Why both parties must figure out what drives Donald Trump voters
No matter who wins the election for president, Democrats are once more stunned. How could the race be so close? The answer is evident if we are willing to do the difficult business of suspending our own ingrained bias and learning what drives someone to have supported Barack Obama for 2008 and 2012 then Donald Trump for 2016 and 2020.
At about 2:40 this morning, after nearly four years of defying the norms of democracy, Trump attempted a coup de grace. Emulating the behavior of a despot, he treated ballots as inconveniences to be disregarded. Pundits called it one of the darkest moments in our history. That is arguable. But something darker is going on, not in the White House, but in our country. It is the public sentiment that finds comfort in this authoritarian president, and bows to the disenfranchisement of millions, including military voters, who submitted ballots under the rules of a democracy.
The darkest corner was in Georgia, where a candidate who espouses the conspiracy theories of QAnon was elected to Congress with the support of Trump. Both political parties now confront a more fragile democracy. If they do not figure out what drives the attitudes of Trump voters, he could be first in a line of presidents with the fall of democracy.
Republicans may have gasped their last breaths before reincarnating into a true Trump movement this year. It is now a populist party that is nativist, isolationist, and largely against immigration. Country club conservatives are reduced to a comforting nostalgia. Democrats, meanwhile, face their own difficult choices. Even if Joe Biden, whom I supported in the election, wins then the party has to understand why the race was as close as it was and why so many voters are still eager to support Trump.
I have argued before that this moment was coming. The last two decades have inflicted some relentless pressure waves on the electorate with the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failures of addressing Hurricane Katrina and an oil spill out in the Gulf of Mexico, the economic crisis, and automation, and have awakened Americans.
The evidence? In 2008 they elected Obama, in 2010 they elected the Tea Party to stop him, in 2012 they sent him back to the White House, in 2014 they sent a Republican majority to Congress, in 2016 they elected Trump to stop both parties, in 2018 they elected a Democratic majority with the House to stop him, and in 2020 they fused down the middle. You do not need a poll to observe the trends. You need a neck brace.
If democracy was a candidate, it would lose with many of those voters. It is not working for them and is not credible. No wonder alternatives seem more appealing. We could be on the verge of a subtle realignment of the ideology in our country that transcends both parties. There are now two competing movements which could be best described as supporters of liberal democracy and supporters of illiberal democracy.
If the former has any hope of defeating the latter, they have to understand how to rebuild faith in the norms of democracy and why, as the Economist noted last week, the portion of Americans who would back some form of violence to attain a political goal went from 8 percent three years ago to 18 percent this year, and why the exact same people who voted for hope under Obama now find solace in the dark era under Trump.
It is time to stop the commentary and start the conversation. We need to mount a major research project, just as we do in competitive campaigns, that is focused on swing voters leaning toward authoritarianism. It means conducting focus groups, visiting plenty of communities, and producing actionable findings of value to scholars of democracy as well as political leaders. It must be used as the basis of a campaign to build resilience to attempts, both foreign and domestic, to weaken democracy.
My favorite maxim in politics is that you have to meet voters where they are. That does not mean having the same views as them but connecting with them. Past generations have saved democracy by crossing oceans and marching through Europe. All we must do is head to Erie.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.
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