Doubling down on the very reasons their voters bolted is not a viable plan
An estimated 6.7 to 9.2 million Americans who voted for Obama switched to Trump in 2016, and the Democrats have no true understanding of why that happened. They have largely avoided serious introspection about their loss last November, let alone about the massive losses they accrued during Obama’s two terms in office. The result is Party-wide confusion and incomprehension that has manifested as seething anger, lashing out at anyone and everyone, and plowing forward with an agenda that the majority of the American people simply do not want.
The New York Times has a dense and richly-sourced article that highlights some key problems for Democrats moving forward. Here are a few highlights:
Busting the narrative that Trump voters who formerly voted for Democrats were mostly white, working class.
What the autopsy reveals is that Democratic losses among working class voters were not limited to whites; that crucial constituencies within the party see its leaders as alien; and that unity over economic populism may not be able to turn back the conservative tide.
Equally disturbing, winning back former party loyalists who switched to Trump will be tough: these white voters’ views on immigration and race are in direct conflict with fundamental Democratic tenets.
Democrats have hung their electoral hopes on tribalism, but they are hemorrhaging voters among their own pet identity groups.
A consistent theme is that the focus on white defections from the Democratic Party masks an even more threatening trend: declining turnout among key elements of the so-called Rising American Electorate — minority, young and single voters. Turnout among African-Americans, for example, fell by 7 points, from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016.
. . . . Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, writes in his Prospect essay:
The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.
Pew noted that black voter turnout was down in 2016.
A record 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall voter turnout – defined as the share of adult U.S. citizens who cast ballots – was 61.4% in 2016, a share similar to 2012 but below the 63.6% who say they voted in 2008.
A number of long-standing trends in presidential elections either reversed or stalled in 2016, as black voter turnout decreased, white turnout increased and the nonwhite share of the U.S. electorate remained flat since the 2012 election.
One of the reasons for the decreased Democrat black voter turnout is a deep disappointment in Obama.
McClatchy reported in 2014:
Black voters’ disappointment with President Barack Obama, who they so eagerly embraced for so many years, could be costly on Election Day to Democrats, who badly need a big African-American turnout to win Senate and gubernatorial races in key states.
Instead, many African-Americans see an unemployment rate well above the national average, continuing problems with crime in many neighborhoods, and a president more interested in trying to help other voting blocs that didn’t give him such unwavering support.
He talks about same-sex marriage in a nod to the gay and lesbian community. He discusses immigration and its benefits, an issue particularly important to the Latino community. He fights for equal pay, a vital issue to the women Democrats so avidly court.
The black community, which gave Obama support like no other group, too often doesn’t see the investment paying off.
Among those voters Democrats are losing are a significant number who voted for Obama but then went for Trump in 2016.
The NYT continues:
Priorities also studied Obama-to-Trump voters. Estimates of the number of such voters range from 6.7 to 9.2 million, far more than enough to provide Trump his Electoral College victory. The counties that switched from Obama to Trump were heavily concentrated in the Midwest and other Rust Belt states.
The reasons for this switch are varied, but seem to be rooted in the Obama-Democrat focus on globalization, multiculturalism, and other progressive areas of focus that Obama-to-Trump voters experienced as harmful to them, to their families, and to their communities.
The harm is economic, social, cultural, and ultimately, political. Democrat insistence that every aspect of life is political and therefore under the purview of the political elites in Washington is alienating their now-former voters by the millions.
In short, suburban, small town, and rural Americans were “left behind” by Democrats, and these alienated, forgotten Americans no longer feel affinity for or allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Indeed, there seems to be a distrust of Democrats whom they perceive to be more interested in the wealthy than in them.
Geoff Garin is a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group which, together with the Global Strategy Group, conducted the surveys and focus groups for Priorities USA. Garin wrote in an email:
The biggest common denominator among Obama-Trump voters is a view that the political system is corrupt and doesn’t work for people like them.
Garin added that
Obama-Trump voters were more likely to think more Democrats look out for the wealthy than look out for poor people.
Tied to this sense of being left behind is the general and growing voter distrust of and in government.
