This is the first of a two-part series. Next up: How Republicans Can Become the National Majority Party.
Let’s face it, despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, your party should be in far better shape than it is. With the exception of 2004, Democratic presidential candidates have either won the popular vote or outpolled Republicans in every election since 1992. Two of the last three Republican victories were possible only because candidates who lost the popular vote won the Electoral College. Beyond that, Republican public policy ideas are profoundly unpopular. Under George W. Bush, Republicans sought to cut Social Security, while banning the government from negotiating price discounts from drug companies to help retired Americans. Under Donald Trump, the only success of the Republican-controlled Congress was to cut taxes on the rich and corporations; the GOP failed in its attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and indeed had no plan to replace it. Trump was one of the least popular American presidents in history, and his party was in such a shambles in 2020 that there was no Republican presidential platform for the first time since 1856.
In spite of the penchant for self-inflicted wounds shared by Republican leaders, Joe Biden only narrowly defeated Trump—in the process losing an unprecedented share of the former Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Democratic vote. The only group in which the party gained voters was among educated, affluent white men—a demographic in decline. As a result, instead of adding to the majority they gained in the 2018 midterms, the Democrats actually lost 13 seats in the House. Only flukish elections in Georgia enabled the Democrats to gain 50% of the Senate, where only the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris gives your party the barest of bare majorities. It is widely expected that the Republicans will recapture the House and perhaps the Senate in the midterm elections of 2022.
None of this is news to you, Democrats. Unfortunately, instead of asking yourselves what is wrong with your party, you tend to waste your time explaining what is wrong with America.
There are two such theories that explain Democrats’ unexpectedly poor performances, deflecting blame away from the party leadership. One theory holds that the Electoral College and the Senate are biased against Democrats. The other holds that anyone who votes for Republicans is a racist and that the Democratic Party is a martyr to resurgent white nationalism in the United States.
Come on, Democrats. These are pathetic excuses. The fact that your party now holds the coveted federal trifecta—both houses of Congress and the White House—and did so in Obama’s first term only a decade ago as well, proves that you are not forever locked out of power by our 18th-century Constitution. Yes, the Republicans benefit from low-population states and gerrymandering of U.S. House districts by state legislatures. But Democrats as well as Republicans engage in gerrymandering, and you have your own low-population states, like Vermont, the second-smallest state. Delaware, the seventh smallest, and Rhode Island, the eighth smallest, have had Democratic trifectas in recent years. As recently as 2010, the Democrats had more state-level trifectas (16) than the Republicans (9). The big switch came in the Obama years and has remained, so that in 2021 the Republicans have 23 trifectas and the Democrats 15. Don’t blame the Founders in 1788 for a political problem that is a decade old. Blame the maladroit politics of Barack Obama and the Democrats of the 2010s.
Nor did white racism prevent Obama and Harris from being elected president and vice president, respectively. In spite of nonstop Democratic media and academic propaganda about Trump leading a white nationalist fascist movement, a modest but ever-growing number of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans switched their votes from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2016, 2018, and 2020, while at the same time the Republican Party lost many non-Hispanic white voters to the Democratic Party. So much for the “white nationalist” party.
No, Democrats, the problem is not with America. Your failure to establish a stable working majority at the federal level, not just an ephemeral trifecta, is not the fault of the U.S. Constitution or white racism. It is the fault of Democratic Party leaders themselves. The party is too left wing. It is way to the left, not only of the voters (many of them former Democrats) who vote against it, but also of many current Democratic voters.
By left wing I don’t mean economically center left. New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid remain as popular as ever, among many Republicans as well as most Americans. So does raising the minimum wage (another legacy of the New Deal). If the Democratic Party did nothing but campaign on raising Social Security benefits, allowing the federal government to negotiate discounts in drug prices for senior citizens, and turning the minimum wage into a living wage or even a one-earner family wage, then Democrats might well be enjoying an era of national political hegemony, instead of looking at an electoral wipeout next year.
Nor by left wing do I refer to civil rights issues in areas where there is a consensus among left, center left, and center right (if not far right). Support for laws against racial discrimination, unlike racial quotas, is bipartisan, and opposition to interracial marriage is at an all-time low. Majorities of Republicans now support not only gay rights but also gay marriage. The public remains divided on abortion, but even here there is a majority in favor of legal abortion in the first trimester, which would be reflected in most state laws if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade. On these topics, what were liberal positions a decade or a generation ago are now mainstream. Moreover, legitimately or not, the Supreme Court has removed most issues involving sex and reproduction from legislative debate and control, so it makes no sense to define a national party of elected federal, state, and local officials on the basis of issues like abortion which will be decided by the judiciary, however important judicial appointments may be.
