The Memo: Democrats grapple with ‘elite’ tag

Greg Nash

The Democratic Party’s electoral coalition is changing — and it’s not quite clear that’s a good thing, despite President-elect Joe Biden’s defeat of President Trump.

The upside for Democrats is that they are winning a larger share of college-educated voters, especially in cities and suburbs.

The downside is that the party’s standing with working-class voters, its traditional bedrock, is eroding.

The danger is that this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where urban, educated and socially liberal voices predominate, and the economic agenda that once made the party the default choice of working Americans is overshadowed.

Democrats understandably push back on the suggestion that they have become the “party of the elite” — not least because it is a charge so often made by Republicans and in conservative media.

But the party does face a real dilemma.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who represents a district in the Philadelphia suburbs, co-founded the Blue Collar Caucus with Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) in the wake of the 2016 elections because, he said, “I became so concerned about the party’s declining fortunes with the working-class voters who have always been the backbone of the Democratic Party.”

Boyle cites long-term trends in American public life as steepening the climb for his party, noting the rise of conservative media and the degree to which cultural and social issues have, for many voters, taken precedence over economic topics.

“When party politics was almost exclusively about economic issues, you saw Democrats do better with working class voters and Republicans do better with suburban voters,” he said. “But over 20, 30 years, American politics has become increasingly defined by social issues. That’s a big reason why Democrats have been able to do better in suburban Philadelphia but are doing worse in more conservative areas like western Pennsylvania.”

The issue is a nationwide one, too.

The ground has clearly shifted between Biden’s victory this year and the last time Democrats took the White House from Republicans, when then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) defeated then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

Even as Obama won a resounding victory, he lost white college-educated voters to McCain by 4 percentage points, according to exit polls. Biden won that group by 3 points over Trump. Such a small shift can make a big difference when white college graduates cast an estimated 32 percent of all votes, as was the case this year.

The difference is even more glaring in the opposite direction, among white non-college voters. Obama held McCain’s advantage to 18 points with this group in 2008. Trump’s advantage against Biden was almost twice as big, at 35 points.

Obama’s relative strength in that regard suggests that Democratic problems with white working-class voters cannot be wholly ascribed to racial animus.

Likewise, one of the big surprises of 2020 was Trump’s relative strength with Latino voters, not just in Florida, where Cuban Americans proliferate and have a discrete political identity, but also in the border counties of Texas and elsewhere.

One Democratic operative expressed concern that the party had become too prone to catering to identity politics and to specific groups within the electorate rather than having a more sweeping economic message.

“We need to articulate an economic message that really gets beyond identity politics,” the operative said, casting the Republican Party as “a party that continues to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans and big corporations, and gives very little to the working class.”

But instead of shouting this from the rooftops, this person said, “We often try to check a hundred different boxes for different groups, and we have to check this box and that box instead of articulating a clear message.”

There are, naturally, differences of opinion as to the way forward. And those splits do not divide along neat ideological lines.

While some progressives, for example, defend the emphasis on social issues, even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has expressed concern that this can overshadow an economic message.

“I think it is fair to say that in many ways the Democratic Party has become a party of the coastal elites, folks who have a lot of money, upper-middle-class people who are good people, who believe in social justice in many respects,” Sanders told NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” just before the election. “But I think for many, many years the Democratic Party has not paid the kind of attention to working-class needs that they should’ve.”

Others worry that the kind of left-wing agenda pursued by people like Sanders and younger progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) can make it easier for the GOP to label Democrats as “socialists” outside the American mainstream.

One refrain heard across the party, however, is how its candidates talk to people can be as important as specific policy proposals.

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist in rural Virginia, lamented that the GOP could easily find traction with voters by saying, of Democrats, “They call you ‘deplorables,’ they call you ‘irredeemables,’ they don’t sound like us.”

Saunders complained that too many Democrats seem to adopt an attitude toward rural and working-class voters of “ ‘I am going to train you’ — and the reason they put that in there is it makes an intellectually superior party feel good about themselves.”

Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist in Ohio, pushed back against the “defund the police” slogan, at least in terms of its electoral usefulness.

“Republicans are very good at taking a line like that and framing it. That had legs,” he said. “So did saying Democrats are ‘radical socialists,’ which appealed to people, certainly in the Latino community in Miami and in parts of Texas. Republicans knew those words would move people into the Trump column.”

Many of these demographic shifts have been going on for a generation or more. The term “Reagan Democrats” was coined to refer to blue-collar voters who moved toward Republicans in the 1980s.

Getting those voters back will be a long-term task for Democrats.

Boyle, the Pennsylvania congressman, said the beginnings could be made simply enough — by making clear candidates understand blue-collar voters and their concerns.

“No. 1 is making sure you at the very least show up,” he said. “No. 2 is being able to speak authentically to those voters and showing you understand them. And No. 3 is having concrete, meat-and-potatoes-type policies that will improve their lives.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Joe Biden John McCain Marc Veasey
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