The Future of the Democrat Party

Long Reads, Politics
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Barack Obama famously paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr and 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker when he said that ‘the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice’. Unfortunately, the demographic destiny the Democrats put faith in during the 2016 election did not pay off, and the coalition of young, minority, and relatively affluent voters flopped. With that, history has bent towards President Trump. This comes after years of the Democrats losing seats in other elected offices, with a minority of governorships and limited control of legislative chambers, not to mention the lack of a majority in the Senate. In these circumstances, Democrats across the country have proposed different strategies to rejuvenate the party as they look forward to the 2020 elections. However, before going there, it is important to understand how exactly the election was lost by the Democrats.

Holding the centre

Traditionally, elections are understood as a spectrum from left to right, and the question is as to where exactly to appeal, the centre or the left. The conventional explanation for centrism goes along the following lines: the electorate is evenly divided between liberals and conservatives with moderate swing voters in between; elected officials reflect public opinions and ideological views; the more a party can move towards the other while still retaining its existing support, the better it can capture the centre and thus the vote.

A historical example of this being successful was in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, the Democratic Party was sliding to the left with identity politics and mass redistribution addressing inequality of outcomes. This meant Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich controlled the House. In 1995, President Clinton’s centrism – reducing the deficit, reforming welfare, and increasing policing and incarceration – allowed him to get re-elected with huge support in 1996.

Many have continued this tradition, arguing for a broad and inclusive coalition that contains progressive individuals, libertarians, and Republican moderate defectors. This is often viewed as the Obama coalition, which former President Obama reiterated in his farewell address: ‘Democracy requires a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one’. In recent times, Mark Penn, an advisor on Bill Clinton’s re-election, has also said the Democrats should “move back to the centre.”

The rise of the Tea Party has been used as an example of the harms that exist when radical sections of parties hijack a party, and thus loses appeal of many voters. Specifically, this means being wary of taking highly partisan policy and ideological positions, and instead using a more pragmatic agenda that engenders support among most supporters and doesn’t alienate potential allies.

A Resurgence of the Left?

Despite all the analysis above, a self-professed nationalist has won control over the executive and legislative branches of the US government. A self-proclaimed ‘friend’ of Hamas has increased Labour’s vote share in the United Kingdom by the largest amount since 1945. A protest campaign socialist has garnered more working-class votes than the two presidential frontrunners combined. This is not to say that moderates cannot win elections, because all three of the above haven’t won the popular vote. But it does mean that the traditional spatial model of elections must be challenged.

The first issue with this model is that there just isn’t an obvious median point. Political ideologies exist on many different dimensions, in terms of social issues and economic issues. Thus, supporting more benefits is not mutually exclusive with wanting to ban immigrants from entering the USA, given they do not contradict. In fact, Lee Drutman’s 2016 study found that most socially conservative voters were also economically liberal. To add to that, the median point of most issues is rarely at the centre of the left-right spectrum. For example, the Douglas Ahler and David Broockman’s 2014 study concluded that the only two issues where the centrist position was the median one was LGBT+ rights and the environment. On the other eleven issues, responses ranged from far left – legalising all marijuana – to hard right – a complete ban on immigrants. There is unlikely to be a median voter for parties to target, and even if we base such a voter on these findings, the Democrats are quite far off.

However, even if such middle-ground policies can be found, there is a second issue: views are not static. That means views can be changed by shifted by the phrasing and messaging used by parties. During the Reagan Administration, over 60% of Americans wanted more spending on ‘assistance to the poor’, a far cry from the 20% that wanted to spend more on ‘welfare’. That means painting a narrative of undeserving freeloaders will result in vastly different support than framing it as a way to reduce inequality. Similar contradictions appeared with nearly 66% of the population supporting ‘using military force’ against Iraq in 1991, but slightly under 30% were willing to ‘go to war’. Even slight changes in word choice can make big differences: in 1989, 32% of Americans said ‘no’ to ‘allowing interracial marriages’, but only 19% “forbade” them. These contradictions exist because the premises and intuitions they are based on are also contradictory. Most people want a more equal distribution of wealth, but are against high taxation of inheritance. What this means is that the phraseology matters a lot more than the actual policies.