Given bipartisan acceptance of New Deal entitlement programs and laws forbidding discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, Democrats could claim to be the party of the American center. Unfortunately, the “woke” left wing of the Democratic Party, based in the universities, the NGO world, media, tech platforms, and corporate HR departments, insists on dragging the Democratic Party ever leftward into new and doomed crusades, including defunding the police, open borders, the warmed-over 1960s Black Power rhetoric of “critical race theory,” the replacement of standard English with the weird totalitarian newspeak of intersectional terminology (like “birthing parents” for “mothers”). While it might be defended in a campus seminar, this kind of cultural progressivism is politically toxic.
Progressives are a small minority of American voters, and many progressive positions are controversial and unpopular both among Democratic voters and the electorate at large: Within the Democratic Party there are almost as many “conservatives” (14%) as there are those who describe their views as “very liberal” (15%).
Nor is there a secret progressive majority out in the hinterlands waiting for progressive college grads to lead a new American cultural revolution. A 2020 Gallup poll has self-described liberals as only 25% of the public, compared to conservatives at 36% and moderates at 35%.
According to Pew, fewer than half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters in 2020—47%—described their views as liberal. The nonprogressive majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaners is made up of moderates (38%) and conservatives (14%).
While the campus-NGO-media left likes to complain about “pale stale males,” American progressivism is itself quite pale compared to the American population. Black Democrats (29%) and Hispanic Democrats (37%) are far less likely to describe themselves as liberal than white Democrats (55%). In 2019, about 4 in 10 Black Democratic voters called themselves moderate, while smaller shares described their views as liberal (29%) or conservative (25%).
The Democratic Party’s electoral math is unforgiving and inescapable. While both parties need to reach out to self-described moderates to form working majorities, Republicans will have an easier time than the Democrats whose progressive base is only 1 in 4 Americans at most. The larger and more successful the Democrats are as a party, the smaller and weaker the progressive faction will become. This is not a fact that most progressive Democrats want to admit, but the main reason that self-described progressives are a minority in this country is that their policies are unpopular.
Consider the advocacy of racial preferences, under the old name of “affirmative action” or the new name of “equity.” On the left, merely to question the idea that all intergroup disparities in academic and economic achievement are the result of “structural racism” to the exclusion of all other factors is to label oneself a racist.
Yet the American people of all races stubbornly continue to reject the progressive agenda of imposing racial quotas. In 2019 Pew found that 73% of Americans thought that colleges and universities should not consider an applicant’s race at all, compared to only 19% who said race should be a minor factor and a mere 7% who said that race should be a major factor. Majorities of all races rejected race as any factor at all in college admissions: white (78%), Hispanic (65%), Black (62%), and Asian (58%). Even 63% of respondents who were Democrats or Democratic-leaners rejected any role whatsoever for race in college admissions.
At the elite level, New Deal liberalism died a half-century ago, but nobody told the American people, most of whom, as far as support of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare and race-neutral public policy is concerned, are old-fashioned New Dealers and colorblind liberal integrationists to this day.
Immigration is another issue on which progressive Democrats are a distinct minority, despite the accusations of “racism” they level against their opponents of all races. In July 2021, according to Gallup, majorities of Hispanic adults wanted either to keep immigration at the present level (33%) or decrease it (25%). African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, are even more opposed to raising immigration levels, a policy favored only by 32%, compared to the majority of African Americans who prefer to keep the number of immigrants admitted each year the same (41%) or lower (26%).
Nowhere is the gap between elite, disproportionately white, progressive Democrats and the constituencies on whose behalf they pretend to speak greater than in the area of crime and policing. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the overclass left interpreted the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and the riots they triggered in the summer of 2020 as popular support for cutting police budgets and ceasing to enforce laws against “minor” crimes like theft and disorderly conduct. The polls said otherwise. According to a USA Today/Ipsos poll, only 18% of respondents support the “defund the police” movement, which is favored by only 34% of Democrats and a mere 28% of African Americans.
