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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Can Dems Win Elections While Losing the Culture Wars?

Ronald Brownstein mulls over the reasons “Why Democrats Are Losing the Culture Wars” at The Atlantic and provides some insightful observations about the policy and messaging options being discussed by Democratic strategists and analysts, including:

Today’s Democratic conflict is not yet as sustained or as institutionalized as the earlier battles. Although dozens of elected officials joined the DLC, the loudest internal critics of progressivism now are mostly political consultants, election analysts, and writers—a list that includes the data scientist David Shor and a coterie of prominent left-of-center journalists (such as Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Jonathan Chait) who have popularized his work; the longtime demographic and election analyst Ruy Teixeira and like-minded writers clustered around the website The Liberal Patriot; and the pollster Stanley B. Greenberg and the political strategist James Carville, two of the key figures in Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Compared with the early ’90s, “the pragmatic wing of the party is more fractured and leaderless,” says Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank that was initially founded by the DLC but that has long outlived its parent organization (which closed its doors in 2011).

For now, these dissenters from the party’s progressive consensus are mostly shouting from the bleachers. On virtually every major cultural and economic issue, the Democrats’ baseline position today is well to the left of their consensus in the Clinton years (and the country itself has also moved left on some previously polarizing cultural issues, such as marriage equality). As president, Biden has not embraced all of the vanguard liberal positions that critics such as Shor and Teixeira consider damaging, but neither has he publicly confronted and separated himself from the most leftist elements of his party—the way Clinton most famously did during the 1992 campaign when he accused the hip-hop artist Sister Souljah of promoting “hatred” against white people. Only a handful of elected officials—most prominently, incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams—seem willing to take a more confrontational approach toward cultural liberals, as analysts such as Teixeira are urging. But if next year’s midterm elections go badly for the party, it’s possible, even likely, that more Democrats will join the push for a more Clintonite approach. And that could restart a whole range of battles over policy and political strategy that seemed to have been long settled.

Brownstein discusses President Clinton’s success in the nineties, and credits Clinton’s “folksy, populist style he had developed while repeatedly winning office in Arkansas, a state dominated by culturally conservative, mostly non-college-educated white Americans” as a reason for his success. “After a quarter century of futility,” Brownstein adds, “Clinton’s reformulation of the traditional Democratic message restored the party’s ability to compete for the White House.” Brownstein notes, further,

David Shor, a young data analyst and pollster who personally identifies as a democratic socialist, has promoted his ideas primarily through interviews with sympathetic journalists (taking criticism along the way for failing to document some of his assertions about polling results). Ruy Teixeira and his allies have advanced similar ideas in greater depth through essays primarily in their Substack project, The Liberal Patriot. Stan Greenberg, the pollster, summarized his approach in an extensive recent polling report on how to improve the party’s performance with working-class voters that he conducted along with firms that specialize in Hispanic (Equis Labs) and Black (HIT Strategies) voters….Shor, Teixeira, and Greenberg all argue that economic assistance alone won’t recapture voters who consider Democrats out of touch with their values on social and cultural issues. (Today’s critics don’t worry as much as the DLC did about the party appearing weak on national security.) “The more working class voters see their values as being at variance with the Democratic party brand,” Teixeira wrote recently in a direct echo of “Evasion,” “the less likely it is that Democrats will see due credit for even their measures that do provide benefits to working class voters.”

….(Shor also believes that Democrats must move to the center on cultural issues but he’s suggested that the answer is less to pick fights within the party than to simply downplay those issues in favor of economics, where the party’s agenda usually has more public support, an approach that has been described as “popularism.” “On the social issues, you want to take the median position,” he told me, “but really the game is that our positions are so unpopular, we have to do everything we can to keep them out of the conversation. Period.”)….“It took me a long time to accept this, because it was very ideologically against what I wanted to be true, but the reality is, the way to win elections is to go against your party and to seem moderate,” Shor said. “I like to tell people that symbolic and ideological moderation are not just helpful but actually are the only things that matter to a big degree.”

However, notes Brownstein, “Democrats today need fewer culturally conservative voters to win power. Roughly since the mid-’90s, white Americans without a college degree—the principal audience for the centrist critics—have fallen from about three-fifths of all voters to about two-fifths (give or take a percentage point or two, depending on the source). Over that same period, voters of color have nearly doubled, to about 30 percent of the total vote, and white voters with a college degree have ticked up to just above that level (again with slight variations depending on the source).”

