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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Clean Water Leads Environmental Priorities

In the wake of Earth Day, this year’s annual barrage of media coverage about environmental concerns focuses on climate change and energy policy reforms, encouraged by the White House, other political leaders and environmental activists. Addressing climate change and energy policy may well be the most critical priorities facing America and the world. But neither climate change or energy policy are the top environmental concern of Americans, according to recent polling data.

In “Water Pollution Remains Top Environmental Concern in U.S.” Megan Brenan writes at Gallup:

Of six environmental problems facing the U.S., Americans remain most worried about those that affect water quality. Majorities express “a great deal” of worry about the pollution of both drinking water (56%) and rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53%).

Fewer, though still substantial minorities ranging between 40% and 45%, express a great deal of concern about the loss of tropical rain forests, global warming or climate change, air pollution, and the extinction of plant and animal species. Although less than half of Americans register the highest level of worry about these four issues, broad majorities say they worry at least “a fair amount” about each.

“Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 1-15, 2021, with a random sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.” With respect to partisan differences:

Majorities of Democrats, ranging from 51% to 69%, say they are worried a great deal about all six of the environmental threats, while no more than 40% of Republicans say the same. The party groups diverge the most in their concern about global warming, with 68% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans highly concerned.

Additionally, several other partisan views stand out:

  • The pollution of drinking water is tied for the top worry among both Democrats and Republicans.
  • Democrats worry as much about global warming/climate change as about polluted drinking water.
  • Worry about the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs ties with pollution of drinking water as the top concern for Republicans.

There have been persistent and sizable gaps in degrees of worry expressed by partisans over the past two decades. Since 2001, on average, the percentage of Democrats highly concerned about each of the six environmental threats has been more than 20 percentage points higher than that of Republicans.

Concerns about safe water are well-founded. At consumerreports.org, Emily Holden, Caty Enders, Niko Kommenda, and Vivian Ho, reporters for the Guardian, note that “America’s worst public water systems—those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years—serve more than 25 million Americans, the research shows….Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the U.S. and county-level demographic data.” in 2019, 1,650 of Florida’s public water systems violated the EPA’s water quality standards, while 3,358 of Texas’s public water systems violated the EPA’s water quality standards in the same year, as did 4,010 of Pennsylvania’s public water systems.

Without diminishing the importance of air pollution, energy policy and climate change, Democrats would be wise to make sure that a hefty share of infrastructure projects be directed to cleaning up water pollution and upgrading water facilities where it is most needed — especially in the swing districts and states.

Dems Providing Leadership for Police Reform

“Nationally, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 (HR1280) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in February….Among other provisions, the bill works to end racial and religious profiling in law enforcement, bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, limits the transfer of military equipment to local police departments, requires body cameras, calls for more training and allows for more prosecution of officers who violate policies….HR1280 passed the House 220 to 212 on March 3. It has been received in the Senate, but has yet to be debated or voted on….In Wisconsin, State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, a Milwaukee Democrat, introduced Assembly Bill 186. The legislation calls for an end to “qualified immunity” for police officers. Qualified immunity limits officers liability in civil cases.” — from “George Floyd’s death prompts calls for police reform in America, Wisconsin” by Tom Durian at WTMJ-TV.

“Tennessee lawmakers are considering a new police reform bill that would require law enforcement agencies to create use of force policies. The bill passed the Senate and now moves to the House….Senate Bill 1380 prohibits officers from using a chokehold and issuing no-knock warrants….If the bill is passed agencies must also develop policies on discharging firearms at or from a moving vehicle….A reporting system must also be developed under this proposal.” — from “Tennessee lawmakers consider new police reform bill” by WMC5 -TV.

“In February, Driskell, and the other 26 members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus introduced over 20 police reform bills for consideration in both the House and Senate. But despite being introduced early on in the legislative session, the bulk of these bills have not only failed to pass — most have yet to even get a hearing. Of the approximately 24 bills, 20 of them have yet to appear on the agenda of committee meetings….Some of these FLBC bills have had success. The Senate unanimously passed the Kaia Rolle Act, which would prohibit arresting kids younger than seven, and it’s currently awaiting House approval. The Senate has advanced a separate bill providing mental illness training for law enforcement through two committee meetings. The Senate has also moved forward with a police reform bill filed by Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), and similar to one introduced by the FLBC, that would limit police use of chokeholds. Both bills are currently are its last committee stops before reaching the floor….Republican House leaders also worked directly with the FLBC on a police training bill that would set statewide use of force policies and instate a database that would track instances of excessive force, if it became law. It’s currently on its last committee stops before the Senate floor….However, more ambitious or sweeping bills introduced by the FLBC have dimmer prospects. Those bills include legislation prohibiting no-knock search warrants for misdemeanor offenses to requiring every law enforcement agency to use body cameras and restricting law enforcement from acquiring surplus military equipment….Of the 27 members of the FLBC, only one is a Republican.” —  from “Black lawmakers in Florida introduced police reform bills this year. Most have gone unheard” by Giulia Heyward at Politico.

“OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Legislature on Tuesday approved a measure requiring police to intervene if they see a fellow officer using, or attempting to use, excessive force….On a 31-18 vote, the Senate concurred with changes the made in the House to the bill, which was prompted by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests last year. The measure now heads to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature….Under the bill, officers would have to intervene to stop excessive force if they see it being used, or attempted to be used, by another officer and they’re in a position to do so. It would also require police to report wrongdoing by another officer to that officer’s supervisor, including criminal acts or violations of professional standards, and it would forbid retaliation against police who intervene or report wrongdoing….The measure is one of several police reform bills that the Legislature has been moving during this year’s 105-day legislative session, which is scheduled to end Sunday.” — from “Legislature approves duty to intervene police reform bill” by the Associated Press

“Most recently, on April 10th, Maryland’s Democrat-dominated legislature overrode the veto of its Republican governor, Larry Hogan, to pass a police-reform bill. It repeals the state’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which afforded officers extra due-process rights for internal-misconduct investigations. Around 20 states have similar laws (Maryland’s was the first), which often require that officers be informed of complaints and complainants before questioning, that they be punished within 100 days of any alleged misconduct, and that departments pay suspended officers’ salary and attorneys’ fees.” — from  “Police-reform legislation is spreading in America” at The Economist.

DENVER (CBS4) – A new police accountability bill at the State Capitol would remove an exemption in the law for Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Rep. Leslie Herod, who led the sweeping police reforms last summer, is sponsoring the bill which, she says, is also aimed at clarifying some of the provisions in the original law….“To ensure that officers interpret the law right and act right in the community….On use of force, her new bill spells out de-escalation techniques officers need to employ first, and it says any use of force must be proportional to the threat of imminent harm….On body cameras, she makes it clear, even though they’re not required until 2023, any department now using them now can’t tamper with, hide, or destroy evidence….A separate police accountability bill is in works by two Democrats and two Republicans in the Senate. Herod met with them Monday in an effort to merge the two bills. She says the new bill could include a provision regarding no-knock raids.” — from “More Police Reform In The Works At Colorado State Capitol” by 4CBS Denver.

“The National Conference of State Legislatures tracked bills in 45 states on officer use of force, including bans on chokeholds and refining when it is appropriate for an officer to use deadly force. Dozens of states have demanded reforms to officer training. A handful limited officer immunity and others limited the use of no-knock warrants….Cities like New York, Seattle, Minneapolis and Atlanta have called to increase accountability, crackdown on racial profiling and are testing the use of mental health crisis responders….”Most policing issues are left to the states to reform or to enact the way they see fit. And that’s the way it should be,” he continued. “When you’re talking about policing reform, there’s only so much the federal government can do to affect local policing.”….Nationally, there is no uniform standard for the 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers serving in the country’s 18,000 police agencies….Minimal training requirements and other standards of practice are set at the state level. Some states require over 1,000 hours of basic training and up to two weeks of annual instruction, according to the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. Other states require less than half that amount of time in basic training and as little as six hours of mandatory annual training. That leaves leeway for city councils, mayors, police chiefs and police unions to establish the policies, practices and culture of a given department.” — from “States, cities lead on police reform given federal government’s limited reach” by Leandra Bernstein at ABC13 News.

Teixeira: The Real Reason Why ‘Swing Seats’ Have Declined

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

How Much Has Gerrymandering Contributed to Polarization?

Less than you think. A treasure trove of data has just been released by Cook Political Report on the partisan lean of states and congressional districts, with a lot fantastic maps, tables and other graphics. Among their findings is the following:

“It’s become fashionable to blame gerrymandering for polarization and Congress’s ills. In truth, redistricting is only responsible for a fraction of the decimation of swing seats over the past few decades. The bigger factor? Voters’ self-sorting.

In many minimally altered districts, the electorate has simply become much more homogeneous. For example, the boundaries of West Virginia’s 2nd CD have barely changed since 1997, but its PVI score has shifted from EVEN to R+20 as its voters have moved away from national Democrats. Likewise, Albuquerque’s migration to the left has bumped the PVI score of New Mexico’s 1st CD from R+1 to D+9.

The Cook PVI illustrates how voters’ natural geographical sorting from election to election, much more than redistricting and gerrymandering, has driven the polarization of districts over the last two decades. Our 12 unique sets of PVI scores over the past 25 years give us a powerful tool to isolate and quantify the impacts of sorting and redistricting on the makeup of House districts.

We’ve released new PVI scores in seven odd-numbered years following presidential elections: 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013, 2017 and 2021. We’ve also recalculated scores in five even-numbered years following redistricting: 2002 (after the 2000 census), 2004 (after mid-decade redistricting in Texas), 2012 (after the 2010 census), 2016 (after new court-ordered maps in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia) and 2020 (after new court-ordered maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania).

On balance, redistricting wasn’t as much of a factor in the House’s polarization as the most vocal opponents of gerrymandering might think. Of the net 86 “swing seats” that have vanished since 1997, 81 percent of the decline has resulted from areas trending redder or bluer from election to election, while only 19 percent of the decline has resulted from changes to district boundaries.”

The Corporate Tilt Toward Democrats: Promise and Peril

In “Republicans are in a messy divorce with big business. Democrats could benefit: As corporations flee the Republican Party, liberals should welcome them into the Democratic coalition – with conditions,” Andrew Gawthorpe writes at The Guardian:

It is premature to predict a wholesale collapse of the Republican party’s alliance with big business. But the events of recent years present an enormous opportunity for Democrats to make political inroads. In 2020, the counties won by Joe Biden produced a whopping 71% of US GDP, compared with only 29% in the counties which voted for Donald Trump – a gap which is 14 points higher than in 2016. Democrats also increasingly represent the more educated voters who corporate America covets as consumers and employees, and who have fled the Trumpified Republican party.

