How Democrats Can Save Themselves
In a few days, President Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address. (His April 2021 speech to a joint session of Congress wasn’t technically a SOTU.) The State of the Union, which slid into absurdity even before Trump, ought to be retired. Presidents can return to the Jeffersonian model of delivering a written message via courier. But since Biden seems determined to perform the whole kabuki show, he might want to consider some advice from two political analysts who have a track record of success.
In 1989, William Galston (my esteemed colleague on the Beg to Differ podcast) and Elaine Kamarck, both of the Brookings Institution, looked at the state of the Democratic party and offered some tough love. Their party had just lost its third consecutive presidential election, but it was even worse than that. With the exception of Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976, the Democrats had lost five out of six contests since 1968. Many Democrats were self-soothing by pointing to the flaws of their 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis (“slightly less animation and personality than the Shroud of Turin,” according to one pundit), but few seemed able to confront the uncomfortable truth that Galston and Kamarck delivered, namely that “too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
One Democrat, the ambitious Arkansas governor, gulped down their insights and implemented them. Despite lurid scandals, he won two terms.
Galston and Kamarck are offering Joe Biden and today’s Democratic party new advice about appealing to a broader swath of the electorate, but this time they are writing with more urgency. They write that they recommended a course correction in 1989 because they then feared for the future of liberalism. Today, the stakes are far higher:
Nevertheless, the Republican Party in 1989 was still led by people like President George H.W. Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole. . . . They were leaders who respected the Constitution and the democratic norms that had been followed by American presidents, regardless of party, for centuries. By contrast, the Republican Party that Donald Trump created is . . . a threat to democracy itself. From the refusal to concede an election in which there was no evidence of widespread fraud to efforts to suppress the vote and politicize the apparatus responsible for counting the votes, the Republican Party Trump leads poses the most direct threat to democracy that the United States experienced in modern times.
Democrats are getting flashing warning signs from the electorate on a weekly basis. Biden’s approval rating (highly correlated with midterm election prospects) is lower than that of any recent president except Trump. A Republican won the 2021 Virginia governor’s race while another came unexpectedly close to victory in New Jersey. The share of independents who say the country is on the right track has declined to 24 percent after initially rising to 47 percent early in Biden’s term. Inflation continues to cast a pall over the economic recovery, and, in what must be the bluest city in the nation, San Francisco, three members of the school board were recalled by margins as high as 79 percent as punishment for renaming rather than reopening schools.
The party is in trouble, Galston and Kamarck argue, because Democrats are in the grip of several self-defeating myths. One is that turnout is their friend. It isn’t. The Democrats did a fantastic job boosting turnout in 2020—but so did the Republicans. Trump earned 11 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. “Because voters in both parties surged to the polls in record numbers, the shape of the electorate changed only marginally.” In Virginia’s 2021 election, high turnout favored the Republican. Turnout is not the golden ticket for Democrats.
Another myth is that “people of color” will deliver victories to Democrats very soon. White voters, Democrats have been telling themselves, especially white working-class voters, will be subsumed in a new “rising American electorate” populated mostly by people of color. It is long past time to abandon that fond hope. As Galston and Kamarck note, Hispanics have been trending away from the Democrats quite markedly. “Nationally, support for Democratic presidential candidates fell from 71 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2016 and 59 percent in 2020 among Hispanic voters.” As CNN reported, in 2020 Trump performed 10 points better in Texas counties where Latinos comprise a large majority than he did in 2016.
The term Hispanic is so broad as to subtract from understanding. Voters who trace their ancestry to Mexico or Puerto Rico have quite different views from those who fled from Venezuela or Cuba, for example. And their experience here is very different as well. Galston and Kamarck note that only 12 percent of African American voters believe police misconduct to be a matter of isolated incidents, contrasted with 40 percent of Hispanics. And “by 43 to 18 percent, Hispanics oppose teaching CRT in public schools, while African Americans favor including it, 43 to 20 percent.” As Ruy Teixeira warns, the trend among Asian voters (the fastest growing minority) is also worrying for Democrats.
To the myth that Democrats can count on people of color to cruise to majorities, Galston and Kamarck add another splash of cold water about ideology. The electorate, however tinted, is not becoming more progressive. Those who consider themselves conservative or moderate outnumber those who say they’re liberal or progressive. Only 9 percent of voters say they approve of the policies of Bernie Sanders or AOC. On no issue is this myth more damaging to Democrats than on crime and policing. Kamarck and Galston quote Rep. Jim Clyburn to the effect that the “defund the police” slogan probably cost the Democrats 12 congressional seats in 2020. Even among African Americans, the group most likely to hold critical views of policing, shrinking police forces or cutting funding (as opposed to reform) is unpopular. In Minneapolis, an initiative to replace the police force with a “department of community safety and violence prevention” was defeated in 2021. Among African Americans, 75 percent were opposed.
Democrats, the authors argue, must shake off their illusions about the electorate. We are both extremely polarized and closely divided. Our national elections are determined by tiny margins in key states, and that means, yes, the party should tack to the center. Galston and Kamarck ask Democrats to look at Biden’s victory and draw the correct lessons. How did Biden win? By gaining votes among certain key constituencies—he earned 48 percent of the male vote, up from Clinton’s 41 percent, including 31 percent of white working-class men, which improved on Clinton’s anemic 23 percent. “Biden moved five crucial states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) from the Republican to the Democratic column by making large gains among swing voters in the heart of the electorate, especially moderates and independents.”
Those moderates and independents are the very voters Democrats are losing today. Between March of 2021 and January of 2022, Biden lost 22 points among moderates and 21 among independents.
Galston and Kamarck join a growing chorus of realist Democrats including James Carville, David Shor, Ruy Tuxiera, and Stan Greenberg, who are begging the party to disabuse itself before it’s too late. These are not conservatives, far less Republicans. They are simply people who have excellent advice for those not too blinkered to receive it. There is still time for a course correction, if only just.