The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the forthcoming book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:
In the wake of the first GOP primary debate, it would not seem that Republicans are making a strong case for their party as America’s common-sense, normie voter alternative. And the craziest one of the lot, Donald Trump, wasn’t even there!
But how much stronger is the Democrats’ case in this regard? For partisan Democrats, the answer is “infinitely stronger”—but it is not among partisan Democrats that the next election will be decided but among more persuadable voters for whom this is a tougher call. This is reflected in the continuing failure of Biden to open up much of a lead over Trump, his probable general election opponent, and even tighter polling in the generic congressional ballot for 2024.
This should worry Democrats a great deal. Given the dysfunctional and weakened nature of today’s Republican Party, why isn’t their party an easier sell? The simplest answer is that they, themselves, are not that attractive. What might it take for Democrats to get over the hurdle and make themselves the clear and easy choice as America’s common-sense, normie voter party and not just in the friendly environs of the country’s cosmopolitan metro areas?
Below are ten statements that I first formulated a couple of years ago that encapsulate some of what “Common Sense Democrats” might stand for. Since then these statements have been tested in statewide polls in the very blue state of Massachusetts and the purple state of Wisconsin and received overwhelming support. (I should note that the statements were simply tested as is, rather than reworded for survey purposes, but the results were striking nonetheless.) Most recently, the ten statements were tested nationally from April to June among over 18,000 registered voters by RMG Research.
Here are the results:
- Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not. (73 percent agree/13 percent disagree)
- America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country. (81 percent agree/14 percent disagree)
- Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society. (70 percent agree/24 percent disagree)
- No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair. (77 percent agree/15 percent disagree)
- America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country. (78 percent agree/14 percent disagree)
- Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. More and better policing is needed for public safety and that cannot be provided by “defunding the police.” (79 percent agree/15 percent disagree)
- There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong. (82 percent agree/12 percent disagree)
- There are basically two genders, but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and far from settled. (73 percent agree/17 percent disagree)
- Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races. (74 percent agree/16 percent disagree)
- Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith. (76 percent agree/14 percetn disagree)
It could be argued that these statements are too easy to agree with and are just common sense. But if they’re all just common sense, why do so many Democrats have trouble saying these things? Indeed, how comfortable would most Democratic Party politicians be endorsing the full range of these views? Would Joe Biden? I don’t think so.
Here’s another common-sense proposition:
- Climate change is a serious problem but it won’t be solved overnight. As we move toward a clean energy economy with an “all of the above” strategy, energy must continue to be cheap, reliable and abundant. That means fossil fuels, especially natural gas, will continue to be an important part of the mix.
While this specific proposition has not been tested, items close to it have been. In a question originally posed by Pew, the public has been asked to choose their preferred approach to the country’s energy supply: “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources” or “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only.”
In a 6,000 respondent survey recently conducted by AEI’s Survey Center on American Life and the National Opinion Research Center, the split between these options on an identical question was overwhelming: 72 percent for the all-of-the-above approach, including fossil fuels, to 26 percent for the rapid renewables transition. The split was even more lop-sided among working-class (noncollege) respondents, as it was among political moderates. Another victory for common sense.
Similarly in The Liberal Patriot’s recent 3,000 respondent survey conducted by YouGov, voters were given three options:
- We need a rapid green transition to end the use of fossil fuels and replace them with fully renewable energy sources;
- We need an “all-of-the above” strategy that provides abundant and cheap energy from multiple sources including oil and gas to renewables to advanced nuclear power; or
- We need to stop the push to replace domestic oil and gas production with unproven green energy projects that raise costs and undercut jobs.
The first position, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables, most closely resembles the current Democratic approach—but was embraced by just 29 percent of voters. In contrast, the most popular position was the second, all-of-the above approach that emphasizes energy abundance and the use of fossil fuels and renewables and nuclear, favored by 46 percent of voters. Another quarter just wanted to stick with fossil fuels.
Further analysis shows that moderates favored the all-of-the-above approach by 58 percent to 23 percent support for the rapid renewables transition, as did 54 percent of independents, with a mere 18 percent favoring the rapid transition to renewables. Once again, common sense carries the day.
