Does the Abortion Issue Mean Democrats Have Won the Culture War?
Not Even Close
Some Democrats may believe that they have now fixed what’s wrong with their party. They just passed some key legislation and are set to do better than expected in the 2022 election. Republicans are on the defensive about abortion. Democrats are unified, particularly in their depiction of their opponents as an ultra-MAGA party controlled by semi-fascists. Perhaps their problems are now solved.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is that, when the smoke clears and the dust settles this November, Democrats will likely control just the Senate (if that) of the two houses of Congress and still face the same daunting obstacles that were looming before their fortunes improved in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision. The same geographic and educational polarization that undercuts the power of the Democratic coalition will remain. Indeed that polarization is likely to increase as the party relies more and more on white college-educated voters in affluent metropolitan areas.
This has profound implications for Democrats in the Electoral College and in Congress, especially in the Senate. Put simply, Democrats’ uncompetitiveness among white working class voters and among voters in exurban, small town and rural America puts them at a massive disadvantage given the structure of the American electoral system. This problem has only been exacerbated by recent attrition in Democratic support among nonwhite working class voters.
Nothing that has happened in the last several months changes this underlying and uncomfortable fact: Democrats have failed to develop a party brand capable of unifying a dominant majority of Americans behind their political project. Indeed, the current Democratic brand suffers from multiple deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to wide swathes of American voters who might potentially be their allies. And those swathes are very, very important. Without better performance there, Democrats’ hold on power will be ever tenuous, as will be their ability to implement their agenda at scale.
So, what to do? I have a modest three point plan for reform and renewal. The Democrats, of course, will continue to win some elections and dominate their favored areas of the country, even without reform. But if they are serious about moving the country away from its current partisan stalemate toward robust political and economic health, they must follow a new path. Here is the first part of that path (I will cover the other two in subsequent posts):
Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues
This is not optional. Many Democrats wish to believe the contrary and offer as proof the abortion issue where the party, thanks to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, has been able to occupy center ground in opposition to significant parts of the GOP who wish to ban the procedure. But crime isn’t the abortion issue. Immigration isn’t the abortion issue. Race essentialism and gender ideology aren’t the abortion issue. Even the abortion issue isn’t the abortion issue once you get past opposing bans and start having to deal with the nitty-gritty of setting some limits on abortion access (as the public wants).
The sad fact is that the cultural left in and around the Democratic party has managed to associate the party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. These unpopular views are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by the cultural left. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.
As a direct result of these associations, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
Instead, Democrats continue to be weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding the party as a whole is very difficult, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism. Democratic candidates in competitive races certainly try to rebrand on an individual level but their ability to escape the gravitational pull of the national party is limited.
This matters a great deal. The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on, say, abortion and select economic issues and ignore sociocultural issues where they are viewed as out of the mainstream is absurd. Culture matters and the issues to which they are connected matter. They are a hugely important part of how voters assess who is on their side and who is not; whose philosophy they can identify with and whose they can’t.
Thus, to even get in the door with many working class and rural voters and make their pitch, Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously and their views on culturally-freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance is stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues.
With this context in mind, consider some recent poll results. The new NBC poll tested which party voters preferred on a number of different issues. Republicans were preferred over Democrats by 36 points on border security, 23 points on dealing with crime and by 19 points on immigration. All three of these ratings are the highest net advantages for the GOP ever found on the NBC poll.
In the new New York Times/Sienna poll, voters by 15 points (49-34) say Democrats have gone too far in pushing a “woke” ideology on issues related to race and gender, rather than not far enough. This balloons to a 23 point margin (53-30) among all working class (noncollege) voters, 36 points (61-25) among white working class voters and 39 points (59-20) among rural voters.
In the same poll, voters, by 31 points (61-30) endorsed the idea that “gender is determined by a person’s biological sex at birth” rather than an identity that can be divorced from biological sex. Among all working class voters the gap was 43 points (67-24), among rural voters it was 51 points (70-19) and among white working class voters it was 54 points (73-19).
Even more lop-sided, the poll asked voters whether they supported or opposed “allowing public school teachers to provide classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to children in elementary school (grades 1-5)” Note that this stipulation is actually stricter than the one in the Florida law that aroused such horror in Democratic circles. Voters responded by 43 points (70-27) that they opposed allowing such a practice. Among all working class voters, the margin was an astronomical 58 points (78-20), among rural voters it was 63 points (80-17) and among white working class voters it was an amazing 71 points (84-13).
As David Leonhardt put it in a recent New York Times essay:
It is…unclear whether Democratic politicians and voters are interested in making the compromises that would help them attract more voters. Many Democrats have instead embraced a purer version of liberalism in recent years, especially on social issues. This shift to the left has not prevented the party from winning the popular vote in presidential elections. But it has hurt Democrats outside of major metropolitan areas and, by extension, in the Electoral College and congressional elections.
Just so. Leonhardt also traces this dynamic among Hispanic voters in a new column based on the recently-released Times survey. Leonhardt looked at a subgroup of Hispanics who seemed to be moving right. These were voters “who said they had voted for a mix of Democrats and Republicans in recent elections and said they were planning to vote Republican this year”. Leonhardt found:
More were registered as Democrats than Republicans, despite their voting intentions this year. They were even more heavily skewed to the working class (with about 80 percent not having a bachelor’s degree) and the young (with almost 60 percent under 45) than Hispanic voters as a whole. More than half were men, but the group also included many women.
By a wide margin, people in the subgroup said that the Democratic Party had moved too far left on social issues. By an even wider margin, they said that economic issues like jobs, taxes and the cost of living would influence their 2022 voting more than social issues like guns, abortion and democracy would.
At the root, the Hispanic voters drifting to the right appear to be pocketbook voters, focused more on their daily lives than divisive national debates.
There’s a signal there if Democrats care to receive it. Perhaps their embrace of “a purer version of liberalism…especially on social issues” has not been a particularly good idea. If they ever hope to overcome their structural obstacles to electoral and governance success, there really is no choice but to move to the center on cultural issues. It’s a prerequisite for everything else they want to accomplish.