Democrats also represent the values and competence which American businesses – and the workers who depend on them – need to thrive. Trump’s plutocratic tax cuts and shamelessness in gutting the regulatory state might have provided a sugar rush to many businesses, but his woeful handling of the pandemic and impulsive trade wars harmed them. The paranoid, reality-denying, cultish Republican party of today cannot be trusted to elevate competent figures into key political and policymaking positions. As Trump demonstrated, the costs of having a clown in charge can generally be tolerated while the economy is thundering along in normal times – but they become catastrophic when a serious challenge arises.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t just represent a steady hand in a crisis. They are also advancing plans for infrastructure, increased R&D spending and a green energy transition which are all necessary to the future competitiveness of the American economy. Such plans involve winners and losers, but overall they represent an enormous investment in the economy which can solidify the party’s appeal to corporations, employees and voters.

Republicans are in a race with the clock. They have plased a big bet that white working-class anger  towards Democrats alone will give them the edge they need to take back majorities in the House and Senate in 2022. Meanwhile, however, Biden is making all of the right moves that can actually benefit working-class voters, win corporate support and improve the Democrats’ image as the “recovery party.”

It won’t be a cakewalk for Dems, as Thomas B. Edsall writes in his New York Times column:

Finally, for Democrats, the leftward shift of business is a mixed blessing.

On the plus side, Democrats gain an ally in pressing a liberal agenda on social and racial issues.

On the downside, the perception of the party as allied with corporate interests may take root and Democratic officials are very likely to face pressure to make concessions to their new allies on fundamental economic policies — bad for the party, in my view, and bad for the country.

But Gawthorpe sees a more optimistic outcome, if Democrats seize the opportunity:

Progressive Democrats are right to be wary of calls for the party to identify itself as pro-business. And it’s absolutely right that Democrats seek to reform capitalism at the same time that they embrace it. But Republican tensions with big business give Democrats exactly what they need to accomplish that – leverage. Faced with the alternative, groups like the Chamber of Commerce have proven more open to Democratic proposals like raising the minimum wage than under previous administrations. Their support makes such policies easier to pass and more likely to be enduring.

Something even more important is at stake. For decades, corporate America has been a key pillar in the Republican coalition. That pillar is starting to crack, providing an opportunity for Democrats to weaken a dangerously extremist party which poses an existential threat to American democracy. As big business flees the wreckage of the Republican party, the best thing to do for the future of the country is welcome it into the Democratic coalition – with conditions.

If Biden keeps his current trajectory in the polls and the economy keeps improving, it will be hard for swing voters to deny that only one party offers a credible vision and policies for steady progress, while the other continues to marinate in anger and resentment.

GOP Plan to Win Working-Class Voters Unveiled

It’s not exactly a hot flash that the GOP hopes to secure a permanent majority of white working-class voters, who are about 45 percent of America’s electorate, and that they have done well with this key constituency since 2016. But for Democratic oppo researchers who like details, Susan Davis has them in her article, “Top Republicans Work To Rebrand GOP As Party Of Working Class” at npr.org. As Davis writes,

A growing number of working-class voters were drawn to Donald Trump’s Republican Party, and now top Republicans are searching for ways to keep those voters in the fold without Trump on the ballot.

“All of the statistics and polling coming out of the 2020 election show that Donald Trump did better with those voters across the board than any Republican has in my lifetime since Ronald Reagan,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., told NPR. “And if Republicans want to be successful as a party, win the majority in 2022, win back the White House in 2024, I think we have to learn lessons that Donald Trump taught us and how to appeal to these voters.”

Since 2010, the most significant growth in the Republican coalition has been white voters without a college degree — an imperfect but widely used metric to quantify the working-class voting bloc — along with some marginal growth among similarly educated Black and Hispanic voters. Banks believes the only winning path forward for the GOP is to reimagine itself permanently as the party of working-class America.

Banks is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative faction in the House long rooted in small government, low taxes and social conservatism, and he recently sent a six-page memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., making his case. For Banks, it means tougher immigration laws and cracking down on China, Big Tech and, perhaps most provocatively for the GOP, corporate America.

“For too long, the Republican Party fed into the narrative and the perception that the Republican Party was the party of big business or the party of Wall Street,” Banks said.

Davis shares the entire, 6-page GOP memo from Jim Banks, chairman of the Republican Study Comittee to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In the memo, entitled “Cementing the GOP as the Working-Class Party.” Davis quotes John Russo, who has contributed to The Democratic Strategist:

“I think the claim that says the Republican Party is the party of the working class is at best, insincere, and more likely, political misdirection and rebranding exercises,” said John Russo, a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and a co-editor of the publication Working-Class Perspectives.

The working-class vote is complicated and too often confused with whiteness when about 40% of the working-class vote is people of color, Russo said. Their support also didn’t cut overwhelmingly toward Republicans in 2020. Biden still won a majority of voters who earn less than $50,000 year, while Trump won a majority of voters who earn over $100,000 a year.

Russo said about one-third of working-class voters are considered persuadable in elections, and it’s never reliable whether cultural or economic forces will drive their vote. “The working class, like all of us, carry multiple identities, race, class, gender, religious, geographic, and people may vote different parts of their identity as situations and moments change in their lives.”

Davis concludes, “The battle for the working class is even more urgent for the two parties because it’s a growing bloc of voters. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Russo said, more middle-class people have slid economically backward and are experiencing what he calls “the fragility of working-class life.”

