The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Democrats should prioritize the economy over culture in 2020

Fighting on President Trump’s terms is a recipe for an unstable, narrow coalition.

Democratic presidential candidates, from left: former housing secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), former congressman Beto O'Rourke (Tex.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) at the June 26 Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

As we gear up for another presidential election probably centered on President Trump’s demagogic appeals on issues like immigration, race and religiosity, Democrats are trying to decide whether to let Trump set the terms of debate or whether to focus on pocketbook issues that might have a broader, if less visceral, appeal.

For Trump, doubling down by wielding shocking rhetoric on race and immigration makes sense: Not only did this strategy deliver him the White House, he has also joined a long tradition of stoking cultural divisions to distract from economic policies that hurt his core constituency — like the tariffs and trade war with China hurting farmers and working-class whites who voted for him in 2016.

As tempting as it is for Democrats to embrace divisive, explosive cultural issues, shaping a party’s pitch around these issues has historically been a far shakier foundation for forging lasting coalitions. If the party really wants to build a stable coalition, its candidates will have to foreground economic policies and play down culture.

A complex dynamic between economics and culture has characterized electoral strategy since the dawn of the two-party system in the United States in the 1830s. Voters’ party affiliation has always been influenced by their socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and religion. Party leaders and candidates, in turn, have long played on these elements to win elections.

Yet for most of the 1830s and 1840s, the focus of electoral competition was on economic policy. Democrats preferred a low tariff on imported goods because it pleased their rural agricultural constituents who wanted farm goods to be more competitive on the global market. The opposition Whigs, by contrast, advocated for a high tariff that would protect the goods produced in the industrial North.

Both parties believed that economic issues presented the best way to forge a broad and enduring electoral coalition. They feared that prioritizing issues tied to voters’ ethnic and religious identities would divide their coalitions. And no topic proved more divisive than slavery, which divided voters on ethnoreligious and economic lines. Moral and ethical attitudes tied to identity shaped how voters viewed the issue as much, if not more than economic class and identity. The issue bedeviled the Whigs in particular, since the party favored a more powerful national government — anathema in the South.

But while parties tried to sidestep cultural fissures, starting in 1850 addressing them became unavoidable. Multiple developments upset the balance between slave and free states, thereby exacerbating sectional tensions over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 included a fugitive slave law, infuriating antislavery Northerners. Events that followed ratcheted up the tensions even further: a pitched battle over whether Kansas would be slave or free, followed by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision that slaves were property and not citizens and that Congress lacked the authority to regulate slavery within the states.

These events captured popular attention and engendered passions on either side of the debate, leaving party leaders little choice but to confront the issue. At the same moment, activists forced issues like Prohibition and immigration onto the political agenda at the state and local level.

Indiana in the 1850s vividly illustrated how these developments roiled politics. There, Democrats sought to quell internal dissent on slavery by challenging the federal power necessary to restrict its extension — while sidestepping the moral question. Moreover, to broaden their appeal to German and other immigrants within the state, the party tried to split the difference on Prohibition, arguing for an individual’s right to be secure in his own home against searches for alcohol.

The opposition People’s Party, consisting of Whigs, anti-immigrant Know Nothings and disaffected Democrats, supported restricting slavery’s extension and Prohibition. This nativist coalition also enlisted the help of Methodist clergy to invoke anti-Catholic appeals. Emphasizing nativism proved successful in the 1854 election, demonstrating how potent ethnoreligious concerns could be at mobilizing voters.

Yet while they might have helped win a one-off election, these renewed tensions over slavery and ethnoreligious concerns hastened the demise of the Whigs. The party could not articulate a clear position on slavery without ripping itself apart, and on religious issues it was similarly trapped, as it tried to appeal to Catholic voters without losing its Protestant base. Whigs’ attempt to thread the needle only sparked the growing Republican movement with its clearer stance on slavery and appeals to the Whigs’ largely Protestant base, which had become disillusioned with the party over its perceived lack of conviction.

As a result, the parties hardened their sectional affiliations: Democrats in the South and Republicans in the North, helping to precipitate the Civil War.

After the war, economic and cultural issues fused. Intense competition prodded both parties to cloak economic concerns with cultural rhetoric. In California, for example, this meant supporting restrictions on Chinese immigration, sometimes in overtly nativist language, to appeal to white workers. One Republican platform claimed Chinese immigrants were “incapacitated from … becoming desirable members of our American community.”

Nativist beliefs weren’t necessarily driving the use of this bigoted language, however. Instead, Republicans needed to distract from their increasingly unpopular economic policy — a high tariff on imported goods — something particularly harmful to Northern factory workers. Worried about competition for their jobs, these workers found such nativist rhetoric seductive, demonstrating again that cultural appeals could work in the short term to keep voters in the fold.

Yet as tantalizing as pandering on this potential wedge issue was for party leaders, this kind of cultural position did not have enough appeal to build a stable coalition. That happened only when economic issues moved back to center stage in the 1890s.

Activism during the 1890s from the third-party Populists amassed popular support for the free and unlimited coinage of silver from farmers and anti-corporate forces thrusting the debate over the monetary standard onto the Democratic and Republican agendas in 1896. Republicans resisted their demand for silver, embracing instead the gold standard, which had the support of Northern industrialists, while Democrats, with their more agrarian base, took up the Populists’ mantle. These positions contributed to the solidification of voter alignments well into the next century.

This example suggests that while cultural appeals shored up support in the short term, building a party's economic identity could foster an enduring coalition.

Many issues, of course, like slavery and immigrant labor, have both economic and cultural dimensions. In those cases, the key is how party elites frame them for the electorate — what strands they emphasize, what language they use and how they appeal to voters: based on their cultural identities or their wallets? While these decisions often stem from the immediate electoral environment, what these cases show is that a focus just on the next election can prove damaging longer term.

Today, the 2020 Democratic candidates face a similar dilemma to their 19th-century brethren. To what extent do they focus on culture? So far, the answer seems to be a lot. The first two primary debates centered on concerns like immigration and impeachment that animate the progressive and somewhat liberal wings of the party.

But there is real question as to whether that’s good for the candidates, either in the primary or the general election. More moderate and conservative Democrats would prefer a focus on jobs, taxes and the economy. And they are centered in states that come early in the primary schedule — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — or in states that the Democrats believe are essential to win in 2020, especially Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Thus, while directly challenging Trump on ethnocultural issues like immigration may excite elements of the liberal base, they are likely to prove divisive, narrowing the potential Democratic coalition. Even if they produce victory, it might be only short-lived because of its narrow foundation. Democratic leaders will need to keep addressing and exciting these voters, which may limit the party’s flexibility to legislate and create a stable, enduring, broader national coalition.

The results of the 2018 elections illustrate the dangers of this strategy: Republicans lost suburban moderate voters while retaining a decreasing but energized conservative minority. Democrats, by contrast, triumphed in large measure because of victories by more moderate candidates who had appeal in those suburbs. What path will the Democrats choose?

This post has been updated.