We’re going to have to take a deep dive into the following analysis by Brendan Nyhan of the New York Times because if we allow the debate on the left to get bogged down in an either/or dispute on these terms, it’s a recipe for disaster.
In the choices that he makes, Mr. Trump may play down conflict over the size and scope of government and shift the political debate toward questions of national identity, immigration and culture…
…Mr. Trump’s success is likely to provoke a response from Democrats that could accelerate this shift. They face an outraged liberal base that is likely to reject conciliatory messages intended to win back votes among the white working class.
The party might instead double down on cosmopolitan appeals to the minority voters and college-educated white voters who were the main target of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The strategy failed in 2016, but the incentive to try again is clear. Democrats came closer to winning several Sun Belt states where minority and college-educated white populations are growing, like Arizona and Georgia, than they did some traditional Midwest strongholds with higher numbers of noncollege whites, like Ohio and Iowa.
A focus on cosmopolitanism might make electoral sense for Democrats given the changing demographics of the country, but it could further weaken their appeal to whites without college degrees, dividing the electorate by race and class even more.
Since the election, I’ve identified the left’s electoral problem as primarily rural in nature. By this I mean two things that you may not expect. First, I don’t define the “problem” as exclusively or even primarily an Electoral College problem. It’s a problem that makes it nearly impossible to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives or of an unacceptably large percentage of the state legislatures in the country. Second, I do not mean that the Democrats can or should expect to win in rural areas, or that that they should craft their programs and messaging to appeal to rural voters in any kind of preferential way or in a way that “sells-out” or diminishes their own true base.
Before anything else, the political costs of losing the rural vote need to be understood. I’ve gone over the presidential election results several times already, but the short version is that Clinton did not suffer from underperformance (compared to Obama in 2012) in the cities of her targeted states and that she over performed in terms of both support and turnout in many suburbs (including my own Philly suburbs). She lost because she was slaughtered in rural counties that gave about 70% of their votes to Romney and gave about 80% of their votes to Trump.
On the one hand, we’re only talking about a relatively modest shift (although in some counties the shift was very large and pronounced). But, on the other hand, the results speak for themselves. The threat to the left is that these rural counties will begin to vote in a habitual way based on the consensus view that the Democratic Party is anti-white and the GOP is pro-white. I called this the Southification of the North and it’s something that can, regrettably, be considered the true accomplishment of the Trump campaign and movement.
This is something I warned about in 2013, long before Trump announced he was running for president.
The only hope for a racial-polarization strategy is to get the races to segregate their votes much more thoroughly, and that requires that more and more whites come to conclude that the Democratic Party is the party for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.
That is, indeed, how the party is perceived in the Deep South, but it would be criminal to expand those racial attitudes to the country at large.
The Republicans are coalescing around a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.
This is what Trump attempted and it is what explains his election.
Now, what Brendan Nyhan is warning us about is that we may inadvertently reinforce this strategy, solidify it, and make it permanent by “doubl[ling] down on cosmopolitan appeals to the minority voters and college-educated white voters” and making rhetorical war on rural voters, their values, and their decision to embrace Trumpism.
And, it’s true. If the left’s response has the effect of turning these rural counties into solid red bastions of anti-Democratic Party sentiment where the party cannot get more than 20% of the vote, then that will be a dream come true for the right. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, the suburbs will probably turn against Trump’s administration with real fury, making the state blue again in 2020. But that won’t make it possible for the Democrats to win control of the state legislature in 2020 or at any time in the foreseeable future. It will also limit how many congressional seats are competitive, making a takeover of the U.S. House of Representative a much steeper climb. And the same phenomenon will take place throughout the midwest.
This was already a problem that had arisen during the Obama administration, but there’s a big enough difference between the 2012 and 2016 results to turn a problem into a crisis.
Now, the difficulty arises when you go from identifying the threat to attempting to craft a response to it. It’s too easy to see the solution as some form of “making nice” with racism or in making some kind of accommodation to misogyny and homophobia. People try to define this as a choice between pursuing the “culture wars” vs. abandoning that in favor of economic populism.
That cannot be the choice for both reasons of principle and common sense. Any strategy that doesn’t account for human nature is bound to fail. When a political movement, elected with a minority of the popular vote, pursues policies that aggressively attack the civil rights of your base, your base has the right to expect you to fight back with everything you have. This isn’t an option if you want to be a successful and cohesive political organization.
So, how do you do this without solidifying the rural counties against the Democratic Party?
It’s particularly challenging because the right’s entire strategy will be to make this change permanent. Trump’s reelection completely depends on it. In fact, because his suburban support will almost surely erode, he’ll need these rural counties to go to 85% or 90% support.
The answer to this conundrum lies first in understanding what your political opponents need to do and in not making their job easier. That will require discipline because they want to bait you into reacting in a way that alienates their core supporters. But it also requires a really aggressive effort to explain to these voters that your party doesn’t consider them the enemy and wants their votes. They will never give the left a majority of their votes, or anything close to a majority. But that’s not what is required. Winning 30% was enough to get President Obama reelected. Winning 35% would begin to put state legislatures back in play.
Now, there are a lot of ways in which the Democrats can go about competing better in these counties, and I welcome all suggestions. Since a lot of this is more about identity politics than policy, candidate recruitment is an important factor. Policy cannot be ignored, however, and these communities have real concerns that the Democrats can take the lead on addressing. One obvious area is tackling the opioid epidemic. Another is the one I have been focusing on which is using anti-trust law to bring back small business ownership in rural America. This should be coupled with a set of policies aimed at empowering people to learn the skills and get access to the capital to start small businesses. The promise isn’t to bring back the factories but to bring back the Mom and Pop hardware stores and banks and pharmacies. These are businesses that cannot be outsourced and that used to be privately owned instead of franchised.
Perhaps the national Democratic Party will be somewhat divided on these issues, but nothing prevents populist Democrats from running on this set of policies in rural communities all over the country.
Either way, the party needs to invest in outreach and not let any of these communities drift into near-universal Republicanism without a fight.
Now, as I’ve said, a strategy that doesn’t account for human nature will fail, and the left is going to allow itself to be baited because most people (of all persuasions) take the bait. That’s why this strategy relies on leadership. The people who serve as the face of the Democratic Party need to avoid the temptation to get easy approval when that is the exact trap that is being laid for them.
They have to learn to fight with one hand and turn the other cheek with the other. The key here is to offer respect even when no respect is offered and when little seems warranted. The more rank-and-file Democrats that realize this the better, but most of them won’t, and that’s okay. That’s human nature. The leaders, however, have to get this balance right, and they need to devote adequate resources to the problem.