Revisiting the Three Point Plan to Fix the Democrats and Their Coalition
The Culture Problem
In October of last year, I wrote a widely-circulated post on “A Three Point Plan to Fix the Democrats and Their Coalition”. I argued:
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.
Since then, the Democrats had a relatively good election where, despite narrowly losing the House, they held their competitive Senate seats and even gained one (Pennsylvania). They also had strong victories in the Pennsylvania and Michigan governor’s races and netted two additional governor’s offices, thanks to their victories in the deep blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts. Democrats are also feeling their oats because of the two big bills passed shortly before the election—the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (really a climate bill with a little bit of health care thrown in). Biden is attempting to build on these bills by launching a widely-covered “turn to the working class” touting the job-creating and Build America/Buy America effects of these bills. This recently culminated in his well-received (especially in Democratic circles) State of the Union address where he struck a distinctly populist pose and claimed the Democrats’ policies were nothing less than a “blue collar blueprint to rebuild America”.
Biden has been credited with stealing Trump’s populism, displaying the political savvy of Bill Clinton and practicing the class politics of FDR. Critics of Democratic Party strategy have been urged to take a victory lap and stow their criticisms. After all, “he’s doing what you said he should do”! There is no need for further reform; Democrats are on track.
After remarks focused on touting his achievements and urging lawmakers to help “finish the job” with his agenda, 39% of registered voters said Biden “has been keeping his promises” while in office, unchanged from a survey conducted before his Feb. 7 speech. Just under half of voters (46%) said he has not kept his promises.
The 538 rolling average of Biden’s approval rating shows that Biden approval has been remarkably static since September, not dipping below 41 percent and not rising above 44 percent. The great majority of time it has been in the 42-43 percent range with 52-53 percent disapproval. On the day Biden delivered his speech, his approval rating was 43. 2 percent; a week later it was 43.1 percent. Now that’s stability.
Even more concerning, Biden has not been running strongly against his probable opponents in 2024, Trump or DeSantis. The Washington Post/ABC News poll just tested Biden against Trump and found Biden behind by 3 points, 48-45. The internals of the poll are pretty brutal. Biden loses to Trump by 17 points among all working class (non-college) voters. He lost these voters by just 4 points in 2020. And he gets crushed by Trump among white working class voters by 38 points; Biden “only” lost them by 25 in 2020.
That’s quite a hill for “blue collar Joe” to climb! And for those inclined to dismiss these results as too early, too weird, etc. to mean anything, I refer you to Harry Enten, here:
Multiple surveys since last year have shown Trump ahead of Biden in a potential 2024 election. Some polls also have Biden trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Over the entire 2020 campaign, not a single reputable poll found Trump ahead of Biden.
Quite simply, the polling today looks nothing like it did when Biden won his first term. If anything, it looks considerably worse for him.
There was not a single poll in 2019 or 2020 that met CNN’s standards for publication in which more respondents said they preferred Trump over Biden to be the next president. That ABC News/Washington Post poll is one of a number that already put Trump in a better position than Biden in the 2024 general election.
And have I mentioned the 2024 Senate map? The top 8 competitive seats for 2024 are all Democratic-held: West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.. The white working class share of eligible voters in West Virginia is 74 percent; in Montana, 60 percent; in Ohio and Wisconsin, 58 percent; in Michigan, 55 percent; and in Pennsylvania, 53 percent (States of Change 2020 data). The other two states, Arizona and Nevada are “only” around 40 percent white working class but the overall working class share of eligibles in these states is astronomical: 71 and 75 percent, respectively. Ouch.
Perhaps we should entertain the idea that the Democrats’ problems are still fairly serious. With that in mind, let’s review the bidding from my earlier three point plan.
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
I’ll discuss cultural issues in this post, followed by abundance and patriotism in subsequent weeks.
The Culture Problem
Progress here has been very sluggish. Biden did mention crime in his SOTU speech but it was in the context of providing more “resources” and “investments” which will allegedly “prevent violence in the first place”. The police were mentioned but mostly in the context of police reform. The latter is a worthy cause but conspicuously missing was any mention of what normie voters want the most: getting violent criminals off the street and into jail. Indeed, the only mention of prosecuting criminals was about “prosecuting criminals who stole relief money meant to keep workers and small businesses afloat”. Great idea, but, um, what about the violent criminals who make everyday life miserable in working class communities throughout the country, especially in black and Latino areas?
It is hard to miss the continuing influence of current Democratic Party orthodoxy, which views a strong law and order approach as essentially racist and seems way more interested in making it harder to arrest, jail and prosecute criminals. Voters have pushed back against this orthodoxy in cities from San Francisco to Minneapolis to New York but the national Democratic Party appears terrified to break with the activist groups and liberal elites who push “criminal justice reform” above all else.
