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The Cultural Left Puts a Ceiling on Democratic Support
Democrats Don’t Like to Admit It, But It’s Still True
The cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic 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. That’s a success for the cultural left but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic party. From time to time Democratic politicians like Biden try to dissociate themselves from super-unpopular ideas like defunding the police but the voices of the cultural left within the party are still more deferred to than opposed. These voices 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.
That’s a huge problem because the median voter simply does not buy what the cultural left is selling. As Matt Yglesias recently noted (channeling David Shor): “the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn’t go to college and lives in an unfashionable suburb.” It’s not hard to see how such a voter would be put off by the cultural positions that are now fashionable within the Democratic party, especially given that so many of these Democrats seem to look down on all those with different views. This attitude is not a secret to these voters and they react accordingly.
To illustrate the sharp divergence between the cultural left and the median voter, consider this list of views that are likely to be held by such a voter:
· 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 in American society.
· 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 still 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. But crime is a real problem so more and better policing is needed for public safety. That cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.
· There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.
· There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.
· 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 for people of all races.
· 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. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.
The Democrats’ ability to move in the direction of these views and closer to the median voter has been severely compromised by the influence of the cultural left within the party. That has consequences.
In terms of electoral math, these consequences can manifest themselves in two ways. The first is the most obvious. A group which is unfriendly to the Democrats but declining, like white working class voters, moves further against the Democrats, thereby cancelling out the pro-Democratic effect of their decline. The second is that a pro-Democratic group like Hispanics which is growing, moves against Democrats, thereby cancelling out the pro-Democratic effect of their growth. Both things can happen at once of course, but 2016 was notable for the first and 2020 was notable for the second.
These kinds of shifts, which are typically abetted by electoral reaction to cultural leftism, effectively put a ceiling on Democratic support in a country which, by raw demographics, should be steadily moving in the Democrats’ direction. The way to lift that ceiling is clear: move to the center to embrace the views enumerated above, all of which are compatible with a robust program of full employment, social safety net expansion and public investment. Indeed, the ironic aspect of this is that the public writ large, including the median voter, are more open to such a program than they have been in decades, yet the Democrats’ cultural leftism interferes with their ability to focus on their popular economic program and avoid unpopular positions that have little to do with that program.
The most common counter to this analysis among those who defend the current trajectory of the Democratic party is simply to deny that cultural leftism has any electoral consequences. The positions of the cultural left are only a problem for voters who are irredeemably reactionary and racist and would never vote for the Democrats anyway. That assessment flies in the face of empirical evidence from public opinion and from results of the last several elections.
This defense of cultural leftism is usually twinned with the assertion that problems around issues like crime, immigration and race essentialism are vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like and are not problems Democrats need concern themselves with. In fact, to put much effort into such concerns would simply be to play into the hands of the right. I have termed this “the Fox News fallacy.”
A less common argument in favor of the “what, me worry?” approach to cultural leftism is one I have more sympathy for. This is the idea that the Democrats’ progressive program, by producing material improvements in the lives of less sympathetic voters, will overcome their cultural suspicions and lead a significant portion of them to embrace the Democrats, thereby breaking the current ceiling in Democratic support.
This has merit as an approach over the medium to long term. But it does not follow that cultural leftism can be ignored as a problem. Cultural views and values have an autonomous life of their own and are not reducible to material circumstances; therefore even if material circumstances of these voters improve somewhat, cultural resistance to a party whose views seem antithetical to their own will likely continue.
But perhaps the biggest problem is a very simple one: time. It will take considerable time to restructure the American economy away from the reigning neoliberal model and deliver substantial, widely-distributed benefits that could change voters’ lives so profoundly that their loyalties would shift. Many and far-ranging changes will be necessary spread out over years, not one session of Congress. To implement such changes will require a significant period of political dominance, which cultural leftism makes very difficult, if not impossible.
The Democrats’ dilemma is this: they cannot have both cultural leftism and political dominance. Eventually they will have to choose.