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Why Can’t the Democrats Be More Moderate?
Follow the money
What kind of voters do Democrats need more of?
David Leonhardt had the answer in a recent column. He calls them “Scaffles”—socially conservative and fiscally liberal voters. These are cross-pressured swing voters—and there are a lot of them. Socially liberal, fiscally liberal voters vote Democratic. Socially and fiscally conservative voters vote Republican. And there just aren’t very many socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters. So the Scaffles are where the action is. If the Democrats hope to vanquish the Republicans decisively, this is where the Democrats should be concentrating. As they say down South, you gotta go hunting where the ducks are.
So why don’t they? After all, as Leonhardt points out:
These socially conservative and fiscally liberal voters… have voted for progressive economic policies when they appear as ballot initiatives, even in red states. Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Nebraska, for instance, have passed minimum-wage increases. Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah have expanded Medicaid through Obamacare. Republicans without a college degree are often the ones who break with their party on these ballot initiatives.
On the other hand:
At the same time, Scaffles are the reason that a Times poll last year showed that most voters, including many Latinos, prefer the Republican Party’s stance on illegal immigration to the Democratic Party’s. Or consider a recent KFF/Washington Post poll on transgender issues, in which most Americans said they opposed puberty-blocking treatments for children.
There are many, many other examples along these lines. Echelon Insights tested a series of basic values statements on sociocultural issues including: Racism is built into our society, including into its policies and institutions vs. Racism comes from individuals who hold racist views, not from our society and institutions. The result: Hispanics endorsed the second, allegedly “conservative” statement that racism comes from individuals by 58-36, as did working-class (noncollege) voters by 57-33.
Or consider the findings from a recent USC Dornsife survey on “What Americans Really Think About Controversial Topics in Schools”. The survey, among other things, asked about what topics respondents thought elementary school students should learn about. Overwhelming majorities thought elementary school children should learn about slavery, the environment, critical thinking, patriotism, the contributions of women and persons of color, and the contributions of the Founding Fathers. But just 29 percent thought elementary school children should learn about gender identity. The figure was even lower among working-class respondents.
The survey also asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about race in America. One was a classic statement of colorblind equality: “Our goal as a society should be to treat all people the same without regard to the color of their skin”. This Martin Luther King-style statement elicited sky-high (92 percent) agreement from the public, despite the assaults on this idea from Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and large sectors of the Democratic left. In a fascinating related finding, the researchers found that most people who claim to have heard about CRT believe CRT includes this colorblind perspective, rather than directly contradicting it. Perhaps they just can’t believe any theory that has anything to do with race would reject this fundamental principle.
These and other findings fairly scream out for compromise on the part of Democrats to meet the Scaffles closer to where they live in cultural and value terms. So why aren’t they doing so?
To put it in the simplest possible terms: follow the money. The Democrats are a far different party than they were back in their heyday as the party of America’s working class. They are far more dependent in every way on more affluent and educated voters. Today Democrats control around two-thirds of the Congressional districts where median income exceeds the national average, while Republicans control around two-thirds of the districts where the median income is below the national average. That’s quite a change.
Political scientist Sam Zacher reports in “Polarization of the Rich: The New Democratic Allegiance of Affluent Americans and the Politics of Redistribution” that we are now seeing majority Democratic support among the top 5 percent, the top 1 percent, stock owners, and the highest income occupations. This is truly not your father’s Democratic Party.
Of course, the trend where Democrats do ever-better among college-educated voters and ever worse among working-class voters is well-documented. In 2022, Democratic performances among college-educated and working-class voters were perfect mirror images of each other. Democrats were +10 among college-educated voters in the national two-party House vote and -10 among working-class voters.
And what do these affluent, educated voters want? I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite different from what Scaffles have in mind. These affluent, educated voters are very socially liberal voters. Among white Democrats—who are increasingly affluent and educated—there has been an astonishing 37-point increase in professed liberalism between 1994 and today according to Gallup. White Democrats are now far more liberal than their black and Hispanic counterparts, who are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative. Indeed, white liberals are now more liberal on many racial issues than black and Hispanic voters.
Gallup data also indicate that two-thirds of white college Democrats are liberal while 70 percent of black working-class and two-thirds of Hispanic working-class Democrats are moderate or conservative. As one example among many, by 13 percentage points, white college liberals disagree that there are just two genders, male and female. But moderates and conservatives from the nonwhite working class agree by 31 points that there are in fact just two genders.
These affluent, educated voters contribute an enormous amount to the Democratic Party. That ranges from direct support through money and party activism to indirect support through nonprofits, advocacy organizations, foundations, academia and much of the media. To put it simply, these voters now have a lot of numerical weight in the party and punch far above that weight due to their outsize contributions to party support.
No wonder the Scaffles are given short shrift. Democrats are simply too dependent on the votes and support of voters for whom social liberalism is a top—and frequently the top—priority. As political scientist Zach Goldberg puts it:
[I]ndividuals of higher socioeconomic status are more socially progressive and are more likely to prioritize post-material or moral-value-related issues (e.g., abortion, climate change, LGBT rights) over kitchen-table issues… The result of this phenomenon is the selection of candidates who are—or who are pressured and incentivized to be—far more socially progressive than would [otherwise] be the case… There are also opportunity costs: the more time invested in debating and attempting to pass progressive legislative agendas, the less time that can be spent on “normal” economic and quality-of-life issues…
And more crassly: who’s writing the checks? Lakshya Jain at Split-Ticket.org has reported some powerful findings:
There is a very clear correlation between the amount of money spent by a party and its college educated vote share; the greater the share of college-educated voters that a party gets, the greater its share of spending in a cycle. As an example, from 1998 to 2014, the Republican Party was responsible for 51% of the (non-third party, inflation-adjusted) money spent in elections, and in 2014, they were getting 51% of the college-educated vote, as per Catalist. From 2016-2020, their spending percentage plummeted to 43%; perhaps not coincidentally, they were only netting 41% of the college-educated vote by 2020.
This correlation should come as little surprise, given the strong relationship between income and education levels. As the Democratic Party continues to pick up educated suburbanites, its coalition has proceeded to become wealthier than ever before, and it is reflected in the asymmetric spending spike the Democratic Party has seen of late. In fact, by 2020, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party received six times as much secret donor support (termed “dark money” by some) as Donald Trump and the GOP did.
And so while it was once taken as a given by many Democrats that the increase of money in politics might result in Republican hegemony at the ballot box, the picture is now no longer as clear; campaign finance reform measures might genuinely hurt the Democratic Party more than it would harm the Republican Party.
This gives a whole new meaning to the traditional leftist slogan of “get money out of politics!” And also perhaps a whole new perspective on why Democrats can’t seem to moderate their approach on cultural issues to appeal to Scaffles, despite the trove of votes that might be awaiting them there. Follow the money. It’s really that simple.
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