It’s not exactly a secret the Republicans are running hard against the Democrats on sociocultural issues like crime, immigration, ideology in the schools and cancel culture. Their strategy is to combine attacks on these perceived vulnerabilities with an indictment of Democrats’ failure to return normalcy to the economy and thoroughly contain the pandemic. The goal is to paint a picture of the Democrats as an incompetent party distracted by secondary issues out of step with normal voters.
The Democrats’ standard response to Republican sociocultural attacks is to insist that the problem areas identified by the GOP aren’t really problems. They are fake issues cynically pumped up by right wing media to scare voters who would otherwise be responding favorably to the Democrats’ superior performance and policy ideas. The apotheosis of this was Terry McAuliffe’s robotic pronouncement of voter concern about schools in the Virginia gubernatorial contest as responding to “racist dog whistles”.
This seems unlikely to work. Crime is a genuine problem; voters care about it and think Democrats are doing a terrible job. Ditto for immigration. As for schools and education, an area where Democrats are rapidly losing their traditional advantage, they seem incapable of engaging with the actual concerns that are animating voters. In Virginia, voters who were already upset about parental burdens and academic deficits from extended school closures became additionally concerned that an emerging focus on “social justice” pedagogy and policies was detracting from learning traditional academic subjects and rewarding high achievement. As a memo by ALG Research on focus groups with suburban Virginia Biden-Youngkin voters noted:
They feel that people’s ability to have a civil discussion has vanished, and that they have to walk on eggshells even on seemingly innocuous topics. This extends to discussions around race in schools, where they were less concerned with critical race theory as an idea or curriculum but expressed frustration with the black-and-white approach they see taken toward such complicated subjects….
This isn’t about “critical race theory” itself, and we shouldn’t dismiss that CRT isn’t real and think we’ve tackled the issue. Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools. But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.
Thinking about these concerns as responses to racist dog whistles seems inadequate. But it is emblematic of the default Democratic response to Republican attacks in sociocultural areas. The primary impulse is to engage these attacks on the level of the worst possible interpretation of how they could appeal to voters (racism, etc.) and push back on that. But that leaves the concerns of most persuadable voters unaddressed and the field open for Republicans.
Just as bad, it feeds into a generalized sense that Democrats are just not very concerned with what bothers ordinary voters but are very concerned with pushing the party’s views on social issues. This connects to a fundamental Democratic branding problem: “People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now”, as Brian Stryker, one of the authors of the ALG memo, put it in an interview with Jonathan Martin of the New York Times.
The No. 1 issue for women right now is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Black voters is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Latino voters is the economy. I’m not advocating for us ignoring social issues, but when we think broadly about voters, they actually all want us talking about the economy and doing things to help them out economically.
But this is not easy! Just what is the Democrats’ plan for the economy? Right now, it seems to boil down to their legislative accomplishments, past and future, which will result in a “better” economy. However, voters are currently very foggy about what exactly those legislative accomplishments consist of and are not so sure the economy, so far, has landed in a better place.
Nor are they so sure where the economy is supposed to be going under the Democrats’ watch. In that sense voters may be on to something when they see Democrats as being preoccupied with social issues rather the economy. There is an opportunity cost to how parties allocate their limited attention and resources; it seems fair to say that Democrats have not exactly had a clear and unifying laser-like focus on economic growth and good jobs. As the ALG report notes:
They thought Democrats are only focused on equality and fairness and not on helping people. None of these Biden voters associated our party with helping working people, the middle class, or people like them. They thought we were more focused on breaking down social barriers facing marginalized groups. They were all for helping marginalized groups, but the fact that they couldn’t point to anything we are doing to help them was deeply concerning.
To the extent Democrats have an overarching economic story it is that a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and a rapid move to a clean energy economy will—eventually--result in strong growth and an abundance of good jobs. But this is a muddled story that is clearly not getting through.
Unmuddling the Democratic story starts with defusing the culture war issues that give so much credence to the Republican claim that Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters and prevent Democrats themselves from focusing attention where it is most needed. This may strike many Democrats as terribly unfair; why should Democrats try to do this when GOP attacks are so cynically motivated and so many in their own ranks are guilty of holding truly reactionary and extreme cultural views?
This may not be “fair” in some sense. But it is necessary because it is Republicans who benefit from the endless battle over these issues, not Democrats. Democrats are not on strong ground when they have to defend views that appear wobbly on rising violent crime, surging immigration at the border and non-meritocratic, race-essentialist approaches to education. They would be on much stronger ground if they became identified with an inclusive nationalism that emphasizes what Americans have in common and their right not just to economic prosperity but to public safety, secure borders and a world-class but non-ideological education for their children.
Republicans would continue their attacks of course but they would land with less force, allowing—and perhaps forcing—Democrats to sharpen their focus on voters’ primary concerns like the economy. That is probably the very last thing Republicans would want Democrats to do—and therefore the very thing that Democrats should be doing.