This common-sense approach, and the Democrats’ failure to clearly embrace it, is likely to loom ever-larger in coming months. The Democrats’ energy and general economic strategy as instantiated in the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act is heavily invested in a rapid transition to a renewables-based energy system. It is becoming increasingly obvious, and not just in Europe, that this strategy does not, in fact, produce energy that is cheap, reliable, and abundant, and therefore virtually guarantees voter backlash.
A recent Politico article detailed the evolving situation in the very blue state of New York:
A generational push to tackle climate change in New York is quickly becoming a pocketbook issue headed into 2024.
Some upstate New York electric customers are already paying 10 percent of their utility bill to support the state’s effort to move off fossil fuels and into renewable energy. In the coming years, people across the state can expect to give up even bigger chunks of their income to the programs — $48 billion in projects is set to be funded by consumers over the next two decades.
The scenario is creating a headache for New York Democrats grappling with the practical and political risk of the transition.
It’s an early sign of the dangers Democrats across the country will face as they press forward with similar policies at the state and federal level. New Jersey, Maryland and California are also wrestling with the issue and, in some cases, are reconsidering their ambitious plans….
The costs of the state’s renewable energy mandates are being paid for almost solely by New York residents and businesses through their electric bills. With renewable developers asking for higher subsidies to deal with inflation, those costs are expected to increase while expected savings from the transition takes longer to materialize.
Democrats who control New York’s government are increasingly worried about the fallout.
“I’m very concerned about the cost and the impact on our ratepayers, our constituents,” said Assemblymember Didi Barrett, a Hudson Valley Democrat who chairs the chamber’s Energy Committee. “People right now are already complaining about where their utility costs are, so it has to be part of the conversation.”
We’ll see more of this as Democrats continue to press the accelerator on their preferred energy approach, instead of the public’s preferred common sense approach. So… on this, as on all the other issues mentioned above, what is preventing Democrats from embracing common sense and meeting voters where they are, as opposed to demanding that voters abandon their common sense and meet Democrats where they are?
The answer has a great deal to do with the shifting base of the Democratic Partyand its increased domination by liberal, college-educated voters. But it’s not just the demographics of these voters and associated activists, it’s the style of politics they tend to practice.
As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, it’s the moralization of political choices which has made sensible, pragmatic positions increasingly difficult for Democrats on issues favored by these voters. Everything has become a matter of principle and cannot be compromised on because compromise is immoral on matters of principle:
Over the past 20–30 years, the voting base of the Democratic Party has become a lot more educated and upscale.
One might have predicted that would lead to the adoption of a more moderate stance on economic issues, but that hasn’t really happened.…At the same time, it’s not a coincidence that the Biden administration has enacted only small increases in the generosity of the welfare state, even though they’ve proposed huge ones. Democrats didn’t have the votes to enact the full Biden agenda, and running up against hard fiscal constraints, they chose to spend more on climate change than on welfare state expansion. And I think you can see how, from the point of view of a working-class person who (like most people) does not care that much about climate change, this can look like an abandonment of the traditional economic agenda.
That’s especially true if thought leaders are putting forward the idea that economic issues have, in some sense, lower moral stakes than other issues.
In particular, I think it’s worth considering the impact of this way of thinking on cross-pressured voters. Imagine a Texan who favors Medicaid expansion but thinks student athletes should play on chromosomally-appropriate sports teams. Well, you could tell that person that Medicaid has enormous concrete stakes for 1.4 million uninsured Texans while the sports issue impacts a tiny number of people.
But if progressives take the view that identity issues are fundamental moral principles and are too important to brook any compromise, that encourages people with the non-progressive view to see it the same way….
As Democrats have become more upscale, they haven’t shifted their policy platform on economics to the right. But they have become less interested in forming big tent electoral coalitions to maximize the odds of welfare state expansion and more interested in ideological purity and uncompromising moral stands.
That’s today’s Democratic Party. And that’s why Democrats are not yet the common-sense, normie voter party despite their abysmal competition. That’s too bad, since America could really use one about now.