What America Needs Is a Normie Voter Party!
Too Bad Neither Party Qualifies
Democrats are congratulating themselves that they are now the “normie voter” party. The logic runs like this.
They have recovered from a deficit in the generic Congressional ballot and no longer appear to be headed for a complete drubbing in the November election. They could plausibly hold the Senate and keep their losses in the House relatively modest (though are still highly likely to lose control of that body).
The Democrats can point to several issues on which Republicans are out of step with the country and have contributed to their recovery. Chief among them is abortion, where the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade has allowed them to cast the Republicans as intransigent advocates of abortion bans. The public on the other hand is clearly on the side of moderate abortion rights.
Another helpful development is the increased prominence of Donald Trump in the political dialogue and in various specific races. Republicans have a great deal of trouble dissociating themselves from Trump and his endless relitigation of the 2020 election. Some are true disciples of Trump and some just find it too politically difficult, whatever their personal opinions, to put real distance between themselves and the former President. But the end result is being out of step with the public which sees the 2020 election as settled and generally disapproves of Trump’s role in the January 6th events, his inflammatory rhetoric and his disregard of democratic norms.
Finally, Democrats have succeeded in passing stripped down versions of key leglislative priorities, the CHIPS and Science Act and the cheekily name Inflation Reduction Act, both of which are fairly popular with the public and strengthen the Democrats’ argument that they are delivering on their promises. (Of course, the recent decline in gas prices has little to do with Democrats’ priorities and actions and that decline certainly does more for Democrats’ immediate prospects that these pieces of legislation.)
So Democrats are on the right side of public opinion on these issues and are seeing their fortunes improve as a result. Does that make them the normie voter party now?
Not so fast. It may be fair to say that Republicans, by virtue of being associated with abortion bans and with Trump and Trumpism, are not the normie voter party. But that does not mean that Democrats, by virtue of not being those things, are now the normie voter party. Normie voters want more than that—a lot more than that.
Start with the very issue that is currently doing the Democrats the most good: abortion. Democrats are taking advantage of the Dobbs decision and the intent of many pro-life Republican forces to leverage that decision into draconian state abortion laws. This is not what normie voters want (see: Kansas). But on the other hand, neither do normie voters want completely unrestricted access to abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy, the default position of much of the Democratic party.
By about 2:1 the public favors at least some restrictions on abortion. Looked at by trimesters, the framework used in Roe v. Wade, Gallup found that 60 percent think abortion should be generally legal in the first three months of pregnancy. But that falls to 28 percent for the second three months and just 13 percent for the final trimester.
This and other data strongly indicate that the median voter position is that abortion should be available without restrictions for the first trimester and then available only with restrictions, such as for rape, incest and the health of the mother, thereafter. This approximates the legal situation in most Western countries and would cover close to 90 percent of the abortions that currently take place.
All this might not matter for purposes of this coming election. But it will certainly matter going forward, as the parties battle it out state by state on whether and how much abortion access should be regulated.
Then take the issue of Trump and Trumpism. The perfect reasonable (and normie voter!) position that Trump is a loose cannon and that Trumpism regularly tramples on democratic and civic norms has become transmuted into a fevered characterization of the US today as Weimar Germany, 1932. Megan McArdle puts it well:
Late last month, President Biden spoke to Democratic donors about “extreme MAGA philosophy,” which he said was “like semi-fascism.” This escalated to a Sept. 1 prime-time speech in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, in which Biden exhorted American voters to save the Republic from “MAGA Republicans” who “do not respect the Constitution.” And last week he was tweeting that “Republicans have pushed an ultra-MAGA agenda.” Who knows how many new tiers of MAGAdom he will have introduced before November: MAGA Cum Laude, Executive Ultra Fascist Pro, the MAGAFascist Blackshirt Card….
MAGA forces,” we were told, “are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.” He then took a long commercial break to plug his administration’s various legislative victories. The resulting Frankenspeech was clearly part of a concerted midterm strategy to conflate ordinary social and economic conservatism with Jan. 6 QAnon lunatics.
This approach has predictably triggered the amen corner among left-leaning pundits and strong Democratic partisans. Education polarization among voters is spiking, widening the partisan gap between the working class and college-educated. In one startling result, the most recent Marist/NPR poll has Democrats carrying white college voters by 31 points (63-32) on the generic Congressional ballot while losing white non-college voters by 29 points (60-31). In that limited sense, it may well pay off politically for the Democrats this November.
But what normie voters want is to turn down the temperature on heated culture war rhetoric and restore some sense of political normality. They are not so sure that characterizing almost half the country as fascists (or even “semi-fascists”) is going to do the trick.
Consider also the recent legislative achievements of the Democrats, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Leaving aside the issue of whether the latter act was wisely named in light of recent economic developments, investing in America’s competitiveness and future prosperity is very much a normie voter thing to do, as are provisions to contain prescription drug prices. But there are problems.
