Over the 20-year period from 1970 to 1990, whites, especially those without college degrees, defected en masse from the Democratic Party. In those years, the percentage of white working class voters who identified with the Democratic Party fell to 40 percent from 60, Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California-San Diego, wrote in “The Democrats and Working-Class Whites.”
Now, three decades later, the Democratic Party continues to struggle to maintain not just a biracial but a multiracial and multiethnic coalition — keeping in mind that Democrats have not won a majority of white voters in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.
There have been seven Democratic and seven Republican presidents since the end of World War II. Obstacles notwithstanding, the Democratic coalition has adapted from its former incarnation as an overwhelmingly white party with a powerful southern segregationist wing to its current incarnation: roughly 59 percent white, 19 percent Black, 13 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian American and other groups.
William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard, put the liberal case for the importance of a such a political alliance eloquently in “Rising Inequality and the Case for Coalition Politics”:
An organized national multiracial political constituency is needed for the development and implementation of policies that will help reverse the trends of the rising inequality and ease the burdens of ordinary families.
Biden won with a multiracial coalition, but even in victory, there were signs of stress.
In their May 21 analysis, “What Happened in 2020,” Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist, a liberal voter data analysis firm, and Jonathan Robinson, its director of research, found that Black support for the Democratic presidential nominee fell by 3 percentage points from 2016 to 2020, and Latino support fell by eight points over the same period, from 71 to 63 percent.
At the same time, whites with college degrees continued their march into the Democratic Party: “The trends all point in the same direction, i.e., a substantial portion of this constituency moving solidly toward Democrats in the Trump era.” Among these well-educated whites, the percentage voting for the Democratic nominee rose from 46 percent in 2012 to 50 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2020. These gains were especially strong among women, according to Catalist: “White college-educated women in particular have shifted against Trump, moving from 50 percent Democratic support in 2012 to 58 percent in 2020.”
In a separate June 2021 study, “Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory,” by Ruth Igielnik, Scott Keeter and Hannah Hartig, Pew Research found that
Even as Biden held on to a majority of Hispanic voters in 2020, Trump made gains among this group overall. There was a wide educational divide among Hispanic voters: Trump did substantially better with those without a college degree than college-educated Hispanic voters (41 percent vs. 30 percent).
Biden, according to Pew, made significant gains both among all suburban voters and among white suburban voters: “In 2020, Biden improved upon Clinton’s vote share with suburban voters: 45 percent supported Clinton in 2016 vs. 54 percent for Biden in 2020. This shift was also seen among White voters: Trump narrowly won White suburban voters by 4 points in 2020 (51-47); he carried this group by 16 points in 2016 (54-38).”
Crucially. all these shifts reflect the continuing realignment of the electorate by level of educational attainment or so-called “learning skills,” with one big difference: Before 2020, education polarization was found almost exclusively among whites; last year it began to emerge among Hispanics and African Americans.
Two Democratic strategists, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, both of whom publish their analyses at the Liberal Patriot website, have addressed this predicament.
On Sept. 30 in “There Just Aren’t Enough College-Educated Voters!” Teixeira wrote:
The perception that nonwhite working class voters are a lock for the Democrats is no longer tenable. In the 2020 election, working class nonwhites moved sharply toward Trump by 12 margin points, despite Democratic messaging that focused relentlessly on Trump’s animus toward nonwhites. According to Pew, Trump actually got 41 percent of the Hispanic working class vote in 2016. Since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 points off of their margin among nonwhite working class voters.
In an effort to bring the argument down to earth, I asked Teixeira and Halpin three questions:
1. Should Democrats support and defend gender and race-based affirmative action policies?
2. If asked in a debate, what should a Democrat say about Ibram X. Kendi’s claim that “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools?”
3. How should a Democrat respond to questions concerning intergenerational poverty, nonmarital births and the issue of fatherlessness?
In an email, Teixeira addressed affirmative action:
Affirmative action in the sense of, say, racial preferences has always been unpopular and continues to be so. The latest evidence comes from the deep blue state of California which defeated an effort to reinstate race and gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting by an overwhelming 57-43 margin. As President Obama once put it: ‘We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more,’ There has always been a strong case for class-based affirmative action which is perhaps worth revisiting rather than doubling down on race-based affirmative action.
