Can the Democrats Capture the Political Center?

They Can, But It Won’t Be Easy

The Democrats appear to have a simple two prong strategy for capturing the political center and holding (hopefully expanding) their razor thin Congressional majorities in 2022. The first prong is to end the covid pandemic, revive the economy and deliver benefits widely within the American electorate. This approach is encapsulated in the American Rescue Plan, which has been wildly popular with the public. All communities (except the rich) are seen as benefiting from the plan—white, black, Hispanic; cities, suburbs and rural areas. And Americans across lines of race and class believe they personally will benefit from the plan. In fact, white noncollege adults are significantly more likely than their white college counterparts to believe they themselves will benefit from the plan and even somewhat more likely than Hispanics.

These beliefs are not without foundation. Ron Brownstein notes on the CNN site:

“[H]ouseholds headed by Whites will make up 67% of those receiving the bill's direct cash payments, 64% of those benefiting from its expanded child tax credit and 62% benefiting from its enhancements to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Families in the middle of the income distribution (two-thirds of whom are White) will see their income rise by nearly 7% as a result of the bill, while families with children in that income bracket will receive even more assistance, the group calculates. A married couple earning about $40,000 annually with one child at home, the group projects, could see their income rise by nearly $6,000, a 15% increase.

And even this doesn't exhaust the bill's potential benefits for middle-income and working families. It also includes substantial food and housing assistance, and above all it expands eligibility for subsidies to purchase health insurance under the ACA to more middle-income families and increases the size of the subsidies available to them. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that a family of four earning $50,000 annually would see its premiums on the ACA marketplace plummet from $252 to $67 per month, while a family of four earning $110,000 annually would experience a reduction from $1,445 to $666 per month.”

And more spending on the economy is being contemplated in the form of an infrastructure-focused bill concentrating on job creation and economic transformation. It remains to be seen whether this bill makes it through the legislative meat grinder but its intent to deliver economic change that broadly benefits American voters is clear—as is the general popularity of most components of the bill being contemplated.

Leaving the fate of that bill aside, the American Rescue Plan alone seems likely to plug nicely into an evolving situation where vaccinations are ramping up rapidly to bring the pandemic under control and economic indicators suggest boom economic times ahead. Assuming the economic boom does transpire, that can be nothing but good for the Democrats, even potentially rebranding them as the party of prosperity.

Moreover, the relative ease of passing the plan, with its hefty price tag, and the emergence of an economic philosophy that is oriented toward full employment and an aggressive approach to public investment and away from worries about inflation and government debt is a real sea change in the policy-making process. If this philosophy becomes dominant, it could allow the Democrats to consolidate a new economic era and a new identity as the party of broadly-shared economic growth. That could lead to an expanded share of the white noncollege vote, their perennial weak point, and stabilization of their support among nonwhite working class voters, where slippage in support has started to become a problem.

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So….what could go wrong? That brings us to the second prong of the Democrats’ strategy: trying not to engage in culture wars conflicts. This makes sense for the Democrats’ current purposes of fast action out of the gates, passing and popularizing the American Rescue Plan and so on. It is far less clear this is a sustainable approach. Indeed, it is perilously close to assuming a problem will go away if you ignore it. The fact of the matter is that Democrats’ approach in the American Rescue Plan and their general economic approach is centrist in the sense that it corresponds to the center of gravity of American public opinion.

This cannot be said of a wide variety of cultural issues that have come to the fore in Democratic party circles and have vigorous advocates within those circles and more broadly in Democratic-adjacent nonprofits, media and academic institutions. These cannot be said to be centrist in any sense of the term and are typically embraced by only a small percentage of voters overall and are not generally majoritarian even within the Democratic party itself.

That is because the center of gravity of American public opinion includes the following views and values, which are clearly at odds with causes embraced by a substantial sector of party activists and intellectual supporters:

Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.

America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.

Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society.

No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.

America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.

Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. More and better policing is needed for public safety and that cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.

There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.

There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.

Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.

Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.

Given these views, given the very high probability that Republicans will continue to attack the Democratic party on the grounds they are deviating from and even contemptuous of these views and given the likelihood that party activists and intellectuals will continue to press causes that are largely antithetical to these views, the potential vulnerabilities for Democrats are obvious. This will act as a counterweight to Democrats’ attempt to dominate the political center and reap the dividends of successful economic management and benefit distribution.

Here are some areas where trouble for the Democrats could emerge.

* Immigration. The surge at the border is real and Democrats currently lack a coherent immigration policy with a plausible enforcement regime. This makes them vulnerable to typecasting as being in favor of open borders.

* Police conduct. Support for reform is real but strong voices within the party are demanding much more than that. Defund the police and similar demands could re-emerge, particularly in the wake of a police killing that attracts wide attention.

* Crime and public safety. There has been a spike in violent crime and murders, which Democrats are reluctant to talk about. If it persists and Democrats are viewed as being complacent or ineffective in addressing the problem, the potential for working class backlash, and not just among whites, is very real.

* “Anti-racism” and “Anti-bias” training and education. The spread of training and curricular models that are highly ideological and counterposed to the views and values summarized above poses genuine problems. To the extent Democrats are viewed as promoting these models and making them standard within schools, workplaces and government offices, the party’s ability to occupy the center ground will be compromised.

* “Equity”-driven programs. So far, including in the American Rescue Plan, Democrats have been putting their chips down on universal programs and benefits, which disproportionately help blacks and Hispanics because they are disproportionately lower income. However, there is considerable pressure to promote “equity”, which has come to mean equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. This has led to calls for racially-focused programs to eliminate outcome disparities, rather than relying on the provision of universal benefits and opportunities. To the extent Democrats becoming associated with equity in this sense, it also pushes them off the center ground.

Other possibilities could be mentioned, but these examples make clear the contours of the battles that could emerge and that the Democrats will likely not be able to avoid. If they wish to command the center ground of American politics, capitalizing on the strong economic hand they appear to currently hold, they will need to couple that with a conscious effort to steer back to the center on these cultural issues. If not, they will likely fall short of the progress that now seems within their grasp.