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OPINION | JAMELLE BOUIE: Democrats' path unclear

by Jamelle Bouie The New York Times | October 11, 2021 at 4:14 a.m.

My colleague Ezra Klein wrote his latest column on the work of David Shor, a Democratic polling analyst whose primary message is a critique of the Democratic Party, namely that its college-educated professional class is too removed from the working-class, non-college-educated voters they need to win.

Here's Ezra with a little more detail: "The Democratic Party was trapped in an echo chamber of Twitter activists and woke staff members. It had lost touch with the working-class voters of all races that it needs to win elections, and even progressive institutions dedicated to data analysis were refusing to face the hard facts of public opinion and electoral geography."

The main issue, Shor argues, is the polarization of voters by education. Voters who graduated from college have moved sharply toward Democrats, and voters who have not have moved sharply toward Republicans. The problem for Democrats is that most voters don't attend college. The single largest cohort of voters, in fact, are white people without a college degree. And it is those voters who have flocked in droves to the Republican Party since the 2016 presidential election.

If those voters were concentrated in a few states, this would not be such an advantage. But they are everywhere, including most swing states.

Donald Trump's Republican Party may not be able to win raw majorities in national elections, but its grip on non-college whites (as well as its inroads with non-college Black and Hispanic voters, especially men) means it can easily win power in a system where the geography of your votes is just as important as the number of votes you win. The Senate, in particular, will almost certainly return to and stay in Republican hands, and there's no guarantee that Democrats will ever muster the votes to win it back.

Here's Ezra, channeling Shor: "If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51% of the two-party vote, Shor's model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now. Sit with that. Senate Democrats could win 51% of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate."

To push back on education polarization, Shor believes that Democrats should talk less about issues of racial justice and immigration -- which, he argues, have pushed non-college voters, especially whites, away from the Democratic Party -- and align their message with the economic priorities of the non-college majority.

Again, here's Ezra: "The chain of logic is this: Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss. To avoid it, they need to win states that lean Republican. To do that, they need to internalize that they are not like and do not understand the voters they need to win over. Swing voters in these states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do."

Shor sees the 2020 presidential election, and Trump's significant gains with Hispanic voters, as another example of what happens when race and racial issues dominate a campaign and its media environment: "In the summer, following the emergence of 'defund the police' as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined," Shor said in a March interview with New York magazine. "So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who had been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites."

Here, I should say, I don't think this analysis is necessarily wrong. Indeed, there is other evidence to prove the point.

In a piece for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (where I am a fellow), political scientist Alan Abramowitz shows how the "deep political divide between college and non-college white voters in recent elections reflects a deep ideological divide between these two groups."

Likewise, in his Substack newsletter, demographer Ruy Teixeira unpacks new survey data from the 2020 election to find that "Hispanics opposed defunding the police, decreasing the size of police forces and the scope of their work, and reparations for the descendants of slaves by 2:1 or more." What's more, a majority of Hispanic voters hold what political scientists call "racially conservative" views.

Now is the point where I should show my cards. My problem isn't this conclusion. If you think, as I do, that anti-Black prejudice plays a large and important part in American politics, then none of this comes as a surprise.

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."

What might move the needle is what worked for a previous generation of Democrats who fought to align their party with the white mainstream. In the early 1990s, historian Thomas Sugrue writes in "Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race," liberal journalists in influential periodicals like The New Republic, The Washington Post and The New York Times argued that "the Democratic Party had lost its appeal on the national level because of backlash against the social programs of the 1960s." Worse, Democrats had capitulated to "identity politics."

Here's Sugrue: "Black power radicals, aided and abetted by white leftists, alienated well-meaning, colorblind, working- and lower-middle-class whites and drove them from the New Deal coalition. Democrats, in this view, needed to distance themselves from civil rights activists and flamboyant black political leaders like New York's Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson."

The Democrat who broke the party's presidential losing streak, Bill Clinton, took these recommendations. He spoke about the party's most popular policies while also taking every opportunity to show that he was not, and would not be, beholden to the interests of Black Americans.

All of this is to say that if Shor's analysis is correct, then this is what it could be like to change course. Progressives would complain, as they did in 1992, but -- a proponent of this approach might say -- Clinton still won 85% of the Black vote. And once in office, he would try to reverse course: to moderate and to show his commitment to the people who put him in the White House. But there is no such thing as idle presidential rhetoric.

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there is a way to stop the bleeding with non-college whites and Hispanics without pandering to the worst forms of racial conservatism. There is the "race-class" narrative, which appeals to economic interests while also trying to preempt division along racial lines. I can also imagine a version of Barack Obama's strategy of publicly rebuking some Black leaders and lecturing Black audiences about "respectability." Black politicians, in fact, might be uniquely positioned to triangulate between the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party's professional class and the racial conservatism of the voting electorate.

My larger point is that I think 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. There is a template for the kind of politics they want to see from Democratic candidates, and if it isn't the "Third Way" of Bill Clinton, then they should say what it is.


Jamelle Bouie writes for The New York Times.

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