Start with the deal that was cut with Joe Manchin that enabled the Inflation Reduction Act to pass. The bill, despite its name, was primarily an energy bill with spending directed at a clean energy transition—promoting solar, wind and electric vehicles but also providing some support for nuclear, carbon capture, clean hydrogen, geothermal and other technologies that are not typically supported by the left. And fossil fuels were not left out of the mix, either in the bill itself or in the side deal with Manchin on permitting reform that would, among other things, allow the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline to finally be completed.
This “all of the above” approach is very much in the normie voter wheelhouse. 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. Yet Democratic progressives are so incensed by the fact that the deal with Manchin would facilitate some fossil fuel projects that they are making serious noises about tanking the deal (Bernie Sanders in the Senate, 71 (!) Democrats in House). One House Democrat denounced it as a “sleazy backroom deal”.
That’s gratitude for you! This seems like crazy politics—how are future clean energy deals to be struck if you can’t trust one side of the deal? But it’s also crazy as policy. Permitting reform is vitally needed, not only to facilitate projects like natural gas pipelines, but to facilitate pretty much every type of infrastructure needed for a clean energy transition from transmission lines and utility-scale wind and solar to geothermal exploration and advanced nuclear reactors. Clean energy advocates apparently hate fossil fuels so much that they are quite willing to shoot themselves in the foot.
This is easier to to understand once one takes into account the super-high salience of the climate change issue to progressive elites and the linked commitment to a very fast rollout of solar and wind to replace fossil fuels, no matter what the costs. But normie voters just don’t feel that way. To them it is a low salience issue. And they care about the costs.
In a Gallup “most important problem” poll this year, climate change came in at a whopping 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. The result: climate change came in way behind strengthening the economy, reducing health care costs, dealing with the coronavirus, improving education, defending against terrorism, improving the political system, reducing crime and improving the job situation and also behind dealing with immigration, reducing the deficit, addressing the criminal justice system and dealing with the problems of poor people (whew). That’s 13 issues in front of climate change!
The Pew report broke down these ratings by education. Interestingly, among working class (noncollege) respondents climate change repeats its dismal 14th place finish in the policy priorities parade. But among the college-educated, climate change does much better, going up to 6th on the list. Hmm.
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 2018 AP-NORC survey testing this, while 57 percent of respondents said they were willing a pay a very modest $1 a month extra on their electricity bill to combat climate change, support precipitously drops to a mere 28 percent if the cost goes up to $10 a month. (Note there is a more recent AP-NORC survey on this issue, with a somewhat different question—eliciting similar responses--but there is no public use file available for more detailed analysis.)
Support is even weaker among working class respondents. Less than half would be willing to kick in the extra dollar and just 23 percent would spring for $10 a month.
These relatively moderate views do not suggest a rich well of support for dramatic action on climate change, especially among the working class and especially if it is costly. This reality sits uneasily against the default approach within the Democratic party which preaches a catastrophism that permits no debate.
According to this line of thinking, climate change is a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most in the Democratic party, particularly on the left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by locking in net-zero carbon emissions, Democratic activists are inclined to nod in agreement—but not normie voters.
What would work with normie voters? Start with the basics: people want—and need--abundant, cheap, reliable energy. Therefore if what you are advocating appears to call that goal into question, no amount of rhetoric about a roasting planet and no amount of effort to tie every natural disaster to climate change is likely to generate the durable support needed for what is likely to be a fairly lengthy energy transition.
We are seeing this problem emerge in real time, as intermittency problems intrinsic to wind and solar, the preferred technologies of most Democrats, are implicated in energy price spikes and shortages in unfavorable conditions for these technologies. As a rule, increased use of renewables has not produced lower energy prices for consumers so far; quite the opposite. This does not sit well with consumers, particularly working class consumers. And those consumers vote.
It therefore follows that since: (1) the climate change issue is not that salient among normie voters (as opposed to Democratic professional class activists); and (2) the results of a hasty ramping up of renewable energy sources are likely to undermine, not increase, support for climate change action among normie voters, Democrats are not necessarily the normie voter party here either, despite general public support for a clean energy transition.
Finally, consider these normie voter views:
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. More and better policing is needed for public safety and 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 far from 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.
How comfortable would most Democratic party politicians be endorsing the full range of these views? With some exceptions, I’d say quite uncomfortable. Indeed, one of the great benefits to Democrats of the increased salience of abortion and Trump/Trumpism in recent months has been to distract attention from all of the ways above in which Democrats very much don’t seem like the normie voter party.
Democrats may well do better than expected in the 2022 election. But it won’t be because they’ve suddenly become the normie voter party. That title—and the durable political majority that might accompany such a distinction—will likely remain out of reach.
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