The Lemming Democrats

The Lemming Democrats

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Traverse City, Michigan, March 4, 2016 (Todd L. Church / Flickr)

Why do they keep marching off the same cliff?

Again and again, Democrats expect demographics to hand them unearned election victories. Vapid centrist campaigns assume that coalitions of minorities and educated white professionals will rally around candidates just because there’s a D next to their names. Strategists target upscale suburban women—the proverbial soccer moms—as the key swing voters, and they lose elections that should have been won.

In heavily Democratic Maryland, Kathleen Townsend followed that formula and lost the 2002 governor’s race to a nondescript congressman. Twelve years later, Anthony Brown positions himself as a mainstream Democrat to fend off a more conservative primary opponent but runs to the center in the general election. He is defeated there by a standard-issue Republican who comes seemingly out of nowhere.

Volunteers trying to turn out voters in the final days of the 2014 Brown campaign are handed a script that’s all about gun control and abortion rights. Making little headway with the low-income minority voters who populate the phone lists, I start throwing in a mention of the recently approved hike in the state minimum wage. Ears suddenly perk up—when does it start, I’m asked again and again.

In 2010, Massachusetts Democrats choose Martha Coakley, who made her political name prosecuting child sex abusers, to defend Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Her stunning defeat deprives the Senate of the vote needed to fix defects in the initial version of Obamacare. Yet in 2014, the party nominates her for governor, and an issueless campaign brings another defeat.

Two more years go by, and Hillary Clinton follows lemming-like in Townsend’s, Brown’s, and Coakley’s footsteps. Ignoring the stiff warning sent by the downscale white primary voters who flocked to Bernie Sanders, her general-election campaign tacks toward the economic center. Where Barack Obama had blanketed the airwaves with Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark, Clinton largely holds her fire against the innumerable populist targets offered by Donald Trump—”wages are too high,” Chinese steel, Trump University, and on and on. Instead we get endorsements by corporate CEOs and the soccer-mom appeal: would you want your daughter to hear his naughty words?

This isn’t mere incompetence. The strategic logic of the minority-professional alliance sends Democrats down this dead-end road. The coalition has common enemies, but it lacks a common program. Absent special inspiration, the need to hold disparate elements together brings themeless campaigns and electoral defeat.

Seeing upscale professional women as the swing voters, campaigns stress issues that are at best uncontroversial (Coakley’s record fighting sex abuse) and at worst appeal implicitly to status distinctions that drive away lower-income voters (decorous speech, gun control). This hardly motivates minority voters, so candidates face a difficult choice between living with low turnout and emphasizing race at the risk of losing white voters. Many try to split the difference with distinct appeals tailored to different audiences, a tactic that tends to muddle messages even more.

Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat brought a wave of soul-searching, but it did little to stimulate strategic rethinking. Pundits were quick to reaffirm the misconceptions that underlay her losing strategy:

Trump voters are motivated only by racism: This frequently heard assertion is contradicted by data, it suggests no way to win future elections, and its emphasis on the moral superiority of the enlightened risks further alienating a large section of the working class. Taken to an extreme, it can stigmatize as racist any effort to win back Trump voters with economic appeals.

Blame no one for lost manufacturing jobs: Manufacturing employment was steady through thirty years of globalization and productivity gains. The loss of jobs coincided with the ballooning trade deficit after 2000. NAFTA and the opening to Chinese imports were avoidable disasters.

The working class is defined by education: Lumping voters together by education is a convenient way to interpret polls, which measure income imperfectly or not at all. But it loses meaning as college attendance rates rise while low pay, high rents, and student loan debt put recent graduates in a financial squeeze. As the Clinton-Sanders primaries showed, college grads are sharply divided along lines of age and income. Issues that appeal to rising Ivy-League professionals may leave the less affluent cold.

Demographic inevitability: Some still maintain that rising education levels and growing minority populations ensure future Democratic majorities. But Republicans keep winning elections, even in places like Maryland and Massachusetts where these trends are most advanced. And in a Trumpian future of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and sundry other assaults on democracy, it will take much more than 51 percent support to reverse policy directions.

These rationales for the dismissal of class-based politics stay in vogue, in the face of so much contrary evidence, because of strong demand and ample supply.

The sources of the demand are not hard to identify. To start with, the corporate lobbyists who raise funds for the national party, and the soon-to-be lobbyists who populate the upper ranks of campaign staffs, shy from anything that might upset a client. But there is much more to it.