Teixeira: How Moderate Democrats Can Take Advantage of a Republican Coalition in Crisis

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Andy Levison at The Democratic Strategist takes a look at the latest Democracy Corps memo on “What Will Trump Loyalists’ Sensed Powerlessness Mean For Politics?“and considers how moderate Democrats can leverage the situation to improve Democratic prospects. Important stuff. As I have frequently noted, the ostentatiously progressive Democrats get the ink but the Democrats’ near-term fate depends much more on how moderate Democrats fare in coming elections.

“While it is almost impossible for many Democrats to seriously imagine that any white Americans could be genuinely afraid of this result, there is no question that it is felt by many white Republicans with complete sincerity. While Democrats envision a progressive future America as being an exciting, culturally and ethnically diverse, multiracial country in which there is general tolerance for diversity, white working class and small town people imagine an elitist society in which they have no place. To understand how this vision can seem entirely plausible, one has only to consider how rarely small town life or manual labor are portrayed positively in TV commercials and other media as part of the golden future that lies ahead. In slick advertisements and magazine spreads “the future” always looks like a world of gleaming office towers, bright young people in bustling urban centers and “country” as a place that people drive to in late model SUVs in order to go rock climbing or mountain biking.

The political implication of this is that moderate Democrats in Red State districts must very sincerely reassure Republicans that they genuinely value and respect the America of small towns, manual labor and the cultural traditions of that world and do not think it all an obsolete relic that should disappear. Moderate Democrats must make clear that the Democratic vision is for mutual tolerance and respect for different kinds of communities and not the ascendency of one group or community over another.

A related fact that emerges from the research is that many Republicans are seriously and deeply disturbed by what seems to them a Democratic indifference and even tolerance for social chaos. This extends across a wide range of social problems – from crime to urban decay to homeless vagabonds, illegal immigrants and failing schools. For Republicans, the common thread in all these problems is a Democratic failure to insist that rules should be followed and law and order firmly upheld.

The most powerful issue in 2020 was the specter of urban riots whose importance the GOP vastly exaggerated until many Republicans were sincerely convinced that it was totally out of control….Democrats must draw a clear line regarding what they view as genuinely unacceptable violations of social order. Among progressives there is tendency to resist endorsing slogans like “law and order” because they can sound like coded appeals to racial prejudice. But carried to an extreme this is profoundly counterproductive. Democratic voters do not actually support rioting of the type in which the Antifa protesters engaged in last year or passively accept street crime and other urban lawlessness. Democrats can be tough on riots and crime and actually win support from African-Americans and Latinos who drifted notably toward the Republicans in significant measure because in 2020 they also fear and reject chaos as much as whites….
Moderate Democrats will also have the opportunity to make inroads into the 30% who are somewhat or strongly opposed to him.

The Democracy Corps report says the following about this group: About 30 percent of Republicans are [either] non-Trump conservatives [or] the ideologically and religiously moderate —with the latter forming half of this bloc that vocally opposes Trump. …they are now much clearer where they differ with Trump and much more willing to express it, even in a room full of Trump loyalists. Trump’s CPAC speech — “that’s what I hate” says one. They called out the “nut jobs” and conspiracy theorists. They don’t understand their fellow Republican’s opposition to masks and health measures. They don’t think the 2nd Amendment is sacred, oppose the display of weapons in Michigan, and want to regulate guns. When others said they appreciated what the Proud Boys did, they called them out as “not patriots.” They seemed open to a much more expansive role for government.

This is encouraging but it should not lead to misperceiving them as fully in agreement with moderates or liberals:

They do share with other Republicans an aversion to BLM and cancel culture; they too are looking for more law and order and seem uncomfortable with whites being on the defensive. They agreed that the elite media ignored the violence in the cities.

What this clearly indicates is that the same tactics that can reassure or partially neutralize the opposition of the Trump loyalists can also present an attractive alternative for these voters….

[M]oderate Democrats must recognize that they have to pre-empt the inevitable Republican distortions of their views by very clearly drawing certain “lines in the sand” about their firm opposition to rioting, crime, and allowing demands for “political correctness” to essentially require that average Americans completely adopt the language and culture of the university or face censure, contempt and condemnation.

A position of this kind will not only resonate with the 30% of non-Trumpist Republicans but will also “lower the temperature” of the Trumpist Republicans themselves and convince them that the elections of 2022 and 2024 are not apocalyptic battles against evil in which the future itself is literally at stake. To the extent that this can be achieved, it will reduce the turnout of low frequency GOP voters and enhance the likelihood of Democratic victories.”

Read all of Levison’s analysis and the original DCorps memo.

Juul and Katulis: Weaving a new liberal narrative – Why liberals need new institutions to tell a compelling political story

The following article by Peter Juul and Brian Katulis is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

As we’ve written before here at The Liberal Patriot, the center-left needs a new intellectual infrastructure to better disseminate its core principles and resist illiberal politics from all quarters. An important part of that effort involves building new sources of support that can yoke practical policies to broader principles. In other words, liberals need a new set of institutions, programs, and individuals that can tell a compelling story about their principles, politics, and policies.

Right now, however, this narrative infrastructure doesn’t exist – and it shows. The Biden administration has gotten off to a strong start on a number of fronts, from pandemic relief and economic rebuilding to pragmatic foreign policy decisions. But it’s struggled to tie its actions together in a coherent story that it can tell the American people and the world.

