NEW GEOGRAPHY--Numerous commentaries from both the political left and right have expounded the parlous state of the Democratic Party. And, to be sure, the Democrats have been working on extinguishing themselves in vast parts of the country, and have even managed to make themselves less popular than the Republicans in recent polls.
Yet, in the longer term, the demographic prospects of a Democratic resurgence remain excellent. Virtually all of the growing parts of the electorate — millennials, Latinos, Asians, single women — are tilting to the left. It is likely just a matter of time, particularly as more conservative whites from the silent and boomer generations begin to die off.
But, in politics, like life, time can make a decisive difference. It’s been almost a decade since the Atlantic proclaimed the end of “white America,” but Anglos will continue to dominate the electorate for at least the next few electoral cycles, and they have been trending to the right. In 1992, white voters split evenly between the parties, but last year went 54 percent to 39 percent for the GOP.
Identity politics vs. social democracy
To win consistently in the near term, and compete in red states, Democrats need to adjust the cultural and racial agenda dominating the “resistance” to one that addresses directly the challenges faced by working- and middle-class families of all races. This notion of identity politics, as opposed to those of social class, is embraced by the progressives’ allies in the media, academia, urban speculators, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, since environmentalism, gender and race issues do not directly threaten their wealth or privileged status.
The rise of identity politics, born in the 1960s, has weakened the party’s appeal to the broader population, as Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla argued in a November New York Times column. But most progressives, like pundit Matthew Yglesias, suggest that “there is no other way to do politics.” To even suggest abandoning identity politics, one progressive academic suggested, is an expression of “white supremacy,” and she compared the impeccably progressive Lilla with KKK leader David Duke.
This hurts the Democrats as they seek to counter President Donald Trump. Americans may not be enthusiastic about mass deportations, but the Democratic embrace of open borders and sanctuary cities also is not popular — not even in California. And while most Americans might embrace choice as a basic principle, many, even millennials, are queasy about late-term abortions.
Democrats also need to distance themselves from the anti-police rhetoric of Black Lives Matter. Among millennials, law enforcement and the military are the most trusted of all public institutions. Rabid racial politics among Democrats, notes Lee Trepanier, political science professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and editor of the VoegelinView website, is steadily turning white voters into something of a conscious racial “tribe.”
Finally, Democrats have now embraced a form of climate change orthodoxy that, if implemented, all but guarantees that America will not have a strong, broad-based economic expansion. The economic pillars of today’s Democratic Party may thrive in a globalist, open-border society, but not many in the more decidedly blue-collar industrial, agricultural or homebuilding industries.
Toward a transracial populism
To appeal to the middle and working classes, the Democrats need to transcend cultural avant-gardism and embrace a more solid social democratic platform. Inequality and downward mobility have grown inexorably under both parties, which is why Bernie Sanders, and his eventual “mini-me,” Hillary Clinton, essentially ran against the Obama administration’s economic record.
On immigration, they don’t have to embrace Trump’s misguided views, but they should seek policies that don’t displace American workers. High-tech oligarchs may love H1-B visas that allow them access to indentured foreign geeks, but replacing middle-class IT workers with these foreign workers seems certain to alienate many, including the majority of white, college-educated people who voted for Trump. In contrast to oligarch-friendly Clinton, Bernie Sanders questioned both open borders and H1-B visas.
Sanders’ key plank — a single-payer, Canadian-like health care system — also could appeal to many small businesses, consultants and the expanding precariat of contract workers dependent on the now imperiled Obamacare. Critically, both health care and economic mobility priorities cross the color line, which is crucial to spreading social democracy here.
The key remains embracing growth and expanding opportunity. A pragmatic and work-oriented form of social democracy, as seen in Scandinavia, could be combined with a growth agenda. The Nordics may preen about their environmental righteousness, but their economies depend largely on exploiting natural resources — wood, iron ore, oil — as well as manufactured exports.
Opposing Trump’s plan to expand opportunity and bring jobs back to the country just to spite the president may not play so well in the long run. Most Americans may disapprove of Trump, the person, but they seem far more open to his policies, and are more optimistic than under the far more popular Obama. Trump’s defense of popular entitlements and infrastructure spending should garner some Democratic approval.
Rather than resist and posture in megadollar glitter, Democrats would be better served by developing their own middle-class-oriented growth program. This would be nothing unique for Democrats, and was central to the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and, most recently, Bill Clinton. If Donald Trump gets sole credit for a massive infrastructure expansion and a robust economy in the face of hyperpolarizing “resistance” histrionics, then the timeline for a Democratic resurgence could be put off for a decade or more.
(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of New Geography … where this analysis was first posted. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He lives in Orange County, CA.)