Although that may seem contradictory to the trend of people voting for the same parties day in day out, that too can be explained. That is because people do not vote on ideology, but also on their identity and how tightly bound that is to a certain party. Thus, many will vote for a certain party because of historical loyalty by their region or family, as well as other community influences, whether that is a religious or racial group, and in fact take policy positions that explain their support for the party. An obvious example is the way in which Republican support for free trade agreements have dropped from 51% support to 61% opposition with Trump’s rhetoric. 

Finally, voters making rational choices requires them to know a party’s policies. Unfortunately, there is widespread misinformation and lack of information. This means that 33% of voters who wanted to provide illegal immigrants with citizenship voted for Trump, as did 27% of white voters who wanted policies more liberal than Obama’s. It seems that people sometimes rationalise their choice of candidate by projecting the views they had onto this candidate.

On the surface, that would suggest that the Democrats can swerve hard left without any repercussions. However, this is not the case, and limitations still exist. One such is the power of wealthy interests and elites. For Democrats, that means that promoting single-payer healthcare, while perhaps not a death sentence for centrist support, would enrage corporate donors such as large pharmaceutical companies, and provide the Republicans with more funding from them. If it is the case that swing voters, rather than being moderates, instead change allegiance based on the personality of candidates, framing, and other non-policy factors, then this money would go a long way to running a campaign persuading them that this medicare for all would be bad. 

It therefore seems that these special interests are a big reason for a strict boundary on ideology. Another is white racial tensions – a product of strong social identities determining political commitments. In the USA – a country built on a distinct racial class system – this identity is a powerful force, especially given the demographic changes which the right has used to prey upon people’s anxieties. This lies in stark contrast with this election’s globalist left that wanted to accept more immigrants and a previous administration that stood for dismantling structural racism, and it is the defection of the white working class that critically harmed the Democrats. In this way, there is clearly a limit to how culturally left the party can go before losing this voter base. Equally, there is another defining identity: acceptance to globalism and multiculturalism. The increasing appeal to and dependence on the affluent cosmopolitan professionals of the Democrats means that losing their support is equally problematic. Thus, the tax increases Sanders stood for could undermine the party’s appeal to these professionals.

From the above, we can see: the centre doesn’t exist in one place; positions aren’t static; people don’t always vote based on positions. Equally, special interests and strong identities along racial or economic lines restrict ideological extremism. That means it makes sense to appeal to the left with a specific framework.

How does this fit in to this election?

In the 1960s, working class voters were reliable supporters. But in the decades following, the Democrats slowly transitioned to a party that was more willing to deal with race. This happened alongside three phenomena: a reduced dependency on white southerners, an increase in diversity due to Johnson’s liberal immigration quota, and an increased reliance on white urban professional workers. By 2008, the white working class was marginalised to being important in Midwestern states and unions, while the coalition mostly consisted of young millennials and the white-collared professionals.

This election, Hillary’s strategy was to continue this coalition. She adopted her husband’s tactics of triangulation, pandering to different interests in front of different audiences. Unfortunately, this was not an easy path for Clinton, with black millennials distrusting her and others associating her with Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration. It also was a misunderstanding of Obama’s campaign strategy. It ignored the fact that Obama sent Joe Biden, a blue-collar figure, to industrial states like Michigan to garner votes and canvass support, creating his Midwestern firewall of working class.

Clinton faced an uphill struggle from the beginning with the working class, with Sanders characterising her as part of the rich and wealthy establishment, a line repeated later by Trump when calling her ‘crooked Hillary’. In fact, Bill Clinton had worried about this exact demographic, understanding that his wife had issues with following the zeitgeist and that this 44% of the electorate was disenchanted with her. This was coupled with the Democrats drift towards policies that were more concerned with identity politics and other issues that depended on the affluent voters, especially since Hillary branded Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables”.

