washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Democrats Adrift Without ‘Working Class Anchor’

The following transcription of Paul Gigot’s interview of Ruy Teixeira, co-author with John B. Judis of Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, is cross-posted from the Wall St. Journal:

Paul Gigot: With the 2024 Iowa caucuses less than a month away, the presidential campaign season is in high gear and Democrats are worried. Joe Biden has an approval rating that is downright dreadful, now close to 40% and in head-to-head polling, he loses to Donald Trump and loses by even more to Nikki Haley. Ruy Teixeira says this is explained at least in part by a deterioration of the Democratic party’s winning coalition from 2020. Mr. Teixeira is a political scientist affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and author with John Judas of the new book Where Have All the Democrats Gone, the Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes. Welcome back to Potomac watch (inaudible) Ruy. Nice to have you here.

Ruy Teixeira: Hey, thanks for having me, Paul.

Paul Gigot: All right, so you and John Judas wrote a very different book a decade and a half or so ago called The Emerging Democratic Majority. That majority appeared to be daunting under Barack Obama with his victory in 2008 in particular and then 2012, but it has since gone away. What happened?

Ruy Teixeira: Well, the main thing that happened, I think, and this is something we highlighted in our original book from 2002 about That Emerging Democratic Majority is we noted that yeah, there were a lot of things that were changing in the Democrat’s favor in terms of the rise of non-white vote, the realignment of professionals to the Democrats. The movement of a lot of the more dynamic cosmopolitan metro areas of the country toward. The Democrats changes in the women’s vote, which favored them and so on and so forth. But we were remarked that, hey, let’s be realistic here. The white working class is still a massive share of the American electorate and particularly in a lot of key states. And while they’re declining, they’re going to be with us for a long time. Therefore, if the Democrats could not hold on to their minority share of the white working class vote, if that further deteriorated, that would put their coalition in question. And that’s exactly what happened in 2010, then 2014 and then 2016 to everyone in shock, Trump manages to win and any wins really on the back of white working class voters, especially in the Midwest. So that was the white working class. And then I think what’s really fascinating about the last seven or eight years is the way the non-white working class has started to move away from the Democrats. We saw that in the 2020 election where Hispanic working class voters support for Democrats probably declined by about 20 margin points. There was also deterioration in the black working class vote and now we’re seeing it in the polls going up to the 2024 election. So this is really kind of a remarkable development and really points out that the Democrats Coalition was never as stable as they thought. And even something like the non-white vote, Hispanic and black vote and so on is really not stable for them if the working class component of it starts going south. All to shows to go you that the working class is no longer as committed to the Democrats as they once was, and that’s blown a hole in their coalition, which seemed to be so promising at the beginning of the 21st century.

Paul Gigot: All right, the polling sure backs you up. What are the causes as you look at them for this breaking away by working class voters as a cultural liberalism? Is it the fact that the Ann Arbor and Madison and Santa Monica elites don’t have a lot in common with people in Toledo who work in auto plants? What are the main causes?

Ruy Teixeira: Well, it’s all of the above, I think. If you look at the late part of the 20th century, I think certainly the cultural factors are important, but also it’s the decline of the labor movement, removing the working class anchor from the Democrats and the sense Democrats are no longer on the side of working class people who are getting hit by some of the economic changes of the latter part of the 20th century of feeling like Democrats were practicing a sort of soft neoliberalism, they were more interested in trade deals and deregulation than they were interested in the economic situation of the working class. And then in fact, they’d sort of forgotten about the working class in a lot of left behind areas of the country. And we saw that in a sort of a standard Gallup polling question that’s been asked forever, which party is better able to ensure prosperity for the country in the next several years? And that used to be a big democratic advantage and starting in the 80s it really goes away. So a sense that Democrats were no longer on your side economically, even as they were becoming more liberal and especially more liberal in the 21st century. And that’s where I think the cultural issues really start to bite because the Democrats do become so much more left-leaning and if not radical, a lot of issues concerning race and gender, immigration and so on. Then you might even add to that a whole sense that Democrats concerns were less about the working class and more about the priorities of their solid voters in the urban metro areas where culturally liberal white college graduates were so influential. So all of that put together kind of alienates the working class writ large from the Democrats and has contributed to a sense Democrats are no longer the party of the working class, but rather more the party of educated elites who are perhaps less interested in the fate of working class voters than they should be. And then you add to that, but frankly the Trump years prior to the pandemic were actually relatively better for working class voters, including non-whites than the first three years that the Biden administration has. So I think that just underscored the problems a lot of working class voters now have with the Democrats.

