhite Americans. Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans, in fact, are highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. In contrast, progressive activists are loathe to express these sentiments. For example, just 34 percent of progressive activists say they are “proud to be American” compared to 62 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks, and 76 percent of Hispanics.
In another illustration of this dynamic, an Echelon Insights survey posed this choice to respondents: America is not the greatest country in the world vs. America is the greatest country in the world. By 66 percent to 28 percent, strong progressives (about 10 percent of voters) said America is not the greatest country in the world. By 70-23, Hispanic voters said the reverse.
This is a big, big problem. One of the only effective ways—and possibly the most effective way—to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. But many in the Democratic party blanche at any hint of nationalism—one reason so many are leery of patriotism—because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than their immediate interests.
Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to dismantle “systemic racism” and promote “equity”….and failed. Democrats have tried uniting the country around the need to save the planet through a rapid green transition…and failed. It’s time for Democrats to try something that really could unite the country: liberal nationalism.
This approach has a rich heritage. As Peter Juul and I noted in our American Affairs article on “The Case for a New Liberal Nationalism”:
When labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin put forward their ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966, they couched their political argument in the powerful idiom of liberal nationalism. “For better or worse,” Randolph avowed in his introduction, “We are one nation and one people.” The Freedom Budget, he went on, constituted “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America” and “a call to all those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.” It was also, he added, “a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.”
To the detriment of the nation as a whole, the Democratic Party and left-wing political elites [have] abandoned the successful and compelling idiom of liberal nationalism espoused by the likes of Randolph and Rustin, as well as by political leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert H. Humphrey. Instead, party and intellectual elites have retreated into an ideological hall of mirrors that has left them adrift at a critical time in the nation’s history. They lack the political language required to move the United States beyond the rolling crisis it finds itself in.
If liberal nationalism was good enough for A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, for FDR and JFK, it should be good enough for today’s Democratic party. Democrats should proudly proclaim that their party is a patriotic party that believes Americans as a nation can accomplish great things, just as it has in the past and as it will in the future. Given all that Democrats hope to accomplish and all the voters they hope to reach, to do otherwise makes no sense. Indeed, it borders on political malpractice.
So those are the three parts of the plan. To review:
1. Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues
2. Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda
3. Democrats Must Embrace Patriotism and Liberal Nationalism
A Democratic party that adopts these principles has a real shot at political domination given Republicans’ serious problems and weaknesses. Conversely, a Democratic party that continues on its present course dooms American politics to continued stalemate and polarization. That’s something this country cannot afford given the nature of the challenges we face.