All of this meant that she needed to really demonstrate that she was not part of the establishment, spending valuable airtime that could have been used for substantive policies. But even at that, she was not particularly effective. Her slogans of ‘I’m With Her’, ‘Breaking Down Barriers’ or even ‘Stronger Together’ all advertised all sent the wrong messages. All of them raised attention to the inadequacies of Trump’s campaign’s prejudice without providing a clear vision of her own. All of them were about some form of intolerance, whether on the basis of gender or race. None of them really engaged the actual minorities affected, who saw Hillary as being superficially interested in pandering to them without promising concrete changes. However, all of them angered these blue-collar workers who cared more about getting their jobs than the distant struggles of some immigrant. Coupled with the lack of populist economics policies and pandering to the working class, she fundamentally fell flat at getting past her biggest obstacle: championing multiculturalism and all things liberal, all while mitigating the fallout and backlash. Thus, she did not get enough support from either the minorities or from the white working class.

The question then is which of the social identities to focus on in the next election: cultural or economic. Many would say that there is a principled obligation to defend minorities, especially considering that every Democratic president since the Civil Rights Movement has won with the support of the black vote in the south in the primaries.

However, three things suggest that appealing to the economically disadvantaged is more helpful. Firstly, the cultural and racial minorities are generally going to vote for the Democrats even with some pandering to the economically disadvantaged. Secondly, statistics that seem to work in their favour. 80% of voters suggest that the economy is one the most important issues to them, and only 26.5% had right-of-centre views on the economy. It then follows that a radically leftist stance on economics would benefit the Democrats, if people voted based on these views. Thirdly, the cultural left has no real option to turn to. Most of them will stick with the Democrats, especially if the change in tone is minimal.

Litmus Test

A good litmus test for the theoretical claims above is Macomb, a county in Detroit that has become a symbol of the dissatisfaction of Reagan Democrats. This was a county, that during the New Deal, voted for the Democrats overwhelmingly; JFK had 63% of the vote there. However, the county became increasingly disenchanted, a symptom of backlash against the civil-rights movement and its continuation in the form of identity politics. Political analyst Greenberg found locals had “a profound distaste for black Americans”, viewing them as scroungers who were taking their tax money and the attention of politicians. Bill Clinton hired him in 1992, and in Macomb, spoke to the exact racial anxieties Greenberg had noticed: “Let’s forget about race and be one nation again,” he said, “I’ll help you build the middle class back”. This was continued by Obama, who won it in both of his elections.

Despite being seemingly now safe, Trump beat Clinton by 12 points in Macomb, and once again, Greenberg returned to Macomb. In his studies of Obama supporters who had turned to Trump, while many expressed sympathies for the plight of those in Flint, their underlying prejudice was still there. This time, however, it was directed towards immigrants, who they felt were displacing them from their rung in society. Interestingly, these openly nativist individuals -seemingly beyond the potential voter base for Democrats – were also proud of American multiculturalism when discussed in the context of American values. When probed about Trump’s Wall Street cabinet and possibility of aligning with traditional Republicans, many expressed disenchantment or even disgust. What this means is what many expected: Trump is a wildcard that is perceived as an outsider who wants to drain the swamp, much like Obama.


What this shows is that there is an option for the Democrats to maintain the principles of supporting minorities without writing out ordinary workers. Certainly, Democrats will never be able to be economically nationalist as Trump has been. Its support base is on aggregate more globalist and liberal. But Elizabeth Warren has touched on a specific possibility: a centre-left economic agenda that is populist without seeming communist. The centrepiece of that is a dislike of concentrated economic power, like big business lobbyists or “too-big-to-fail” banks. This is specifically helpful, as it can be framed within the language of individual rights and freedom, rather than the communal obligation and redistribution that often seems repulsive to many voters. It is specifically harmful given the psyche of the American Dream, where redistributive policies seem to suggest that people have failed in working hard for their own success. This framing also justifies other policies; Obamacare to reduce the control companies have over their employees and justice system reforms to defend individuals from the oppressive state apparatus. This could help appeal to white-working class individuals by seeming to defend them against the establishment elites.

It is important to note that appealing to them, even if many are the supposedly bigoted “deplorables”, does not mean supporting bigotry. Persuasion is not pandering, if only the rhetoric and not the policies are changed. Even if it is, there is little use standing firm on principled rhetoric, if presidencies and votes are lost, and as a result, the Democrats are not in power to pass legislation that would mitigate the harms of bigotry. As mentioned before, Obama managed to be progressive while still not alienating these people. This is because alienation only happens when parties tread on the very American values of freedom and free speech, such as with things like no-platform policies and others.

