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Opinion Why are Democrats struggling with working-class voters? Don’t blame ‘wokeness.’

New York City Mayor Eric Adams. (John Minchillo/AP)
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With President Biden set to meet New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday, pundits will spin this as a sign of profound political failure on Democrats’ part, an act of ritual penitence for failing to treat rising crime as a serious issue.

The basic idea is this: Adams won the mayoralty by vowing toughness on crime. Other Democrats are playing catch-up, after flirting with “defund the police” and getting caught flat-footed by voter backlash. The broader claim: Democrats are besotted with many “woke” obsessions that alienate working-class voters.

But the debate over these problems suffers from profound defects that are hampering development of a constructive way forward. The issue isn’t that the diagnosis is wrong. It’s that the solutions we keep hearing are largely unhelpful in the real world.

Biden’s meeting with Adams is being widely cast as an occasion to address Biden’s failure to show he grasps the urgency of rising crime. Setting the pundit tone, Politico Playbook declares Biden will “reorient” away from the “defund” craze and toward a tough-on-crime posture.

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To buttress this point, Playbook reports on a “rebellion” among Democratic consultants urging such a shift. Playbook cites Ruy Teixeira, creator of the famous “emerging Democratic majority” thesis.

Teixeira has reemerged as a leading advocate for this reorientation away from “wokeness.” So engaging his ideas might provide a basis for figuring out a way forward. As a big fan of Teixeira’s thinking, I intend this in a constructive spirit.

Teixeira’s oft-heard argument is that Democratic struggles are driven by alienation of working-class voters of all races. This stems from the party’s refusal to draw a hard line against its professional political class’s obsession with “woke” causes.

In a piece that Playbook cites as an example of this Democratic “rebellion," Teixeira denounced the “Fox News Fallacy,” the alleged progressive belief that if Fox is attacking something, it’s not an actual issue for voters.

Instead, Teixeira counseled, Democrats must understand that crime, migrant arrivals, covid-19 school closures and wokeness in classrooms are real issues for working-class voters.

Democrats, says Teixeira, must forcefully call out “liberal bubble” jargon, and instead follow the “What Would The Working Class Say?” test. They must stand for public safety, secure borders and “non-ideological” education centered on “inclusive nationalism,” not “race essentialism.”

There is something to this. Biden was slow to rebut GOP attacks over crime in 2020. The 2020 Democratic primary lurch left on immigration might have hurt. Democrats underestimated the backlash to concerns about curriculums and school closures in Virginia.

But the utility of this ends here. In the daily fog-of-war reality of politics and campaigns, it isn’t illuminating about how Democrats should handle complicated policy dilemmas and how to rebut GOP attacks that will continue even if Democrats get those broad strokes right.

For instance, Teixeira urges Biden to follow Adams in his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” stance. The claim here is that Democrats should stand for both public safety and social justice on police reform.

New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) is known of his big personality. But what policies does he support and what does his rise mean for the Democratic party? (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

That’s great, but it does little real-world work. Right now, the Biden administration is locked in a dispute with police representatives over what police reform should look like. Policing groups agree it should include better tracking of rogue officers and tighter restrictions on raids and military equipment.

But they disagree deeply on restrictions on the use of deadly force. The administration and civil rights groups want to limit it to a “last resort when there is no reasonable alternative." Police don’t. To be for “public safety,” should Biden capitulate on this point?

The constant focus on “defund” makes it easier for antiwoke critics to dodge hard questions about what choices their advice really should dictate.

On immigration, to favor a “secure border,” should the Biden administration simply stop admitting migrant kids and restore former president Donald Trump’s ban on them? As it is, Biden has continued many Trump policies, including keeping out asylum-seeking adults on a bogus public health rationale.

Does being for a “secure border” mean keeping Trump policies in place forever? Should Biden fully embrace Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” expulsions, which produced humanitarian catastrophe?

Here again, falling back on attacks on what the left wants on immigration — which is very far away indeed from the actual Biden agenda — enables the evasion of difficult real-world dilemmas.

Or take curriculums. Does calling out “race essentialism” mean Democrats should simply stand down and refrain from taking on GOP proposals designed to push teachers into whitewashing the U.S. past?

Brian Beutler suggests Democrats should make an issue of the GOP’s deliberate fomenting of a feral atmosphere of threats and violence toward teachers and local education officials. Does attacking “wokeness” mean ceding the field entirely and allowing all this GOP bad-acting to continue unaddressed?

And this advice tends to sidestep another problem: The GOP’s massive communications apparatus, which is unmatched on the Democratic side.

As strategist Dan Pfeiffer told Sean Illing, this deprives Democrats of the option of declining engagement on complicated issues that alienate working-class voters, in hopes that they’ll go away. That right-wing media apparatus can force them into the public and mainstream media consciousnesses.

How does denouncing “wokeness” and hoping for the best tackle this problem? It doesn’t.

When Biden meets with Adams, they will reportedly agree that they represent the “moderate” Democratic approach to crime. But such vagueness cannot paper over the big holes in our debates on these questions. Any new approach has to deal more constructively and frankly with them.