“Build back better” and “a foreign policy for the middle class” are slogans for a very ambitious and possibly historic policy agenda – one that could transform the country for the better. But don’t be mistaken: these headlines and the policy components don’t yet constitute a narrative, a story that connects with ordinary Americans and instills a sense of national purpose. As things stand, they remain skeletal notions, and the Biden domestic and foreign policy teams have yet to flesh them out in many ways.

Take two recent speeches by Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken – both lay out a number of good policy ideas but don’t go the extra mile and connect them to a persuasive political narrative. In her remarks on international economic policy, for instance, Yellen made important points about the need to help low-income nations vaccinate themselves and enact a global minimum corporate tax rate. But much of her speech remained standard technocratic boilerplate that could have been delivered at any point over the past thirty years without much alteration. That’s a missed opportunity on the narrative front given the historic, transformative times we’re living in right now.

Similarly, Secretary of State Blinken’s remarks on appointing former USAID director Gayle Smith as international COVID response czar put forward a number of compelling arguments. In language reminiscent of airline pre-flight safety notices to secure one’s own oxygen mask before helping others, Blinken noted that the United States rightly focused on beating COVID-19 at home before helping others do the same. But he also made the case that Americans wouldn’t be safe from COVID-19 or recover economically until the pandemic was beaten worldwide.

Blinken’s speech was cogent and competent, which in and of itself a marked improvement from most of what America saw on the foreign policy front during the previous administration. But like Yellin’s speech, it was not connected to a persuasive political narrative – one that helps move to the coming post-COVID recovery phase. The main challenge is that the story told is incomplete – it’s like a baseball pitcher on the mound who winds up and throws but doesn’t follow through completely. The ball is less likely to hit the glove in the strike zone.

This lack of a convincing center-left story results from a variety of causes, but it’s fundamentally rooted in the much broader collapse of liberal intellectual infrastructure in recent decades.

This collapse has 4 components:

1. Outsourcing narrative-building to academics, activists, and political journalists.

After the tumult of the 1960s, liberals in and around the Democratic Party outsourced the vital task of narrative-building to a random assortment of activists, academics, and political journalists. Anti-war activists, for instance, issue empty calls to “end endless wars,” while unpopular and unwise proposals to defund the police originated with small, unrepresentative far-left activist groups. When these parties are interested in constructing narratives, they’re likely to tell bleak and pessimistic stories about America itself – such as the factually-challenged 1619 Project published and heavily promoted by the New York Times. For their part, many politically-minded academics have spent the past many decades conjuring up what the late philosopher Richard Rorty called “dreams not of political reforms but of inexplicable, magical transformations” of a fundamentally corrupt society in thrall to mystical “preternatural forces.” To be clear, voices from a diverse range of experts and activists should be part of the mix when it comes to building an inclusive nationalism. But to succeed in building a narrative, the North Star should be about painting a hopeful vision of the future, rather than getting stuck in the current moment or wallowing in the past.

2. Positioning through polling rather than staking out clear positions based on ideas and values linked to a story.

Starting in the 1970s, moreover, politicians themselves turned to political consultants and pollsters rather than intellectuals and wordsmiths to shape and guide their policies. Since its advent, modern polling has always been an important factor in politics and policy. But the ever-increasing contemporary reliance on consultants have left liberals with plenty of messaging but not a whole lot of actual message. As a result, the narrative infrastructure on the left is more about positioning – reacting to the political winds that blow – rather than generating a new breeze in a narrative that stakes out principled positions based on values and advancing those positions.

3. The rise of the technocratic and bureaucratic wonks.

In the 1990s, a new class of technocratic policy experts rose to dominate political and policy discussions on the center-left. Ensconced in universities and think tanks interspersed with a couple of years of government service, these policy wonks tend to focus narrowly on their areas of expertise and specialization. It’s assumed that technical proficiency of the sort possessed by economists and foreign country specialists scales up and allows a mastery of generalist subjects, but it’s not at all clear that that’s the case either in theory or in reality. Liberals have a cadre of highly-educated experts to manage government bureaucracies and execute complicated programs, but few have the skills to tell a compelling story about liberal politics and policies. Some of the most agonizing meetings that take place in Washington are the ones involving foreign policy or economics specialists struggling to cobble together a convincing political narrative. It’s like a cello player in an orchestra trying to tell the conductor how the overall piece of music should be put together: sometimes it works, but most times it is off-key.

4. The quest for echo chambers.

On top of these developments, transformations in the media landscape over the past fifty years – and especially over the past decade – have made it more difficult to inject a coherent narrative into the national political bloodstream. It’s not impossible, but the days when FDR or JFK could set the terms of the national debate with fireside chats or televised press conferences have been long gone for a while now. In their place, liberals belatedly and without much success attempted to replicate the echo chambers like Fox News that conservatives have deployed to great political effect. More recently, left and right have built echo chambers on social media platforms like Twitter that encourage the most extreme and Extremely Online voices. In recent years, some elements of the so-called “progressive” left have used these platforms more to beat others up on the left and fragment coalitions and relationships, rather than use them to build coalitions and relationship capital to achieve shared, common goals.

