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Where Have All the Democrats Gone?
To win back the allegiance of working-class Americans, Democrats should stake out a middle ground in the culture war and prioritize a New Deal-style economic agenda.
The Democratic Party has had its greatest success when it sought to represent the common man and woman against the rich and powerful, the people against the elite, and the plebeians against the patricians. Over the last thirty years, the Democrats have continued to claim to represent the average citizen. In his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton championed “the forgotten middle class” and promised to “put people first.” Barack Obama pledged that the “voices of ordinary citizens” would “speak louder” than “multimillion-dollar donations.” Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign promised to “make the economy work for everyday Americans.” And Joe Biden promised in 2020 to represent “the people” and framed the election as being between “Park Avenue and Scranton.”
For all this, over the last decades, Democrats have steadily lost the allegiance of “everyday Americans”—the working- and middle-class voters that were at the core of the older New Deal coalition. Initially, most of these lost voters were white, but in the last elections, Democrats have also begun to lose support among Latino and Asian working-class voters.
How did this happen? There is an original reason, for which the Democrats were hardly to blame. Democrats were the principal supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—measures that went a long way toward ending racial segregation and Jim Crow, but that angered many southern whites and, to a lesser extent, some whites in the North.
With the exception of a few far-right groups, however, Americans have reconciled themselves to those bills. Democrats regularly win elections in Virginia, the seat of the southern Confederacy, and many of the northern and southern suburbs formed by white flight now vote for Democratic candidates. And Americans elected an African American president in 2008 and reelected him in 2012.
Today, there are a multitude of factors that have driven working-class voters out of the Democratic Party. They include:
Democrats’ support for trade deals that led to factory closings in many small towns and midsize cities in states that were once Democratic strongholds.
Democrats’ support for spending bills that the working and middle classes paid for but that were primarily of benefit to poor Americans, many of whom were minorities.
Democrats’ enthusiasm for immigration of unskilled workers and the party’s opposition to measures that might reduce illegal immigration.
Democrats’ support for strict gun control.
Democrats’ insistence on eliminating fossil fuels.
Democrats’ use of the courts and regulations to enforce their moral and cultural agenda, whether on the sale of wedding cakes or the use of public men’s and women’s bathrooms.
Not all Democrats are in line with these actions or beliefs. But overall, they came to characterize the party. Some of these stances have to do directly with economics; others with culture. The differences over them are often taken to distinguish the college-educated professional from those who do not have college degrees, but they equally, if not more accurately, arise from the differences in economic geography—what we call the “Great Divide” in American politics.
On one side of the divide are the great postindustrial metro centers like the Bay Area, Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Seattle. These are areas that benefited from the boom in computer technology and high finance. These areas are heavily populated by college-educated professionals, but also by low-skilled immigrants who clean the buildings, mow the lawns, and take care of the children and the aged. The professionals, who set the political agenda for these areas, welcome legal and illegal immigrants; they want guns off the street; they see trade not as a threat to jobs but as a source of less expensive goods; they worry that climate change will destroy the planet; and, among the young, they are engaged in a quest for new identities and sexual lifestyles. A majority of them are Democrats.
On the other side of the divide are the small towns and midsize cities that have depended on manufacturing, mining, and farming. Some of these places have prospered from newly discovered oil and gas deposits, but many are towns and cities like Muncie, Indiana; Mansfield, Ohio; and Dundalk, Maryland that have lost jobs when firms moved abroad or closed up shop in the face of foreign competition. The workers and small businesspeople in these towns and cities want the border closed to illegal immigrants, whom they see as a burden to their taxes and a threat to their jobs; they want to keep their guns as a way to protect their homes and family; they fly the American flag in front of their house; they go to or went to church; they oppose abortion; some may be leery of gay marriage, although that is changing; many of them or members of their family served in the military; they have no idea what most of the initials in LGBTQIA+ stand for. A majority of them are now Republicans and many are former working-class Democrats.
The underlying divisions are economic, but the political battles between the parties now manifest themselves as a continuation of the culture wars that began in the late 1960s. In the 2021 and 2022 elections, for instance, Democrats and Republicans fought over abortion rights, crime and the police, voter fraud and suppression, critical race theory, sexual education, and border security. These differences between the parties and their candidates have been reinforced and hardened by what we call the “shadow parties.” These are the activist groups, think tanks, foundations, publications and websites, and big donors and prestigious intellectuals who are not part of official party organizations, but who influence and are identified with one or the other of the parties.
With the parties at roughly equal strength—the Democrats’ losses in small-town America have been made up by their gains in the metro centers, and particularly in the suburbs—the parties have rarely enjoyed undivided rule. In the last forty-four years, one party has held the White House and both houses of Congress in only fourteen of them. The civics books will say that this rough equality encourages constructive compromise, but in the last three decades, it has more often been a recipe for gridlock and stalemate, epitomized in battles over increasing the debt limit and in repeated government shutdowns. This stalemate has increased voters’ distrust of Washington and of government.
In recent years, elections have increasingly been decided by which party can make the other party’s radical extremes (or the politicians who represent those extremes) the main issue. In 2016, Donald Trump succeeded in making the election about “Crooked Hillary.” In 2018 and 2020, the Democrats were able to make the election about Trump’s excesses. In 2022, Democrats won elections in which the issue was Republican opposition to abortion rights and insistence that the 2020 election was stolen, whereas Republicans won when the issue was Democrats’ wanting to defund the police or decriminalize illegal immigration.