Another thing to note is the fact that the theory of demographic destiny is likely true in the long term, when it pays off to pay attention to Texas and Arizona, as to get more Latino and professional to turnout, all while their numbers are growing. But right now, that destiny has not arrived. But even so, the Democrats only need to persuade the margins. Trump won by about 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. That is a tiny wedge in the voter base that does not require winning over all white-working class people.

All of this can be coupled with a few other things. Firstly, simpler policies. The Democrats’ 2018 “A Better Deal” reflects this sentiment. It rebrands many of Clinton’s polices in populist language. This should be coupled with a few signature policies that provide credibility to wards this broad narrative the Democrats are trying to tell. Trump’s nativist rhetoric was strengthened by him calling for a wall to be built, his protectionism by his claims to block deals like the TPP. A Warren-esque campaign, exuding simplicity and boldness, would be able to tell this tale: it is time to rebalance the scales, if only by campaigning for straightforward policies like free college tuition, instead of complex ideas of refinancing loans at a lower interest rates.

This would all culminate in creating an identity. The advantage of this leftism is that the Democrats can pit an identity against another, just as Trump defined the hardworking American identity in opposition to those seeking to hurt America. In this case, the class identity of the 99 percent fighting against the economic elites, and indeed against other members of the establishment across different issues. A similar strategy was used by Obama in his second election, when he prioritised his rhetoric of inequality over fiscal responsibility, attacking Romney as part of the exploitative establishment.

This identity also allows other efforts. Health care, education, and identity politics issues of justice systems and immigration laws are all easier to do under this framing, because it does not divide the country against minorities. In doing so, it would invigorate the demographics associated with those movements. For example, black voters might turn out more if the Democrats could now support better policing policies. An analogous situation is the way in which the Republican mobilised the evangelical right instead of spurning them, leading them to vote more and to 80% of them voting for Trump.

As a whole, this is the broad approach the Democrats need to take. That is not to say there should not be variety: certain locations will require specific tactics, and certain elections will need specific framing. That means continuing to engage non-white citizens in places with demographic change – like Arizona and Texas. Research by Steve Phillips has shown that Democrats, instead of spending on advertisements, could have hired 400 full-time workers to go door to door and get them to vote in the 2015 North Carolina Senate election. For those who already feel disenfranchised, this seems to be far more useful than using ads in publications which many of them simply do not read. Evidence of this can be seen in a 2014 Senate race in Colorado, where more than 40 percent of Latinos had not been contacted about voting. This was in spite of that race being a key election for the Democrats that year, and despite Latinos being a crucial element of the electorate in previous successes. Concretely, this means as little as a phone call, which boosted turnout by 9 percent, to as much as a house-to-house visit, which could boost turnout by up to 71 percent. Similar opportunities exist in states like Georgia, which was a Democrat stronghold of progressives and Dixiecrats, but turned Republicans in the 2000s. As such, little effort was made to appeal to them, as they were thought to be heavily Republican, although many Georgians simply did not vote. In fact, Georgia is going to be majority non-white by 2030, and they can be appealed to alongside the ignored progressives.

Framing is equally valuable, not just on a national level as mentioned before, but also with specific regional focuses and based on the candidate. For example, there is value in pitting these identities against a caricature of what the candidate stands for. Part of this involves framing them in a specific fashion. For example, in order to further this idea of economic liberation, a helpful characterisation of Trump would be to discuss him being part of the economic elite that are in league with people like Paul Ryan, and similar techniques could be used depending on the electorate, candidate, and main issue.

Ultimately, the party must continue, as it has for decades, to strike balance between old factions and new. The macroeconomic, social and political forces like of globalisation, recession and polarisation have made this an especially tough terrain for the Democrats, by slicing and dicing its traditional electorate and splitting voters along several different issues. If they cannot stand for a clear and viable alternative worldview to Trumpism, they will be destined to continue to lose elections. Now they just need to build up this voter base on a national level, appeal to specific regions in more proactive ways, all while taking into account the electoral geography of the USA being a federated polity rather than a democracy with proportional representation.

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