How Cultural Leftism Is Crippling the Democratic Party

What Needs to Change and Why

The good news is that the Democrats control all three branches of the federal government and appear competent enough to successfully contain the covid pandemic and unified enough to do the legislative necessary to get the economy running on all cylinders, possibly moving into outright boom territory. That’ll be great for the country and should be good for the Democrats as the party presiding over the country’s turnaround.

The bad news is that the Democrats still face a daunting situation, even if these developments pan out. Despite running against an historically unpopular President embroiled in twin health and economic crises, Biden’s victory was much narrower than expected, accompanied by a reduced majority in the House, poor Senate results that were only redeemed by the Georgia runoffs and losses in state legislative elections when Democrats desperately needed gains to protect themselves in the redistricting process.

Moreover, with control of both the House and the Senate are on a razor’s edge, they will shortly confront the administration’s first midterm elections which are typically very tough for the incumbent President’s party. Even with the goodwill generated be a successful first two years, 2022 will be a daunting challenge.

This underscores the necessity of understanding how the Democrats fell short in 2020 and what can be done to maximize Democratic votes in the future. They simply can’t afford underperformance if they hope to hold power and continue to move the country in a progressive direction.

With data from voter files starting to come in and precinct returns having been ever more elaborately analyzed, the contours of Democratic underperformance and its probable causes are starting to emerge. The findings make clear that Democratic chances are undercut by cultural leftism but can be at least partially remedied by moving to the center on cultural issues and emphasizing economic issues that have broad appeal across working class constituencies. The best analysis comes from David Shor, as retailed in a recent interview on The New York Magazine site. The data he alludes to are consistent with other data I have read about or encountered since the election.

Item: Democrats suffered catastrophic losses among Hispanic voters.

Shor: Hispanic support dropped by 8 to 9 percent [by this Shor means that the Democrats’ share of the 2-party vote declined by 8 or 9 points, meaning the margin shift against the Democrats was 16-18 points]….. [T]he decline in Hispanic support for Democrats…was pretty broad. This isn’t just about Cubans in South Florida. It happened in New York and California and Arizona and Texas. Really, we saw large drops all over the country….. Roughly one in ten Hispanic voters switched their vote from Clinton to Trump.

Item: Democrats activated conservative ideology among nonwhite voters, leading to shifts against them among these voters.

Shor: Roughly the same proportion of African American, Hispanic, and white voters identify as conservative. But white voters are polarized on ideology, while nonwhite voters haven’t been…. [W]e found…that [nonwhite] Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was…. In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined…. We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

Item: Talking more about immigration will not fix the problem with Hispanic voters.

Shor: [T]he extent to which Hispanic voters have liberal views on immigration is exaggerated. If you look at, for example, decriminalizing border crossings, that’s not something that a majority of Hispanic voters support. Pew’s done a lot of polling on immigration reform, and if you ask things like, “Should we deport the undocumented population, should we give them a path to permanent residency, or should we give them a path to citizenship?” citizenship only gets a little over 50 percent support among Hispanic voters. So I think liberals really essentialize Hispanic voters and project views about immigration onto them that the data just doesn’t support….. In test after test that we’ve done with Hispanic voters, talking about immigration commonly sparks backlash: Asking voters whether they lean toward Biden and Trump, and then emphasizing the Democratic position on immigration, often caused Biden’s share of support among Latino respondents to decline.

Item: The rising influence of college-educated white liberals is responsible for the rise in cultural leftism among Democrats and that is hurting the party.

Shor:  [W]hite liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party. There’s a narrative on the left that the Democrats’ growing reliance on college-educated whites is pulling the party to the right … But I think that’s wrong. Highly educated people tend to have more ideologically coherent and extreme views than working-class ones. We see this in issue polling and ideological self-identification. College-educated voters are way less likely to identify as moderate. So as Democrats have traded non-college-educated voters for college-educated ones, white liberals’ share of voice and clout in the Democratic Party has gone up. And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of “racial resentment.” So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us…. [I]f you look at…concrete questions, white liberals are to the left of Hispanic Democrats, but also of Black Democrats, on defunding the police and [on]….ideological questions about the source of racial inequity…. Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives don’t actually buy into a lot of …. intellectual theories of racism. They often have a very different conception of how to help the Black or Hispanic community than liberals do. And I don’t think we can buy our way out of this trade-off. Most voters are not liberals. If we polarize the electorate on ideology — or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology — we’re going to lose a lot of votes.

Item: To maximize votes, Democrats should de-emphasize polarizing cultural issues and emphasize non-polarizing economic issues.

Shor: [T]here is….a large universe of policy questions — mostly economic but not exclusively — where a large majority of the public agrees with us. A $15 minimum wage polls above 60 percent; that couldn’t happen without a lot of “moderates” and “conservatives” supporting the policy. What I take from that is: Ideological polarization is a dead end. If we divide the electorate on self-described ideology, we lose — both because there are more conservatives than liberals and because conservatives are structurally overrepresented in the House, Senate, and Electoral College. So the way we get around that is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.

The strategic recipe here is a simple one. However, it goes against the grain of how the Democratic party has recently evolved so putting this strategy into practice with be difficult. But faced with the sting of electoral necessity, we must hope the party is capable of evolving in a different, vote-maximizing direction. That will require setting aside ideology and putting electoral success first and foremost.