There is a danger to democracy lurking in this transformation of the parties into cultural warriors. American democracy was originally based on the Jeffersonian idea that roughly equal property ownership (by white males) would undergird political equality and democracy. That notion was dashed on the rocks of the industrial revolution, which created a society of distinct economic classes. It was then hoped by liberals and progressives in the early twentieth century that the intrinsic economic and political power of the lords of industry and finance would be counterbalanced by the power of labor unions in the workplace and by a party that represents the working and middle classes in the political realm. And that was the democratic pluralism that, with some obvious flaws, New Deal liberalism bequeathed and that dominated American politics from the 1930s up through the 1960s.
But that hope for democracy has also been shattered. During the last half century, the labor movement, under assault from business and Republicans, has precipitously declined, particularly in the critical private sector. And the Democratic Party has ceased to be seen and to function as the party of the people in competition with the party of business. The consequences have been profound. Business and finance, through a plethora of lobbies that began springing up in the 1970s, have gotten their way time and again. The tax code has been dramatically rewritten to favor the wealthy and corporations, including those with subsidiaries overseas, at the expense of working America; trade deals have been signed that have aided multinational corporations, investment banks, and insurance companies but screwed American workers; finance, with its propensity to instability, and its emphasis on short-term returns, has been enhanced at the expense of manufacturing; at the behest of the most retrograde elements, social programs have been sabotaged or rejected that would have provided American workers with the same security in health care, childcare, and employment that European workers simply take for granted; and conservative court decisions have gutted post-Watergate measures designed to limit the inordinate influence of corporations and the wealthy on political campaigns.
In our view, one prerequisite for reviving the promise of American democracy is the reemergence of a political party whose primary commitment is to look after the country’s working and middle classes. It could be the Republicans who end up being this party. There are new intellectual currents within the Republicans’ shadow party that are skeptical about the reign of big business and free market ideology and endorse a version of industrial policy. These include the think tank American Compass and the journal American Affairs. We wish them well. But we worry that they will be ignored because of the Republicans’ traditional commitment to business and the strength of business groups and donors within the Republicans’ shadow party. That was evident in the new House Republican majority’s first act in January 2023, which was to slash funds for the Internal Revenue Service that had been targeted for uncovering tax dodging by the wealthy. The Republicans, after all, have an even more influential radical side whose propensities for violence and contempt for democracy outweigh the foibles of the Democrats’ cultural radicals.
We place our hopes for change in the Democratic Party. We see evidence in the Biden administration’s first two years of a reevaluation of the party’s economic priorities on trade, taxes, and labor and on national economic growth that tries to bridge the Great Divide. The Democrats seem to have turned a corner from their deference to free markets and free trade during past administrations. The influence of Wall Street and Silicon Valley remains a problem with the Democrats, but the main problem we see with today’s Democratic Party is the cultural insularity and arrogance that surfaced clearly during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Most of the stands the party and its groups take on issues like race, crime, immigration, climate, sex, and gender are in response to real problems. There has been police brutality; the country’s eleven million illegal immigrants constitute an exploitable underclass that needs to be integrated into society; transgender people have suffered discrimination; and climate change is a genuine threat to the planet’s future. There are reasonable reforms that address these, but the radical solutions and the censorious outlook advanced by the Democrats’ shadow groups and by some Democratic politicians have been wrong-headed and divisive.
Many Democrats simply refuse to recognize this. Instead, they have succumbed to what we call the “Fox News Fallacy”— namely, that if Fox or the National Review or some Republican operative denounces Democrats for their stance on criminal justice or illegal immigration or gender affirmation, there can be no basis for those charges. Prior to the 2022 election, for instance, as Republicans were blaming Democratic support for defunding the police for a rising crime wave in big cities, Democratic pundits and politicians derided the very idea of a widely documented crime wave. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote a column aptly entitled, “Crime Is Surging (in Fox News coverage).” Democrats’ unwillingness to acknowledge the mote in their own eyes has hurt the party’s chances to win back working-class voters.
The America of today is vastly different from the America of the 1930s, but what the Democrats need today is a general approach to politics that is similar to that of the New Deal liberals. The New Deal liberals were liberal, progressive, and social democratic in their economic views, dedicated to creating a better balance of power between labor and business and security against poverty, unemployment, disease, and old age, but by today’s standards, the New Deal Democrats were moderate and even small-c conservative in their social outlook. They extolled “the American way of life” (a term popularized in the 1930s); they used patriotic symbols like the “Blue Eagle” to promote their programs. In 1940, Roosevelt’s official campaign song was Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Under Roosevelt, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day were made into federal holidays. Roosevelt turned the annual Christmas tree lighting into a national event. Roosevelt’s politics were those of “the people” (a term summed up in Carl Sandburg’s 1936 poem “The People, Yes”) and of the “forgotten American.”
The Democrats need to follow this example. They need to press economic reforms that benefit the working and middle classes. But to get a hearing on those promises, they must first declare a truce and find a middle ground in today’s culture war between Democrats and Republicans so that they can once again become the party of the people.
This essay is cross-posted at Persuasion and is adapted from John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in an Age of Extremes, which will be published Nov. 7 by Henry Holt. Judis and Teixeira published The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002.