Paul Gigot: The Democrats under Bill Clinton did quite well winning two presidential races in the 1990s when you had that so-called neoliberal economic views supporting trade deals, for example, relatively centrist economic views. But where it seems to me this changed most sharply against Democrats in the working class is when you had under the Obama presidency this sharp notable turn towards the left on cultural issues. And I’m thinking about identity politics in particular, which in the second Obama term really has emerged as a dominant issue on the left and has continued under the Biden presidency. So I wonder, I’m pushing back on you a little bit on this economic analysis and more on the cultural concerns and I just would throw onto it, as you mentioned earlier, climate, where in my view it’s become a kind of a cultural religion for an awful lot of young people, and yet that cuts against things like assembly lines for gas powered vehicles. We just had Stellantis, the Chrysler parent warn 3,600 workers in Toledo and Detroit that their jobs are at risk because of California’s electric vehicle mandate.

Ruy Teixeira: I would point out though on the issue of trade deals, and so NAFTA was extremely unpopular in the Midwest among working class voters. And really the China shock in the early 2000s has a big effect on a lot of these communities. And really there’s been some good work that’s shown a relationship between increased republican voting and the influence of the China shock on a lot of these areas of the country. But leaving that aside, I couldn’t agree more that these cultural issues really do start to loom large throughout Obama’s two terms in office, the Black Lives Matter, remember Sterly Starks in 2013 and you see the Democratic party over that decade of the teens really moving so significantly in the direction of identity politics and the climate stuff. I just think that’s huge. I think Democrats really underestimate the extent to which while the elites who dominate the party and some of the younger educated voters they price so highly may think climate’s an existential crisis and there’s no crisis too high to pay to deal with this problem. That’s not how working class voters feel about the economy and about the world and about their priorities. The ranks about number 17 according to some (inaudible) polling in terms of their priorities for what the country needs to pay attention to. So I’ve described it as a Green Achilles Heel at times in terms of the Democrats coalition, that they’re so dedicated, so committed to moving as fast as possible to replace fossil fuels with renewables, whereas I think most working class voters and electric vehicles don’t get me started on that. Most working class voters say, “What?” “You want to do what?” “Why should I sign up for this?” But I think for a lot of Democrats, it’s so important to them that they’re just disregarding these signals.

Paul Gigot: That is fascinating to me because it gets into the religious nature of the belief here in terms of climate. What about identity politics? The breaking down into groups has always been there for quite some time and in fact worked to the Democrats advantage in terms of mobilizing minority groups in their favor when they could portray Republicans as particularly anti minority. That has turned in some respects, and it gets to this point you made earlier about the degree to which the non-white working class is moving away from the Democrats.

Ruy Teixeira: Yeah. I think Hispanics are a really good example of this because I think that Hispanics did support the Democrats at very high levels and they still do to some extent, though that’s declined, because they saw Democrats as being the party that was sympathetic to immigrants and that was on their side economically, it was generally like they might be a little too liberal on some things, but basically fine. But what really changes is when the Democrats start thinking of and insisting that Hispanics think of themselves as people of color who are brown people who are oppressed in the United States, who live in this dystopian hell hole we call the US, and who basically are discriminated against and set upon. And that’s really the problem. That’s not the way Hispanics working class people particularly think about the world. They think about, “I’m here to get ahead in life. I’m here to make a good life for my family. I want communities with safe streets and plenty of opportunity. I’m an American and I want to make my way in America.” And I think when identity politics interferes with that sense, that patriotic, upwardly mobile sense that a lot of Hispanic working class voters have, I think that’s when a lot of them start to draw the line and say, “Well, maybe the Democrats aren’t my party quite in the way I thought.” And the more moderate to conservative these voters are, the more open they are to thinking about voting for the Republicans because I didn’t want to get on the identity politics train. I just wanted to get ahead in life. And I think when Democrats lost track of who these voters really were and started putting them into these boxes that corresponded to their faculty lounge politics view of the world, as James Cardwell once put it, I think they really started to lose some of these voters and will continue to lose them.

Paul Gigot: All right, we’re going to take a break and when we come back we’ll talk more with Ruy Teixeira about the state of the Democratic party.

Speaker 5: Don’t forget, you can reach the latest episode of Potomac Watch anytime. Just ask your smart speaker, play the Opinion Potomac Watch podcast. That is play the Opinion Potomac Watch podcast.

