The Democratic Party has reacted to its series of recent election losses by once again concluding that it needs a better economic message. As Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Sunday, “Democrats need a strong, bold, sharp-edged and common-sense economic agenda.” The only disagreement within the party is about how sharp-edged and left-wing that agenda should be. But it is increasingly clear that the problem for Democrats has little to do with economics and much more to do with a cluster of issues they would rather not revisit — about culture, social mores and national identity.
The Democratic economic agenda is broadly popular with the public. More people prefer the party’s views to those of Republicans on taxes, poverty reduction, health care, government benefits, and even climate change and energy policy. In one recent poll, 3 in 4 supported raising the minimum wage to $9. Seventy-two percent wanted to provide pre-K to all 4-year-olds in poor families. Eight in 10 favored expanding food stamps. It is noteworthy that each of these proposals found support from a majority of Republicans.
The Democracy Fund commissioned a comprehensive study of voters in the 2016 presidential election, and one scholar, Lee Drutman, set out his first key finding: “The primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality.” Focusing on the people who voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and then Donald Trump in 2016, Drutman found that they were remarkably close to the Democratic Party on economic issues. But they were far to the right on their attitudes toward immigrants, blacks and Muslims, and much more likely to feel “people like me” are on the decline.
The Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic also conducted an important study to analyze the most powerful predictors of whether a white working-class American would vote for Trump. The top predictor was if someone identified as a Republican, a reminder that party loyalty is very strong. But after that, the two best predictors were “fears of cultural displacement” and support for deporting undocumented immigrants. Those who felt their economic conditions were poor or fair were actually slightly more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton.
It’s worth considering how much the Democratic Party has changed over the past 25 years. Bill Clinton’s party was careful to come across as moderate on many social issues. It had a middle-of-the-road position on immigration and was cautiously progressive on subjects such as gay rights. The Democrats eventually moved boldly leftward in some of these areas, such as gay rights, out of an admirable sense of principle. On others, such as immigration, they did so largely to court a growing segment of Democratic voters, a process that Peter Beinart nicely explains in the most recent Atlantic issue. But in a broader sense, the Democratic Party moved left because it became a party dominated by urban, college-educated professionals, and its social and cultural views naturally mirrored this reality.
The party’s defense of minorities and celebration of diversity are genuine and praiseworthy, but they have created great distance between itself and a wide swath of Middle America. This is a cultural gulf that cannot be bridged by advocating smarter policies on tax credits, retraining and early-childhood education. The Democrats need to talk about America’s national identity in a way that stresses the common elements that bind, not the particular ones that divide. Policies in these areas do matter. The party should take a position on immigration that is less absolutist and recognizes both the cultural and economic costs of large-scale immigration. On some of the issues surrounding sexual orientation, it can and should affirm its principles without compromise. But perhaps it is possible to show greater understanding for parts of the country that disagree. California recently enacted a travel ban that now prohibits state-funded travel to eight states with laws that — in California’s view — discriminate against LGBT people. Meanwhile, California has no problem paying for employees to travel to such havens of tolerance as China, Qatar and Russia.
The more I study this subject, the more I am convinced that people cast their vote mostly based on an emotional bond with a candidate, a sense that they get each other. Democrats have to recognize this. They should always stay true to their ideals, of course, but yet convey to a broad section of Americans — rural, less-educated, older, whiter — that they understand and respect their lives, their values and their worth. It’s a much harder balancing act than one more push to raise the minimum wage. But this cultural realm is the crossroads of politics today.
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