As a result, the broad center-left is not structured to tell a coherent story about its politics and policies. Their programs and messages amount to less than the sum of their parts. Administration communications gurus and activist networks organize pop-up echo chambers to push particular policies, but they don’t invest in the making of big-picture narratives that put these policies into perspective in ways that ordinary people can easily understand. Smart and dedicated people waste their time and energy on what remain fundamentally tactical issues – leaving wider strategic questions unattended and unanswered in the process.

To its credit, the Biden administration has avoided many of the worst mistakes made by present-day progressives. Biden and many of his key aides are terminally Offline, and his administration has wisely focused on bread-and-butter issues like the pandemic and economic recovery more than the culture war issues beloved by both the progressive left and conservative right. “Build back better” and “a foreign policy for the middle class” may not pop as slogans and remain ideas that need further development, but they’re a decent starting point. What the Biden administration needs moving forward aren’t echo chambers that repeat its talking points on, say, its infrastructure package or its Iran policy – it needs generalists that build on and expand the themes it’s sketched out in very rough terms and helps carry those narratives to the broader American public in a way that seeks to advance a more inclusive nationalism.

That’s easier said than done, as President Obama learned when his “New Foundation” formula failed to gain traction during his time in office. While his administration found its attention repeatedly diverted by crises and emerging challenges, it also lacked the sort of external intellectual support to reinforce and elaborate on the themes it tried to surface. Obama’s eight years resulted in many important accomplishments such as an effective response to the 2008 Great Recession, health care reform, and steps forward on climate change. But towards the end of two terms in office, the sum total of the foreign policy narrative was “don’t do stupid shit” and this left many Americans asking: what’s the big idea?

Think tanks once might have served this function, but too often they have become either waystations for mid-level technocrats going into and coming out of government or activist operations fueled by funding from elite foundations – and increasingly they’re both at the same time.

Instead, liberals need to invest in big-picture, meaning-making institutions and outlets outside government, academia, existing think tanks, and major media outlets. They cannot outsource their narratives to academics, activists, and political journalists, or rely on think tanks that exist to shelter technocrats and increasingly see unrepresentative activists chart their courses to do the job. Looking forward, a new breed of institution that can see and describe the whole picture from an outside perspective will be necessary to build new liberal political narratives that connect particular policies and programs with underlying principles in a compelling and easily comprehensible way.

These narratives can’t be reduced to mere messaging or communications, either. As the scholar Lawrence Freedman noted in the conclusion of his history of the subject, strategy is as much about stories as anything else. Accordingly, these new narrative-building institutions will have much to say about political strategy and big-picture policy questions. They’ll help tell liberals where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going – and, crucially, why. Moreover, they’ll provide a sanctuary for liberals who don’t see mid-tier government positions as their primary way to advance good ideas as well as academics who wish to constructively contribute to the common good.

It’s as good a place as any for liberals to start rebuilding their once-formidable intellectual infrastructure.

Brownstein: For Dems, It May Be the Last Chance to Secure Voting Rights

Ronald Brownstein warns “Democrats’ Only Chance to Stop the GOP Assault on Voting Rights: If the party doesn’t pass new protections, it could lose the House, Senate, and White House within the next four years” at The Atlantic. As Brownstein sets the stage:

“The most explosive battle in decades over access to the voting booth will reach a new crescendo this week, as Republican-controlled states advance an array of measures to restrict the ballot, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the federal legislation that represents Democrats’ best chance to stop them.

It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary. To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.

“This is a huge moment,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, told me. “This harkens to pre-segregation times in the South, and it goes to the core question of how we define citizenship and whether or not all citizens actually will have access to fully engage and participate.”

Brownstein adds, “In Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, Republican governors and legislators are moving forward bills that would reduce access to voting by mail, limit early voting, ban ballot drop boxes, inhibit voter-registration drives, and toughen identification requirements—measures inspired by the same discredited claims of election fraud that Donald Trump pushed after his 2020 loss.”

Worse, “The Supreme Court’s 6–3 conservative majority is unlikely to block many, or perhaps any, of these state laws. Also, “Federal courts are unlikely to step in: Although the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the far-fetched efforts of Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, under Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative Court majority has consistently refused to block state limits on voting access or to prevent partisan gerrymanders. Critics argue that in the Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, Roberts fired the starting gun for the current barrage of voter-suppression measures—by eviscerating the provision of the original VRA that required states with a history of discrimination to receive “preclearance” from the Justice Department for changes in their voting laws.”

Further, “Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which is scheduled for a House vote today, and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year.” Also,

Democrats may have only a brief window in which to block these state-level GOP maneuvers. Typically, the president’s party loses House and Senate seats in the first midterm election after his victory. Democrats will face even worse odds if Republicans succeed in imposing restrictive voting laws or gerrymandering districts in the GOP’s favor across a host of red states.

If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats—and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.

“There’s an increasing appreciation,” Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1’s chief sponsor, told me, that “if we can’t get these changes in place in time for the 2022 midterm election, the efforts that Republicans are taking at the state level to lock in this voter-suppression regime” and maximize their advantage via partisan gerrymanders “will reshape the environment in a way that makes it impossible to get this, or frankly many other things, done.”

Democrats have the votes to pass the House version of the legislation. But the Senate will be a closer vote, with the fate of the filibuster as the pivotal factor. “Senate Republicans are likely to try to kill these bills with a filibuster,” Brownstein writes. “Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the principal sponsor of H.R. 1’s Senate analogue, has been urging his colleagues to consider ending the filibuster for these bills alone, even if they are unwilling to end it for all legislation. But so far, at least two Democrats remain resistant to curtailing the filibuster in any way: Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.”