Similarly, there was not much talk about border security and illegal immigration in the SOTU other than a brief mention of illegal immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, whose levels have recently dropped. This has been happening in conjunction with a new program that allows many of them to enter the country legally under temporary “parole”. This attempt to finesse the issue seems unlikely to attenuate voter concerns about the border, where illegal immigration remains at historically high levels. But Biden and national Democrats feel unable to take a tougher stance, for fear of provoking a frontal assault from immigration advocates and their progressive supporters who have essentially zero interest in border security.
As for other culturally-inflected issues, the record is even worse. The burgeoning backlash against ideological curricula in schools, the undermining of academic achievement standards, the introduction of mandatory, politically-approved vocabulary, the absurdities of “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) programs and the excesses of “gender-affirming care” are uniformly characterized by his party as nothing more than “hateful” bigotry rather than serious concerns.
This shows that the Fox News Fallacy is alive and well throughout the party—if Fox News and conservatives are criticizing the Democrats for X then there couldn’t possibly be anything to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. But if there is something to the issue and persuadable voters have real concerns, you will not allay those concerns by embracing the Fox News Fallacy. In fact, you'll probably intensify them by giving such voters the impression that Democrats simply don't care about their concerns and will do nothing to address them.
Pamela Paul put it well in a recent New York Times column pushing back against the standard Democratic dismissal of Ron DeSantis as nothing more than another right-wing lunatic.
We can decry his stunt in shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, but we should also be attending to the real concerns of people living in areas of heavy immigration. Lest we forget, Hispanic voters in Florida preferred DeSantis to his Democratic opponent in last year’s election for governor; they also supported his Martha’s Vineyard escapade, according to a Telemundo/LX News poll. “There are lots of Hispanic voters in this state who really like the governor’s style, this strongman who won’t back down,” one pollster explained at the time.
Democrats need to grapple with this appeal. It would be easy to write off DeSantis as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic. He may well be all those things, and so may some of his constituents. But he may not be, and either way, it would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority will do us no good. (See: Hillary Clinton, “deplorables.”)…
DeSantis’s maverick approach to primary, secondary and higher education has brought widespread condemnation from Democrats, particularly from their more progressive wing. But we should pay attention to why his policies land better with voters than with progressive critics. A law like the Stop WOKE Act of 2021 (later partly blocked by a federal court), which limited the discussion of certain racial issues during diversity training sessions offered by private employers and in the classroom, may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech. But it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.
As many liberals will quietly acknowledge, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which DeSantis signed last year and which opponents nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has reasonable and legitimate attractions for a broad range of parents who worry about the focus, efficacy and age appropriateness of what their kids are learning in primary and secondary school. Democratic leadership should worry, too. Keeping quiet or pretending those concerns aren’t real won’t make them go away.
Just so. But that appears to the Democrats’ current strategy. Consider this list of values a “Common Sense Democrat” might espouse to close the gap between the party and normie voters, especially working class normie voters:
Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.
America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.
Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities inAmerican society.
Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained forpeople of all races.
No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.
America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is hugely important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.
Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. However, more and better policing is needed to get criminals off the streets and secure public safety. That cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.
There are underlying differences between men and women that should not all be attributed to sexism. However, discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong and should always be opposed.
People who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right. However, biological sex is real and spaces limited to biological women in areas like sports and prisons should be preserved. Medical treatments like drugs and surgery are serious interventions that should not be available on demand, especially for children.
Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Free speech is a fundamental American value that should be safeguarded everywhere.
Then think of how many Democratic politicians, especially national Democrats, are willing to go on record espousing these values. Precious few. Instead they rely on President Biden as what we might term their “Designated Normie” who, no matter what he says (or doesn’t say), seems like a nice old guy who probably believes, if only in secret, all the common sense values listed above. That’s a poor substitute for making the Democrats into an actual normie voter party.
Plus, of course, they are assuming their newly-minted economic pitch will render these other issues moot and get working class voters to vote their real interests. But this entire theory is just wrong. The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on economic issues and ignore their unpopular stances on sociocultural issues 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.
Instead, for many working-class voters to seriously consider their economic pitch, Democrats need to convince them that they are not looked down on, that their concerns are taken seriously and that their views on culturally freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic Party, as we have seen, this is very difficult. Resistance has been, and remains, stiff to any compromises that involve moving to the center on these issues, a problem that talking more about economic issues simply ignores.
And just how good is the Democrats’ economic program anyway? Will it really deliver what the working class wants and needs? I will take up that question in next week’s post on abundance, the second part of the three point plan.