Speaker 1: From the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, this is Potomac Watch.

Paul Gigot: Welcome back. I’m Paul Gigot, here on Potomac Watch talking to Ruy Teixeira, author of the new book, Where Have All The Democrats Gone, the Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes. So you write that the Democrats to win back the white working class needs to have a focus on their economic concerns and address those economic anxieties concerns. But if you look at the Biden White House and his Democratic party right now, isn’t that what Biden is trying to do with all of his flogging of what they’re calling Bidenomics? And they rolled that out a few months ago along the way, taking a shot at us at the Wall Street Journal we’d first used the word Bidenomics and then they made it their own and said, “Yeah, it’s terrific,” but that doesn’t seem to be helping them in the polls. Why not?

Ruy Teixeira: In a way, it was contemporary and vivid example of political malpractice. If you’ve got two things people don’t like, Biden, and the state of the economy, if you put it together and call it Bidenomics and expect people to stand up and applaud, that’s really a questionable approach. And of course it didn’t work. Look Bidenomics, whatever the good aspects may have been of some of the investments, some of the money that’s been allocated to various parts of the economy through the big bills that they passed, the infrastructure bill, chips and science, the so-called IRA, what people experienced during the first part of the Biden administration was a big spike in inflation. The biggest one we’ve seen since the 70s. Real wages went down until about the middle of this year, and basically people did not experience the Biden economy as really being in their interest and lifting them up and doing good things for the living standards, and they didn’t feel better when they went to the grocery store, the gas station. So all of that’s different than what happened under Trump for whatever reason. You had real wages and incomes going up pretty solidly during the first three years of Trump’s administration before the pandemic. And that’s not a good comparison for the Democrats. So it’s all very well and good to say, “What we’re doing is for the working class and we’re in your corner and we’re going to lift up the left behind.” But if you’re not actually lifting up the left behind as they experience it in their lives, it’s going to be hard to make that sale. And I think that’s exactly what happened to them. So remember team transitory when inflation first started spiking and it’s like-

Paul Gigot: Oh, I remember it very well, yes.

Ruy Teixeira: “It’s not a problem, it’ll go away tomorrow.” I just think that they were kidding themselves, maybe partly because they haven’t had experience with a period of high inflation, how this hits the working class and hits it hard and they don’t easily forget it.

Paul Gigot: All right, let’s talk about the state of the current presidential race and the lead in to 2024 and how concerned Democrats should be about President Biden’s standing. Well, let me first ask you, how is your book being perceived and received by the Democrats? Are you a heretic or a prophet?

Ruy Teixeira: I think we’re probably more in the heretic camp still at this point. I think that the wagons are being circled around the Biden campaign and we’ve gotten a very respectful and interesting and engaging hearing from the center on toward the right. Our general sense is that people on the left, if they’re reading it, they’re not admitting it. And we haven’t been reviewed in a lot of places that are in the center left media. And I think there’s a general sense of these guys, there may be something to what they’re saying, but they should just shut up and realize we need to beat the bad guys on the other side. And besides they’re exaggerating everything and so on and so forth, it isn’t Trump an authoritarian and aren’t the deplorable still deplorable? So I think that it’s being engaged at least on some level, more than what we see and what people write and in the reviews and so on. But I’ve got my doubts about that. I think though as we get closer to the election, and I think Biden continues not to do so well, and the Democrats seem to continue to have the problems they do, particularly working class voters, perhaps it’ll be read more, as opposed to (inaudible), it’ll be read more publicly and discussed more publicly, at least I hope so.

Paul Gigot: Interesting. Have you been reviewed in the Washington Post or New York Times?

Ruy Teixeira: Have not.

Paul Gigot: Interesting. Of course, we have reviewed you guys.

Ruy Teixeira: Of course you have, and a very nice review it was, and thank you for that.

Paul Gigot: I should say that John Judaism, Ruy Teixeira are not men of the right. They didn’t come to grow up through the movement of National Review and the Heritage Foundation.

Ruy Teixeira: No, no. We are Democrats and we’re concerned not only about the state of the party, but the state of the country. We think neither party in a sense gives American people the party they need to bring them together and move ahead to a program of national renewal and civic comedy. It’s not a good situation. And we think Democrats really need to be asking themselves, “Well, okay, look, if you think Trump is so terrible and if you think the Republicans are so awful, why can’t you beat them more decisively? Why aren’t everybody on your side?” And I think we’re trying to diagnose that, try to explain that while the Democrats have prospered the most, when they’ve been the party of the people, of the common man and woman, and they’ve sort of had a universalist uplifting appeal across classes and ethnicities, that’s not where they are now. And they should think about that, take that seriously.

