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Where Have All the Democrats Gone? A Review from the Left
In their new book, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira make an argument both sober and bracing that anyone who cares about the future course of American politics should take seriously. Supported by a daunting array of polls, electoral history, and local reporting, they warn their fellow Democrats that they are driving away working-class voters of all races by promoting an agenda marked by “cultural insularity and arrogance.”
Instead of promoting economic policies to aid the great majority, too many Democrats take stands on crime, immigration, race, gender ideology, and the environment that appeal to young urban professionals but turn off swing voters without college educations. If they fail to win those voters back, assert the authors, Democrats will not become a majority party again or be able to enact the kind of transformative policies that enabled millions of Americans to live more decent lives during the New Deal era.
Judis and Teixeira point to a specific culprit behind demands to “defund the police,” open the southern border, and do away with fossil fuels that have come to define for much of the public what Democrats favor: a “shadow party” built by such groups as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Black Lives Matter and funded by big contributions from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and foundations like Open Society. Absent the mass private-sector union movement created in the 1930s, and which thrived over the next three decades, the Democrats’ image has been crafted within a “closed universe of discourse” in which more extreme voices hold sway. Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, and their Trumpist-ilk serve the same harmful function for the GOP.
This diagnosis of what ails Biden’s party makes a good deal of electoral sense. In my recent book on the history of the Democrats, I argue in the same vein that the party has triumphed consistently in national elections only when it put forth a message of “moral capitalism” and “programs designed to make life more prosperous or at least more secure for ordinary people.” In one of the many revealing details that festoon their book, Judis and Teixeira point out that even in some of the reddest states, voters have recently passed referenda to raise the minimum wage and expand eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “What these kind of results suggest,” they write, “is that if the Democrats could focus on liberal economics, they could win elections even in places like Idaho.”
However, to cure what ails the party will take more than an intelligent and lively analysis of its problems. Positions that poll well do not, by themselves, motivate the people you need to run for office, campaign hard for them, and win enough seats and states to better the lives of ordinary Americans.
Like every major party in U.S. history, today’s Democrats are a coalition of groups who have sharp differences but none that compel them to leave the fold. Many of the most committed activists and faithful voters take positions Judis and Teixeira abhor—while they also cheer the modest revival of unionism as much as the authors do. But just as Republican leaders cannot dismiss activists who want to ban nearly all abortions and fire teachers who teach the history of American racism, Democrats cannot simply tell supporters of undocumented immigration or transgender rights to stay silent and acquiesce to a moderate politics that working-class voters would favor.
That most left Democrats are young women and men who admire politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez underlines the problem: to alienate the people who will soon be vital to running the party would be as much a political error as to embrace their most radical views. The painful reality too is that few progressives in their twenties are about to take the stern counsel of writers like Judis and Teixeira—or me—who are decades older and were pretty damn radical ourselves at their age.
I share the authors’ nostalgia for the heyday of New Deal liberalism, when a charismatic president rolled out an economic Bill of Rights, and party officials and voters both took the virtues of patriotism for granted. But that coalition, like the contemporary one, also included factions that had fundamental disagreements about major issues of the day. Most Southern Democrats loathed industrial unions and prevented nearly every measure to weaken the Jim Crow order from becoming law. They stuck by Franklin Roosevelt, however, because he led a party that created jobs, subsidized crop prices, and brought electricity to their region.
For Democrats to prosper in this century, they will have to find a way to give their major constituencies a reason to unite both against their Trumpian adversaries and for a set of policy goals that would enhance instead of limiting the party’s appeal.
Judis and Teixeira make a few good suggestions for how to do this, such as increasing the number of legal immigrants but cracking down on employers who hire undocumented ones—who, because they have no bargaining power, decrease wages for American workers overall. For the most part though, the emphasis in their book is on the foolish, electorally self-defeating notions of those in the “shadow party” rather than on how progressives and moderates can find common ground.
Since the horrific attacks on Israel by Hamas on October 7, that quest has become more urgent than ever. When Judis and Teixeira mention how foreign policy has either aided or damaged the party’s fortunes, they refer almost exclusively to economic concerns, such as allowing manufacturing firms to move to nations where labor is far cheaper than in the U.S. But the current Democratic divide over the war in Gaza—and over U.S. funding for the Israeli military—is wider than any similar rift since the early days of the Iraq War two decades ago. Depending on the length and outcome of the current war, it may become more serious than the internal conflict that almost broke the party in two over Vietnam in the late 1960s. Now, as in the past, a politics that sees world affairs solely through a material lens neglects the wrenching moral stakes of supporting one side or the other in war.
A larger truth about the past looms over such intra-party struggles too. Liberals and radicals need one another and almost always have. Every reform era in the twentieth century was preceded and/or propelled by a spurt of “unrealistic” left-wing thought and action: for example, the Knights of Labor, radical trade unionists, and the Populists smoothed the ground for mainstream Progressives. Mass strikes led by socialists and communists pushed New Dealers to pursue workplace justice. Martin Luther King, Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pressed Lyndon Johnson to initiate the programs of the Great Society.
Amid the turmoil of the late 1960’s, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski asked, “Why is utopia a condition of all revolutionary movements?” He then answered his own question:
Because much historical experience, more or less buried in the social consciousness, tells us that goals unattainable now will never be reached unless they are articulated when they are still unattainable.
The cultural left may hurt Democratic fortunes in the present. But to simply bemoan its political impact may also miss how similar movements compelled Americans to grapple with issues—from class inequality and racism to abortion and climate change—that could not and should not be ignored.
Democrats need to build a larger tent; they need to be a more ambitious party too.
Michael Kazin’s latest book is What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University.