Brownstein shares a messaging tip from Stanley Greenberg, one of the top experts on political attitudes of the white working-class: “Greenberg says in his recent study that non-college-educated Hispanics and Black Americans, as well as blue-collar white voters, all responded to a tough populist economic message aimed at the rich and big corporations, but only after Democrats explicitly rejected defunding the police. “You just didn’t get there [with those voters] unless you were for funding and respecting, but reforming, the police as part of your message,” Greenberg told me. “The same way that in his era and time … welfare reform unlocked a lot of things for Bill Clinton, it may be that addressing defunding the police unlocks things in a way that is similar.”

Of course the risk is that overstating a centrist message will discourage turnout among Black, Hispanic and young voters. Brownstein notes alternative strategies, including:

“Rather than chasing the working-class white voters attracted to Trump’s messages by shifting right on crime and immigration, groups focused on mobilizing the growing number of nonwhite voters, such as Way to Win, argue that Democrats should respond with what they call the “class-race narrative.” That approach directly accuses Republicans of using racial division to distract from policies that benefit the rich, a message these groups say can both motivate nonwhite intermittent voters and convince some blue-collar white voters.”….Meanwhile, organizations such as Way to Win are arguing that Democrats should worry less about recapturing voters drawn to Trump than mobilizing the estimated 91 million individuals who turned out to vote for the party in at least one of the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections.”

The question remains: What is the best policy and messaging mix that can help Democrats win a modestly larger share of white working-class voters, while not discouraging turnout by other core constituencies? The answer holds the key to building a stable, working majority.

5 comments on “Brownstein: Can Dems Win Elections While Losing the Culture Wars?

  1. Candace on

    “Ronald Brownstein…provides some insightful observations about the policy and messaging options being discussed by Democratic strategists and analysts…”

    Literally the same uninspiring stuff posted here constantly; while reading it you have to fight the energy being sucked out of you.

    I’ve said all I want to say about this. The rules aren’t posted here anywhere but I’m pretty sure you cant post links? So in case there’s a problem, I’ll just add a couple titles and authors.
    If it gets posted and anyone is interested they can find it.

    “The problem isn’t Democrats losing white voters — it’s Republicans winning them over with lies
    Democrats can’t stop culture war propaganda by running away. Confronting it head-on might make the only difference..” By Amanda Marcotte at Salon on Dec 10, 2021

    “It’s time for Democrats to reclaim FDR’s brand as the “Freedom Party”
    Roosevelt told his party it could never compromise with “economic royalists.” Democrats should heed his words now.” By Thom Hartmann at Salon on Dec 13, 2021

    Reply
  2. Victor on

    1. Bill Clinton was a mediocre President who got relatively little done. He also did terrible things domestically and his neglect of Russia directly led to Putin. From a long term perspective and specially on geopolitics, he is one of the worst American presidents, having been handed a win in the Cold War and squandering it. His self inflicted scandals distracted him. His messaging triangulation was fine, but his policy one only led to the financial crisis and the Great Recession. NAFTA and China, enough said.

    2. I completely agree on the need to recalibrate messaging. The “race-class” narrative sounds like wishful thinking. Defund the police could be easily solved by federally funding the police. Where is Biden’s bill on this? Biden can exercise positive leadership without being confrontational with the cultural left. On immigration Biden has tried to stick to a muddled policy mix. On this he really needs to call out the open borders crowd. Apart from this Democrats have mostly won the culture wars. What other issues really stand out? Yeah the party mishandled almost everything Covid related with ambiguity. Trans rights are slowly becoming a winning issue. Guns and abortion have been debated to death and as long as there is no federal movement, they shouldn’t be losing issues.

    Reply
  3. Martin Lawford on

    “What is the best policy and messaging mix that can help Democrats win a modestly larger share of white working-class voters, while not discouraging turnout by other core constituencies?”

    Andrew Levison answered that years ago in a TDS memo: “What strategies can Democrats reasonably consider for reducing Trump’s support among the nonracist sector of the white working class? The answer is a frontal, ‘No holds barred” attack on the specific aspects of Trump’s character that offend the decent and admirable moral values of white workers.” Campaign against other Republicans as Biden successfully campaigned against Trump.

    Reply
  4. Watcher on

    Good essay that talks about the promises and pitfalls of “cultural moderation”. I particularly like the race-class strategy discussion.

    It also is a nice break from the increasingly tiresome, unhelpful “Woke Bad” columns by by Teixeira that make it seem like all we need to do is punch a college professor or activist and everything will be fine.

    Reply

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