It also turns out that the percentage of African Americans who want the police presence in their area to stay the same (61%) is not that different from either the percentage of white Americans (71%) or the national average (67%).
Given these numbers, it is hardly a surprise that Joe Biden, who rejected the “defund the police” mantra during the Democratic presidential primaries, won the Democratic presidential nomination with the help of Black voters. Nor is it surprising that the African American ex-cop and ex-Republican Eric Adams, thanks to minority support, defeated more conventionally progressive candidates in the recent New York Democratic mayoral primary.
You might think that on matters like housing and transportation, at least, the Democratic Party would take the interests and lifestyles of its constituents into account. But today’s Democratic Party elite pushes an anti-suburban agenda even though most Democratic voters are suburbanites. As Wendell Cox has pointed out, as early as 2000 three-quarters of Hispanic and Asian Americans and more than two-thirds of African Americans lived in the suburbs and exurbs.
Meanwhile, the cities that are the most progressive tend to be among those that have been gentrified by influxes of affluent, college-educated whites. Between 2000 and 2015 the cities that gentrified the most—and not coincidentally moved to the left—were Portland, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Seattle, with Austin, New York, and Oakland not far behind. Like their white neighbors, the mostly Democratic majority of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who live in the suburbs tend to own their cars as well as their homes.
You might expect that the Democratic Party would therefore focus on helping more Americans of all races own single-family homes in the suburbs, and favor cars. Instead, the Democratic Party, dominated by its progressive wing, obsessively pushes mass transit (which only around 5% of Americans use on a regular basis). The Democratic Party is also identified with the cause of “densification,” to be achieved by plopping down mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings in neighborhoods formerly zoned for single-family homes. Like many progressive policies, even though they are rationalized as “saving the planet” or “fighting racism,” densification and mass transit benefit affluent, college-educated white progressives in their 20s and 30s who live in apartments and take the metro or trolley in trendy metropolises like San Francisco and Austin. Thanks to the ongoing merger between the bohemian-academic cultural left and the managerial elite, as a general rule any fashionable lifestyle or amenity that college-credentialed, affluent urban professionals adopt will be redefined as “progressive.”
I could go on, my Democratic Party friends, but the point should be clear. Progressives are an unpopular minority in the United States whose unpopular positions on race, immigration, law and order, and “sprawl,” among other issues, have repeatedly prevented the Democratic Party from achieving the majority status that popular Democratic economic policies would lead you to expect.
This is hardly news. In the last half century, the only Democrats who have won the White House have been Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden—all of whom took pains during their campaigns to distance themselves from their party’s cultural left wing. Carter, Clinton, and Biden were “coded” as conservative because they were from the older Democratic Party dominated by white Southerners and northern white Catholics. Obama, whose professorial demeanor and disdain for glad-handing could have doomed him like Michael Dukakis or John Kerry, had the good fortune that the world economy collapsed during his first race, while in his second race he faced a rich capitalist who sneered at “the 47%” of Americans addicted to welfare, a number that included Social Security and Medicare recipients, and veterans.
My argument is not that the Democrats should be a culturally progressive party that tolerates economically liberal cultural conservatives. Rather, my argument is that the party should be neutral on many cultural issues. To achieve a big majority rather than a bare majority, the Democrats should be an inclusive party that is center left on economic issues and supports race-neutral or colorblind civil rights for individuals (as opposed to groups), while not taking official stands on most or all hot-button cultural issues. Support for Social Security and anti-discrimination laws should be litmus tests for inclusion in the Democratic Party; support for defunding the police, lax immigration law enforcement, and race and gender quotas should not.
Individual Democratic politicians should be as free to be as progressive, moderate, or conservative on cultural and social issues as they need to be to win in urban California or rural Texas. But the national party should stand only for race-neutral economic policies like a higher minimum wage, increased Social Security benefits, and lower drug prices, along with disciplined and adequately resourced policing, border control, and national defense.
The Democratic Party, in short, should be a big-tent national political party that welcomes cultural progressives as one of several constituencies, but is not controlled by them. This would not be a surrender to free market neoliberals: It would be a return to the New Deal tradition at the expense of both the New Left and the neoliberals. If the Democratic Party is unwilling or unable to prevent the progressive minority of the population from hijacking and defining the party agenda, then have fun, my Democratic friends, grumbling on the political sidelines about the evils of structural racism and the injustice of the Electoral College.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.