Teixeira on Kendi’s arguments:
It is remarkable how willing liberal elites have been to countenance Kendi’s extreme views which ascribe all racial disparities in American society to racism and a system of untrammeled white supremacy (and only that), insist that all policies/actions can only be racist or anti-racist in any context and advocate for a Department of Anti-Racism staffed by anti-racist “experts” who would have the power to nullify any and all local, state and federal legislation deemed not truly anti-racist (and therefore, by Kendi’s logic, racist). These ideas are dubious empirically, massively simplistic and completely impractical in real world terms. And to observe they are politically toxic is an understatement.
The left, in Teixeira’s view,
has paid a considerable price for abandoning universalism and for its increasingly strong linkage to Kendi-style views and militant identity politics in general. This has resulted in branding the party as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by elements of the left — typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan — who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach.
In March, Halpin wrote an essay, “The Rise of the Neo-Universalists,” in which he argued that
there is an emerging pool of political leaders, thinkers and citizens without an ideological home. They come from the left, right, and center but all share a common aversion to the sectarian, identity-based politics that dominates modern political discourse and the partisan and media institutions that set the public agenda.
He calls this constituency “neo-universalists,” and says that they are united by “a vision of American citizenship based on the core belief in the equal dignity and rights of all people.” This means, he continued,
not treating people differently based on their gender or their skin color, or where they were born or what they believe. This means employing collective resources to help provide for the ‘general welfare’ of all people in terms of jobs, housing, education, and health care. This means giving people a chance and not assuming the worst of them.
How, then, would neo-universalism deal with gender and race-based affirmative action policies?
“In terms of affirmative action, neo-universalism would agree with the original need and purpose of affirmative action following the legal dismantling of racial and gender discrimination,” Halpin wrote in an email:
America needed a series of steps to overcome the legal and institutional hurdles to their advancement in education, the workplace, and wider life. Fifty years later, there has been tremendous progress on this front and we now face a situation where ongoing discrimination in favor of historically discriminated groups is hard to defend constitutionally and will likely hit a wall very soon. In order to continue ensuring that all people are integrated into society and life, neo-universalists would favor steps to offer additional assistance to people based on class- or place-based measures such as parental income or school profiles and disparities, in the case of education.
What did Halpin think about Kendi’s views?
A belief in equal dignity and rights for all, as expressed in neo-universalism and traditional liberalism, rejects the race-focused theories of Kendi and others, and particularly the concept that present discrimination based on race is required to overcome past discrimination based on race. There is no constitutional defense of this approach since you clearly cannot deprive people of due process and rights based on their race.
In addition, theories like these, in Halpin’s view, foster “sectarian racial divisions and encourage people to view one another solely through the lens of race and perceptions of who is oppressed and who is privileged.” Liberals, Halpin continued, “spent the bulk of the 20th century trying to get society not to view people this way, so these contemporary critical theories are a huge step backward in terms of building wider coalitions and solidarity across racial, gender, and ethnic lines.”
On the problem of intergenerational poverty, Halpin argued that
Reducing and eradicating poverty is a critical focus for neo-universalists in the liberal tradition. Personal rights and freedom mean little if a person or family does not have a basic foundation of solid income and work, housing, education, and health care. Good jobs, safe neighborhoods, and stable two-parent families are proven to be critical components of building solid middle class life. Although the government cannot tell people how to organize their lives, and it must deal with the reality that not everyone lives or wants to live in a traditional family, the government can take steps to make family life more affordable and stable for everyone, particularly for those with children and low household income.
Although the issue of racial and cultural tension within the Democratic coalition has been the subject of debate for decades, the current focus among Democratic strategists is on the well-educated party elite.
David Shor, a Democratic data analyst, has emerged as a central figure on these matters. Shor’s approach was described by my colleague Ezra Klein last week. First, leaders need to recognize that “the party has become too unrepresentative at its elite levels to continue being representative at the mass level” and then “Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff.”
How can Democrats defuse inevitable Republican attacks on contemporary liberalism’s “unpopular stuff” — to use Klein’s phrase — much of which involves issues related to race and immigration along with the disputes raised by identity politics on the left?