Political polarization, while pushing Republicans toward the extreme, has tended to draw local Democrats toward the center. As the electorate grows more polarized, general-election victory is all but guaranteed in blue-state legislatures and city halls. So candidates focus on the primary. There low turnout, reinforced by the decline of unions and other grassroots organizations, creates an electorate strongly skewed toward the affluent. With news coverage sparse, money becomes the determining factor, and even the more progressive politicians fear to antagonize wealthy contributors.

The news media feel a similar push. In search of the affluent, with-it audience that attracts style-conscious advertisers, they seek out opinions that seem suitably “advanced” without offending upscale sensibilities.

These impulses converge to surfeit the marketplace of ideas with demand for a fashionable liberalism that appeals to the well-off. A sort of inverted natural selection results, a survival of the unfit. Job advancement in political consulting, elected officials’ staffs, and opinion media depends more on how well one’s opinions appeal to the upscale audience than whether they accord with the facts.

But the pull of economic interests alone does not account for the wide acceptance of these ideas. The entirely cynical can always find better pay on the big-business right. Unless honest adherents put themselves on offer, the demand will be filled with second-raters or not at all.

The honest adherents are not lacking—in part because some key concepts of today’s centrist strategies can be traced to the left and still find traction there today. As John Judis recalls, the demographic inevitability thesis dates back to the New Left of the late 1960s, which held white workers to be hopelessly corrupted by racism and imperialism. A more mainstream version of this belief, looking to an electoral coalition of students, racial minorities, and white professionals, emerged with the McGovern campaign of 1972 and inspired subsequent Democratic runs.

Meanwhile, with radical energies waning on the streets and waxing in the university faculties, a new generation of theorists put “difference” ahead of equality. With race and gender increasingly viewed in isolation, siding with the economic elite can take on a transgressive aura, a trend epitomized by the craze for Broadway’s Hamilton.

These strains of leftism mesh comfortably with the established prejudices of the affluent professional class. Process-oriented reformers, much like the Progressives of a century ago, look down at all forms of working-class politics as venal. The philanthropically minded elite maintains its longstanding predilection for remedies to racial injustice that leave class injustice untouched. A newer cohort of technology specialists admires the “innovation” and “disruption” of Silicon Valley billionaires.

The left side of this ideological package is a big part of why it sells so well. Edginess, not bland centrism, is what marketers and mass media search out. The post-1960s merger of dissidence and marketing that made Che into a fashion icon reduced leftism, in popular perception and to a degree in reality, from a political viewpoint into a lifestyle choice. And over the years the lifestyle migrated upmarket. Organic went from co-op to Whole Foods; hippie communes made way for hipster condos.

This evolution, heavily hyped all along the way, has conditioned large sections of the public to see any kind of progressivism as a species of elitism. The elitist label tars both left and center, labor’s friends as well as its critics. We are all in the same hole, whether or not we helped to dig it.

It is possible to climb out of that hole. Bernie Sanders, facing a primary opponent who epitomized the party’s elitist wing, focused clearly on economics and attacked the billionaire class by name. Missouri’s Jason Kander, campaigning for the Senate on a populist economic program, paused to assemble a machine gun blindfolded on TV. Sanders’s technique is easier to imitate than Kander’s, but neither is a model to be copied blindly. Candidates must find their own way and most, endowed inevitably with less ingenuity and fewer resources, will fall short until the image of the party as a whole shifts.

To win back power at the national level, the Democrats need new music as well as new words. Outrage at Trump’s assaults on democracy could—although it would be foolish to count on it—be enough to win the next election. After normalcy returns, adding a little economics to standard campaign messages may peel off enough voters to win close elections. But neither will reverse the long-term trend. To create a governing majority, the party must rebuild its coalition around a common program. It must—without lessening its commitment to racial justice and gender equality—make economic inequity its core message, and it must be seen to do so.

No current voting constituencies need be written off. The same kitchen-table economic concerns motivate less affluent voters of all races and ethnicities–often more so than appeals to separate group identities. Educated professionals, too, see their retirement savings skimmed by Wall Street predators and their health endangered by for-profit medicine.

But the party won’t escape its impasse without turning away from the thinking (and the financial backers) that brought it to this point. Obstacles abound—political, financial, cultural, and intellectual. Most recently, the imperative of mass resistance offers a tempting excuse to avoid debates over political program. Those who think the party’s leftward shift is a settled question profoundly underestimate the struggle ahead. The revival of class-based politics is as difficult a task as it is a necessary one.


Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014), is about the politics of urbanism and transit.