“If nothing else,’ says Brownstein, “the GOP’s boldness can leave Democrats with little doubt about what they can expect in the years ahead if they do not establish nationwide election standards. “This is a very brazen effort by lawmakers across the country to enact provisions that make it harder for Americans to vote,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who is tracking the GOP’s state-level measures, told me. “There is no subtlety and no attempt to obfuscate what is going on here.” In addition, “In its latest tally, the Brennan Center counts 253 separate voter-suppression proposals pending in 43 states. That’s significantly more than the number of bills it tracked after the 2010 election—180 bills, in 41 states—when significant GOP gains in the states triggered a similar wave of laws.”

But “H.R. 1 would reverse many of the restrictive policies advancing in red states. As I wrote recently, the bill would require all states to provide online, automatic, and same-day registration; ensure at least 15 days of in-person early voting; provide all voters with access to no-excuse, postage-free absentee ballots; and offer drop boxes where they can return those ballots. It would also end gerrymandering by requiring every state to create independent commissions for congressional redistricting and by defining national criteria to govern the process.” Additionally,

Against the backdrop of the red-state voting offensive, the fate of H.R. 1 looks like a genuine inflection point. If Democrats can’t persuade Manchin, Sinema, and any other filibuster proponents to kill the parliamentary tool, Senate Republicans will be able to shield their state-level allies from federal interference. And that could produce a widening divergence between elections in red and blue states—as well as a lasting disadvantage for Democrats in the battle for control of Congress. Such a chasm will fuel “competing narratives that are inherently corrosive and destructive,” Sarbanes told me. “The more you have this bifurcated system of how elections are conducted in this country, the more oxygen you are going to give to some of the conspiracy theories that come from the other side.”

Yet even that equilibrium—with blue states expanding the franchise and red states restricting it—might not be stable. First, voter-suppression laws and gerrymanders in red states could help Republicans regain one or both congressional chambers in 2022. Then, efforts to restrict the vote could help Republicans recapture the presidency in 2024. Today, Democratic governors in key swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—can block any restrictive laws, but if the party loses any of those governorships in 2022, it’ll be virtually powerless to stop new voter-suppression efforts from the Republican-controlled state legislatures.

In that nightmare scenario for Democrats, new laws across the Rust Belt, combined with what’s already happening in Arizona and Georgia, would put enough states at risk to seriously endanger Democratic hopes of holding the White House in 2024. If Republicans win unified control of the White House and Congress that year, they could try to set national voting standards that impose the red-state voting rules on blue states. Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, for instance, has already proposed legislation that would bar all states from offering automatic voter registration and using drop boxes, and would require them to adopt stiff voter-ID rules. In his speech to CPAC on Sunday, Trump also called for establishing a national voter-ID requirement, as well as rules banning early voting and most mail balloting.

Brownstein concludes, quoting Sen. Sarbanes: “This isn’t just about trying to do something now that we can do later. This is about doing something now that we may not get the chance to do again for another 50 years.” Democrats face an unforgiving equation: a fleeting window in which to act, and potentially lasting consequences if they don’t. “If you look at all the stakes that are involved,” Sarbanes continued, “the notion that you would miss this opportunity becomes incomprehensible.”

Teixeira: Revisiting The Emerging Democratic Majority

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

In 2002, John Judis and I published The Emerging Democratic Majority. I think it’s fair to say that our book had some influence on political thinking. So…how does it hold up almost 20 years later?

Matt Yglesias does a nice job on his substack–fair and balanced!–looking back on our book and seeing where we were prescient and where we failed to anticipate important changes.

“The Emerging Democratic Majority”…is one of those books that’s widely referenced years after publication but typically in a kind of caricature form. Obviously, the Democratic majority that Teixeira and Judis forecast — driven by the growing nonwhite share of the electorate and the increasing liberalism of college-educated professionals and big metro areas — did not exactly emerge.

Nevertheless, the big demographic trends that the book is about did emerge, and they played out roughly the way they forecasted.
Some other things broke less favorably. But broadly speaking, I want to defend the relevance of the book’s main ideas…..

Judged by how many people voted for whom [the popular vote for President, Senate and House], it’s a decent Democratic majority that emerged:

Now of course that’s not the system we have, so Democrats’ actual results are less impressive. But to me, this looks like the Judis/Teixeira thesis ended up wrong for a mostly unexpected reason — the growth in the geographic skew of the electoral system.

That’s especially true because policy has been evolving to the left during this period…..

To me, one big lesson of revisiting the book is that it’s a reminder of just how difficult it is to make accurate forecasts about politics.

I think Judis and Teixeira got so many big analytic points right. But their book is mostly remembered as wrong because its topline forecast was, in fact, wrong, and it was wrong for two subtle, interrelated reasons. One is they didn’t appreciate the extent to which the growing liberalism of college-educated professionals living in big metro (one of the big things they predicted correctly) areas would, over time, actually change Democratic Party ideology in a way that repelled non-college white voters who’d been okay with Al Gore. The other is they didn’t account for how this would intersect with the skews of the electoral maps.”

Very interesting assessment. I recommend it. You also might want to take a look at the essay I wrote on The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis for Persuasion. There’s some overlap with Yglesias but also some differences.

