What is to be Done?  Burning Questions for the Democratic Party

Photograph Source: Ryan McFarland – CC BY 2.0

The 2022 American elections were a disaster for the Democratic Party.  They lost critical elections and power across the country.  The party continued to lose support among the working class as the latter drifted over to the Republican Party.  The question now for the Democratic Party is what should they do next?  Is the solution to move further to the left to capture cadres of progressive voters who do not vote and are looking for an alternative party that represents their views, or move more to the center and try to capture the moderates by wooing them back?

The 2022 midterm elections were never going to favor the Democrats. Statistically the president’s party loses 26 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate.  With a five-vote house margin and a 50-50 senate the odds were against the Democrats.  Couple that with low presidential approval  ratings and a souring economy, classic political science analysis six months ago would tell you that  the Democrats were going to have a bad year.  The Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade changed the political tide for a few months, but in the last few weeks the midterm cycle reverted back to what normally one would have predicted.

Thus for Democrats looking for solace, they might simply dismiss the losses as beyond their control, doomed by a structural cycle of American politics.  But to think that is to miss the underlying causes of the problems for the Democratic Party.

At one time the Democrats were the populists. They were the party of the working class and labor.  They placed economics and individual welfare first.  They seemed to understand and were emphatic with the plight of the working class.  While by no means a leftist party they nonetheless  supported class-based legislation and they were mostly trusted by and connected to the needs of many workers.

But somewhere along the line the Democrats became the party of the intellectual, middle class elite. Maybe Spiro Agnew as Richard Nixon’s vice-president foreshadowed it when labeling many Democrats intellectual elites.  But he, Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and then Donald Trump spoke to working class anxieties, and perhaps prejudices.  They spoke to their concerns about crime and public order.  Or about the loss of manufacturing jobs, free trade agreements,  and stalled standards of living.  Yes their answers were disgusting–turning to race, xenophobia, and homophobia–but they  at least spoke to the fears of the white working class but speaking to their fears and anxieties.  They offered simple solutions such as restricting immigration, cutting taxes, and eliminating government social welfare programs, none of which did much to help the working class.  But what they did was better than what the Democrats did, or at least did not do.

The Democratic Party’s mistake is not merely the simplistic they adopted identity politics.  It was critical for Democrats to embrace civil rights.  But the real problem was that they also fully embraced the shift to neo-liberalism that began in the 1970s.  As factories closed, economic restructuring took place, and the gap between the rich and poor exploded, Democrats did little to fight it.  They supported the Reagan tax cuts.  They endorsed NAFTA.  They became the party of the college-educated, those who were mostly the winners in the new economy.  They did little to address the assault on the welfare state.  Perhaps they were stymied by the Republicans, but in the end the Democrats became the party that was well off enough not to worry about day to day survival.

In 2022 the Democrats proved to have a tin ear on the issues of most concern to most Americans.  Abortion rights are important, but they failed to appreciate concerns over the economy or crime. They frankly looked out of touch with the working and perhaps much of the middle class, and they paid politically for it in 2022.

Now the question is: What is to be done?  What suggestion which comes from the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party is to go further to the left on issues.  For the centrists, it is to move further to the center.  Neither option is viable. Moving to a perceived center will not pick up many working class. They have already made up their minds and they are not coming back.  The received wisdom is that if Democrats talk about the economy these voters return. This view ignores the racial basis to Republican politics.

Conversely, pushing to the left will not help. While a more class-based politics as advocated by Bernie Sanders might help, the lesson of his two failed presidential campaigns is that many of the non-voters are non-voters not necessarily because of policy or ideology but because of other reasons, and motivating them to show up is costly if not impossible.

What this suggests is a party that is stuck.  It has already lost much of the geography of America and the white working class yet it needs them to win. Conversely, the hypothetical progressive base is elusive to capture.  The Democrat party has become the party of somewhat left of center college-educated suburbanites as well those young people and people of color who show up. It is a narrow untenable base if one expects to win office.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.