Opinion

It Isn’t That Easy to Just Give People What They Want

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”:

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

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:

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:

Teixeira on Kendi’s arguments:

The left, in Teixeira’s view,

In March, Halpin wrote an essay, “The Rise of the Neo-Universalists,” in which he argued that

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,

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:

What did Halpin think about Kendi’s views?

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

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 result?

“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:

Bouie’s larger point is that

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

Haney-Lopez agrees that

But, in Lopez’s view,

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,

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

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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