Paul Gigot: So Simon Rosenberg and Jim Messina, both of them, Jim Messina is a former campaign manager for President Obama. Simon Rosenberg, a democratic activist that comes out of the new Democratic movement. They both say, “Yay, worrywarts, come on. The Democratic coalition will come back together in 2024 around President Biden, around abortion rights,” what they think will be an improving economy. And above all, “Antipathy to Donald Trump. And that worked in 2022 to minimize what typically would’ve been big Republican gains in a midterm election and it’ll work again in 2024.” What’s your response to that analysis?

Ruy Teixeira: Well, my response would be an unequivocal maybe, but I think there’s some reasons to be skeptical. One thing that’s interesting to note and important to note about the Democratic coalition today, because it’s changed in the ways we’ve been discussing with increased influence of highly educated and engaged voters, they become sort of low turnout election specialists. They actually do well in elections where turnout is lower and where more engaged voters are likely to turn out and particularly be animated by an issue like abortion rights. But 2024 is going to be different. All the data that have been put forward and that you can sift and find on the internet strongly suggest peripheral voters. The people who didn’t vote in 2022 but voted in 2020 who are going to show up in 2024 are different than the voters who’ve been voting. They’re more less ideological, they’re more open to Trump and the Republicans are certainly not committed Democrats because those people are already voting. So the idea that in a high turnout election, like a presidential election we’ll have in 2024, that these voters are going to be just like the ones that showed up say in 2023, I think is just ridiculous. Look, in the Ohio referendum that people pointed to, it was a plus two Biden electorate. We know that the Ohio electorate is a plus eight Trump electorate. In fact, Trump is leading by around 10 points in the States. So that should just concentrate the mind about how the kinds of voters that are going to show up in 2024 who haven’t been showing up are going to be different than the ones who have been and they’re not as easy a mark for the Democrats and for the issue of abortion rights. They’re going to have to make the sale in a broader and different way. And I think that should concentrate their minds. And I think, look, Simon Rosenberg and Jim Macee are entitled to make their case. They’re very, very partisan Democrats and they’re sort of trying to rally the troops, and that’s fine, that’s their job. But I just think it’s questionable in an empirical sense.

Paul Gigot: Story in the Washington Post says that President Biden is increasingly frustrated. I expressed that to his advisors about the state of his polling. No surprise.

Ruy Teixeira: No.

Paul Gigot: When you see that, I’d be frustrated too. The question I have is, if you’re a Democrat and you look at these polling numbers and you believe that Trump is this existential threat to democracy in the country, shouldn’t you be thinking about actually nominating a different candidate and give President Biden a pat on the back and tell him, “Look, you had this historic role, you beat Donald Trump, but it’s time to seed the field.”

Ruy Teixeira: Well, I think that’s a thought that’s crossed many Democrats minds. I think one problem here is that don’t think Biden is interested in not running. So I think even if you put pressure on him and if you even have the guts even bring it up to him, I don’t think he’s going to go for it. I would say though, if you’re stuck with Joe Biden, one question I’ve always had, if Trump is so bad and Republicans are so horrible in such an existential election, well even if we’re stuck with Joe Biden, shouldn’t we try to form a popular front against Trumpism here and compromise in anything and everything we can to reach persuadable voters and people are more in the middle and aren’t partisan Democrats?

Paul Gigot: Like immigration.

Ruy Teixeira: Like immigration. Why didn’t they do this deal three weeks ago? So to me, that’s an important question, and I think perhaps is more actionable than getting rid of Biden because I just don’t think he’s going anywhere.

Paul Gigot: Yeah, so try to reach out to the middle and show that you can actually do something on immigration that you’re willing to compromise on climate and those policies and maybe as well on identity politics.

Ruy Teixeira: Exactly. Yeah. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it does seem to elude some of the strategists and Democratic Party.

Paul Gigot: Well, we’ll leave it at that today. Ruy Teixeira, thank you, author with John Judas of the book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone, the Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes. Thanks so much for coming in, and as always, good to talk to you.

Ruy Teixeira: Hey, thanks Paul. Great conversation.

Paul Gigot: All right. Thank you all for listening. We will be back tomorrow as every day on Potomac Watch. Thanks for listening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.