For Democrats who argue that the adoption of economic populism is the best way to counter Trump, Guy Molyneux, a partner in Garin’s polling firm, warns in his American Prospect essay, “A Tale of Two Populisms,” that voters drawn to Trump are anti-government, deeply wary of a pro-government Democratic Party.
. . . . While the populism espoused by Sanders and Warren is economic, challenging C.E.O.s, major corporations and “the billionaire class,” Trump is the messenger of what Molyneux calls “political populism,” which “is, fundamentally, a story about the failure of government.”
White working-class voters’ negative view of government spending undermines their potential support for many progressive economic policies. While they want something done about jobs, wages, education, and health care, they are also fiscally conservative and deeply skeptical of government’s ability to make positive change. So political populism not only differs from economic populism, but also serves as a powerful barrier to it.
Or, as I have written elsewhere, Democrats cannot simply argue in favor of redistributive government on economic matters because defecting whites are deeply hostile to a government they see as coercive on matters of race.
For decades, the perception that an intrusive federal government promotes policies favoring African-Americans and other minorities at the expense of whites has driven anti-government animosity.
A PRRI study focused on white working class voters indicates that Trump voters were not motivated by race or gender.
It is notable that many attitudes and attributes identified as possible explanations for Trump’s support among white working-class voters were not significant independent predictors. Gender, age, region, and religious affiliation were not significant demographic factors in the model. Views about gender roles and attitudes about race were also not significant. It is also notable that neither measure of civic engagement—attendance at civic events or religious services—proved to be a significant independent predictor of support for Trump.
Instead, these voters reported feeling culturally, not just economically, left behind. Illegal immigration, the perceived death of the American Dream, and a sense of being “a stranger in their own land” contributed to voters selecting Trump, who represented change, over Hillary, who represented the status quo.
Government failed the voters the Democrats lost, and Democrats’ entire schtick is the power and generosity of government.
All of this reveals that Democrats are in a very difficult position and may find it an uphill battle just to win back their own former voters, let alone broaden their coalition to include additional voters they’d need to make up for the ones who simply won’t go back.
For decades, Democrats pinned their entire political strategy and agenda on their fantasy of a “Rising American Electorate.”
At that time, the consensus was that Democrats had found the key to sustained victory. The party saw its future in ascendant constituencies: empowered minorities, singles, social liberals and the well-educated.
Democratic activists saw the Republican Party as doomed to defeat without a radical change of course because it was tied to overlapping constituencies that they viewed as of waning significance — for example, older, non-college, evangelical white Christians.
The Democratic Party’s insistence that every Democrat support abortion, that there is no room for pro-life voters in the party, is another area that creates a vast divide between the elites and many Democrat constituencies.
Among all these data points is a connecting thread: the voters Democrats have shed do not share the radical vision of progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; they do not trust government, so they are not swayed by promises of new government programs designed to lure them back. The Party’s insistence on pushing further left will further alienate voters they’ve already lost and almost certainly cause them to lose still more.
There is little evidence that Democrats understand any part of this, however. They are doubling down on the very things that cost them so many voters. Indeed, they have pinned their hopes on special elections this year, but even if they manage to win one—such as Georgia’s 6th district House race tomorrow—their party’s fundamental problems will remain. In some ways, winning Georgia’s 6th would be detrimental to Democrats because they would erroneously read that win as a sign that lunging still further left is the right path.
It should be noted, too, that Republicans benefited from the Democrats’ deep faith in identity politics and in their magic “demographic majority” that never quite materialized. Republicans didn’t win these voters, they got them by default in our two-party system. Therefore, Republicans need to be wary that they not get too comfortable or complacent, and they definitely need to understand that adopting left-leaning policies directed at subsets of Americans won’t work any better for them than it did for Democrats.
Trump understood this instinctively. One America frightens Democrats who have no talking points for a united country in which everyone is an American, no hyphens or footnotes about sexuality and gender. The idea of “no red states and no blue states” that Obama never seemed to believe but that won him many of these voters is a distant memory on the left. Democrats hear “America First” and think isolationism and xenophobia, their former voters hear it and think of the American Dream and American exceptionalism.
“America First” speaks to unity—to one nation, under God—and patriotism; sadly, the Democratic Party has become increasingly averse to both.DONATE
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