Halpin: Liberals Must Rebuild Their Intellectual Infrastructure. Sectarian politics will only be defeated through a long-term commitment to equal dignity and rights for all people

The following post by John Halpin, co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

If you’re baffled by the direction of so-called “progressive” politics these days, you’re not alone. An intellectual and political movement once grounded in the reformist policies of the earliest progressives—and the universal principles of 20th century American liberalism—has given way to a well-funded network of activists, academics, and social media denizens who reject these principles in part or wholesale.

In place of a commitment to individual freedom, political equality, and social welfare policies designed to offer people protection from hardship and a hand up in life, today’s progressives organize themselves around abstract theories of oppression and power relationships grounded in racial, gender, and religious categorizations. Where liberals and the early progressives saw deep flaws in American society and set out to create practical solutions to achieving greater equality and freedom for all people, modern social justice progressives see a country irreparably broken by “400 years of systemic racism” and seek to overturn perceived social and cultural hierarchies in favor of historically oppressed groups. Older liberals once fought for laws and regulations to overcome racial and gender discrimination and increase individual rights, while modern progressives increasingly fight over language, representation, group-based accusations, and who is allowed to say or think what.

Likewise, 20th century American liberalism and progressivism was strategically and politically focused on building the majorities necessary to put in place some of the most important reforms in our history. This involved rallying reformers and voters across the political spectrum. Although the Democratic Party of FDR, Truman, and LBJ—alongside a powerful labor movement—led many of these liberal reforms, pro-civil rights and pro-social welfare Republicans also played a major role passing legislation and standing up against reactionary elements in society.

In contrast, much of contemporary progressive politics seems markedly apolitical and strategically unfocused with activists more content firing off social media shots from the sidelines and complaining about people ignoring them rather than persuading people in different parts of the country—and from different political backgrounds—to join in a common cause for reform.

There are many different explanations for why this shift happened. But one that is often overlooked is the changed intellectual infrastructure sustaining liberal politics.

For starters, the sociological landscape that once underpinned traditional American liberalism—a working-class Democratic Party; labor unions; liberal churches, parishes, and synagogues; multiracial urban political networks; social reform journalism; and liberal academics and the social sciences—has atrophied. Rising in its place is a left politics grounded in a highly professionalized Democratic Party coming out of culturally radical environments in elite colleges and universities, wealthy foundations, corporate media outlets, and ideologically aligned non-profits and advocacy groups.

A young person looking for a solid reform-based liberal education and philosophical training today would be hard pressed to find it anywhere in the billion-dollar progressive infrastructure of contemporary politics. They could however find lots of “conversations” about structural oppression and extended Twitter threads and digital media trainings to combat “white privilege” and advance abstract notions of “equity.”

Conservatives (prior to the Trump years) have generally done a much better job laying the groundwork for long-term reflection on first principles and the foundations of American life based on their commitment to free enterprise, Judeo-Christian values and beliefs, and individual rights. Much of this work involves policy and intellectual development for emerging movement leaders.

As Molly Worthen explained in an interesting overview of these intellectual efforts:

These conservative seminars make an enormous impact simply by taking students seriously. “They’re not at the children’s table,” said Tom Palmer, who directs Cato University, a program that mixes undergraduates with midcareer professionals and retirees. “No one pinches their cheeks and tells them how cute they are.”

There is another insight here: the power of teaching the canon. Most of these programs conceive of the canon far too narrowly, but the canon is an elite debating society that anyone can join. It shows students that the struggle for freedom and justice began long before the 1960s, and that this deep history lurks beneath today’s policy debates.

Unfortunately, at most universities, studying political philosophy has become a form of countercultural rebellion, a discipline marginalized by courses in supposedly practical subjects like business and communications. Campus activists may learn organizing strategies and the argot of identity politics, but few study the history of their own ideas.

It’s not as if liberals and progressives lack these foundations. Sadly, too many universities and elite progressive training programs choose not to emphasize them in their politics, or to engage intellectually with other philosophical understandings of politics, whether radical or conservative. As Worthen writes:

Yet for all its relativism and wonkishness, the progressive tradition grew from firm ideological commitments: a faith in human equality and empathy; the rule of law; the scientific method. Progressives can find kindred spirits among classic conservative thinkers: Adam Smith on moral sentiments, Edmund Burke’s critique of imperial power. You can’t fully understand the theology of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without grasping Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But few young progressives read these authors. The hyperspecialized, careerist ethos of mainstream universities has served them just as poorly as it has conservatives.

The lack of a fortified intellectual infrastructure supporting traditional American liberalism is a big challenge. So what needs to be done?

The first order of business for liberals is to recognize the depth of the problem. Identity-based politics, on the left or the right, will not just disappear on its own. The incentives for this kind of politics have grown immensely in recent years, and it will have to be counterbalanced by an equally well-supported effort from liberals on both the center-left and center-right.

The second order of business is for those with resources to increase their support for strategies to uphold genuinely liberal values—such as freedom, equality, pluralism, tolerance, rationality, and a commitment to the common good—and help rebuild liberal education and political work in America. Lots of self-funded groups are doing yeoman’s work along these lines. But if liberals really want to push back against the cultural extremism ascendant on the left or right, they will need to build their own institutions and programs to develop new leaders, grow new social movements, create new policies, and influence political parties based on genuinely liberal principles.

American liberals need to step up financially and politically to support projects grounded in the belief that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and focused on pragmatic policies to steadily improve the lives of all people.

If not, then culturally radical ideas will continue to dominate and shape our politics for years to come while liberal values will continue their retreat.