Shor observes that “We’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment’, ” before adding, “So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.”
“The joke is that the G.O.P. is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” Shor told Politico in an interview after the election in November.
On Oct. 9, another of my colleagues, Jamelle Bouie, weighed in:
My problem is that I don’t think Shor or his allies are being forthright about what it would actually take to stem the tide and reverse the trend. If anti-Black prejudice is as strong as this analysis implies, then it seems ludicrous to say that Democrats can solve their problem with a simple shift in rhetoric toward their most popular agenda items. The countermessage is easy enough to imagine — some version of ‘Democrats are not actually going to help you, they are going to help them’.
Bouie’s larger point is that
This debate needs clarity, and I want Shor and his allies to be much more forthright about the specific tactics they would use and what their strategy would look like in practice. To me, it seems as if they are talking around the issue rather than being upfront about the path they want to take.
Shor’s critique of the contemporary Democratic Party and the disproportionate influence of its young, well-educated white liberal elite has provoked a network of counter-critiques. For example, Ian Hanley-Lopez, a law professor at Berkeley, recently posted “Shor is mainly wrong about racism (which is to say, about electoral politics)” on Medium, an essay in which Lopez argues that
The core problem for the Democratic Party is not too many young, liberal activists. The fundamental challenge for Democrats is to develop a unified, effective response to the intense polarization around race intentionally driven by Trump and boosted by the interlocking elements of the right-wing propaganda machine.
Haney-Lopez agrees that
Democratic messages alienate voters when they are predicated on a sense of identity that voters do not share. For instance, “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” are deeply connected to a story of the police and ICE as white supremacist institutions that oppress communities of color. In turn, this story depicts the country as locked into a historic conflict between white people and people of color. It thus asks white voters to see themselves as members of an oppressive group they must help to disempower; and it asks voters of color to see themselves as members of widely hated groups they must rally to defend. This framing is acceptable to many who are college educated, white and of color alike, but not to majorities of voters.
But, in Lopez’s view,
Shor weds himself to the wrong conclusion. As the Ezra Klein piece reports, Shor “and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration.’” This is Shor’s most dangerous piece of advice to Democrats. For Shor, this has become an article of faith.
Lopez argues that the best way to defuse divisive racial issues is to explicitly portray such tactics as “a divide-and-conquer strategy.”
The basic idea, Lopez wrote,
is to shift the basic political conflict in the United States from one between racial groups (the right’s preferred frame) to one between the 0.1 percent and the rest of us, with racism as their principal weapon. In our research, this race-class fusion politics is the most promising route forward for Democrats.
Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color (and, like Haney-Lopez, a frequent contributor to The Times), goes a giant step further. In an email, Phillips argued that for over 50 years, “Democrats have NEVER won the white vote. All of it is dancing around the real issue, which is that the majority of white voters never back Democrats.” Even white college-educated voters “are very, very fickle. There’s some potential to up that share, but at what cost?” The bottom line? “I don’t think they’re movable; certainly, to any appreciable sense.”
Phillips wrote that his
biggest point is that it’s not necessary or cost-efficient to try to woo these voters. A meaningful minority of them are already with us and have always been with us. There are now so many people of color in the country (the majority of young people), that that minority of whites can ally with people of color and win elections from the White House to the Georgia Senate runoffs,” noting, “plus, you don’t have to sell your soul and compromise your principles to woo their support.
In his email, Phillips acknowledged that “it does look like there has been a small decline in that Clinton got 76 percent of the working class vote among minorities and Biden 72 percent. But I still come back to the big picture points mentioned above.”
On this point, Phillips may underestimate the significance of the four-point drop, and of the larger decline among working class Hispanics. If this is a trend — a big if because we don’t yet know how much of this is about Donald Trump and whether these trends will persist without him — it has the hallmarks of a new and significant problem for Democrats in future elections. In that light, it is all the more important for Democratic strategists of all ideological stripes to spell out what specific approaches they contend are most effective in addressing, if not countering, the divisive racial and cultural issues that have weakened the party in recent elections, even when they’re won.
Saying the party’s candidates should simply downplay the tough ones may not be adequate.
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