Trump pushed suburban voters away; will Democrats pull them in?

Trump pushed suburban voters away; will Democrats pull them in?
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Set aside for a moment the immediate outcome of the 2018 midterm election — how it broke the Republican Party’s lock on power in Washington. Just as important may be what this election represents historically: the endpoint of one political realignment, and the nascent even if tentative configuration of another.

For Republicans, we may be at the end of a 50-year arc of political history that arguably began in 1968 with George Wallace’s insurgency and Richard Nixon’s silent majority and southern strategy. While Wallace was overt and Nixon cynical in their mutual exploitation of grievance politics, what they accomplished had long-term consequences for our country: they weaponized culture as the driving force behind American politics.

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It was in the late 1960s that the white working class, long the nucleus of the New Deal coalition, began to drift from the Democratic Party. In part it was the Vietnam War — while other Democrats were protesting the war and getting their kids student deferments, many white working-class kids were fighting it and coming home to a nation indifferent, and at times hostile, to their sacrifice. It also was, in part, discomfort with the wave of Sixties liberation movements that the Democratic Party embraced — liberation movements that upended tradition, questioned authority, and challenged the white working-class trinity of faith, family and flag.

And in large part it was about race; white working-class voters were fine when civil rights stayed south, but they seethed when it confronted their own segregated neighborhoods up north.

Nixon singularly understood that these were not political or economic grievances but cultural ones. And he charted out a Republican politics that seized on these resentments and preyed on the status anxiety of the white working class.

Race, of course, always was a subtext — played out artfully by Nixon and in future Republican campaigns. But layered on top was a powerful fusillade of anti-liberal, anti-intellectual and anti-media messages that targeted what white working-class voters perceived as the “new American establishment,” which they fiercely resented. Whether because of Vietnam or civil rights or the cultural liberation movements of the late Sixties, these voters smoldered at what they viewed as elite disdain and condescension toward them. Nixon armed them to fight back.

But it was still more of a push away from the Democratic Party than a pull toward the Republican Party that motivated these voters. Empowered by the resentment strategy Nixon pioneered, they began voting Republican in increasing numbers. But even then many viewed the GOP as a country club party that itself wasn't all too welcoming to working-class concerns. And some still felt loyal to their ancestral Democratic Party, particularly those with union ties.

Then came Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE. Drawing on Nixonian appeals to the silent majority and forgotten Americans, he pulled these voters into the GOP fold and completed the realignment that began when Nixon first capitalized on their discontent. If previous Republican candidates succeeded merely by indulging white working-class grievances for political gain, Trump fused those grievances with the Republican brand and built the entire party and its messaging around them. According to the 2018 exit polls, white men without college degrees voted almost as overwhelmingly for Republicans as Latinos did for Democrats.

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Democrats have been chasing the holy grail of white working-class voters ever since Nixon began prying them away, believing their economic message will resonate. But given how culture increasingly shapes political identity, the question is whether the party’s energies are better off pursuing an alternative realignment strategy, one centered on educated suburban voters, especially women, who would join with the Democratic base of minorities, young people and liberals to create a majority party for the foreseeable future.

For years these suburban voters would typically label themselves socially moderate but fiscally conservative, and as long as Republicans mouthed respect for pluralism and embraced symbols of diversity, the fiscally conservative side of their political identity led many to lean toward, and often identify with, the GOP.

That changed with Trump. Just as many white working-class voters felt pushed from the Democratic Party, these suburban moderates increasingly feel pushed from the GOP. These are voters who live in the suburbs for the quality of life. They enjoy neighborly discussions, they teach their kids tolerance, they support anti-bullying campaigns, and those with daughters fiercely advocate for full and equal opportunity. They see their politics built on what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” not the cultural divisions that Nixon sowed.

Donald Trump has violated this suburban ethos in every respect. The same cultural dynamic that led to his success with the white working class may prove to be his undoing with educated suburban voters.

In every region of the country except the deep South, suburban voters broke for the Democrats by a significant margin. Among educated white women nationwide, according to the exit polls, Democrats won 59 to 39 percent. This is a demographic increasingly repulsed by the Trump Republican Party. And in 2018 they put the Democrats over the top.

But as much as these voters feel repelled by the GOP, it’s not altogether clear the Democrats have pulled them into their fold. It’s as if they’ve been dating the Democratic Party in recent elections, most passionately in 2018, but haven’t yet committed to marriage. The open question is when and if they will make a more long-term commitment — much as the white working class finally has done with the Republicans.

For Democrats to convert this push into a pull, they need to keep in mind that these suburban voters are fleeing the anger and grievance that has overtaken the Republican Party. If Democrats simply give these voters anger and grievance in reverse, they risk pushing these suburban voters away, or at least depressing the energy that powered their 2018 support for Democratic candidates.  

To capture their loyalty, cement a realignment, and become the majority party in the years ahead, Democrats will have to think long and hard about a message that taps into the party’s visceral rejection of Donald Trump — but does it in a way that captures the decorum, hope, optimism and pluralism that define the cultural ethos and political identity of these suburban voters. It’s the Democratic Party’s moment. The question is whether they will seize it.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. He also serves as the political analyst for CBS News Radio.