Internal Struggles: Democrats Urged to Distance Themselves from the Activist Left

This piece is a segment of The D.C. Brief, TIME's political newsletter. To receive similar stories directly in your inbox, sign up here.

In recent election cycles, Democrats have faced criticism for taking their supporters for granted, particularly working-class voters who felt the party prioritized woke language and performative gestures over addressing their concerns. The assumption that a coalition of younger, progressive activists would compensate for the party's perceived neglect of its traditional base has faced challenges. Simultaneously, communities of color were often viewed as steadfast Democratic supporters. The consequences of what could be termed a carbon-neutral iteration of limousine liberalism have not been favorable for the party.

A new book by political historians John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, titled "Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes," argues that this elitism has made the Democratic Party more susceptible to entering an extremist spiral akin to the one seen in the Republican Party. The authors contend that the Democrats' overconfidence in their trajectory towards long-term dominance, rooted in condescension toward white working-class voters, poses a significant risk. The age-old adage "It's the economy, stupid" encapsulates the authors' key takeaway, emphasizing the paramount importance of economic considerations in shaping political dynamics.

This analysis, based on insights from two historians who foresaw the rise of the coalition that propelled Barack Obama to power two decades ago, raises crucial questions about the Democratic Party's current trajectory and its potential vulnerability to extremism.

In a nuanced exploration, the eloquently written book advocates a return to New Deal populism that prioritizes opportunity over identity politics and inclusion over tribalism. Coinciding with the 15th anniversary of Barack Obama's historic victory and amid liberal concerns about Joe Biden's re-election prospects, the book delves into the challenges that have left the once-ascendant Democratic majority seemingly adrift.

Its insights are particularly relevant for Democratic campaign managers facing the current political landscape. While the book's warnings may echo the prophetic framework of Judis and Teixeira in predicting Obama's rise, they offer well-considered and clear-eyed analyses of the present-day Democratic Party.

The authors address the central question, "Where have the Democrats gone?" by highlighting the party's shift from its roots in the working class to a configuration resembling an hourglass. The Democratic Party now encompasses upscale voters, upper-middle-class professionals, and less affluent voters, including many minorities. However, what is notably absent is the historical core of the party – blue-collar workers, predominantly white, from the Midwest and the South.

The book contends that Democrats historically thrived when perceived as the party of the common person, but this identity has eroded over the past half-century. The economic gap between working-class and college-educated individuals, coupled with the decline of the labor movement, has contributed to a shift in Democratic policies influenced by interest groups, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. The authors also trace the evolution of cultural radicalism, marked by a departure from campus activism into mainstream political discourse, shaping discussions around race, gender, crime, and immigration.

When asked about a potential breaking point for the Democratic Party, the authors highlight the historical context of these shifts, shedding light on critical junctures that have reshaped the party's identity and priorities.

John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira delve into the Democratic Party's historical shifts, pinpointing key moments that shaped its trajectory. The first seismic change occurred in the '60s after Civil Rights, marked by the Nixon election where George Wallace voters, many of whom were Democrats, migrated to the Republicans. This transformation extended beyond issues of segregation, encompassing the counterculture, patriotism, and contentious topics like acid, amnesty, and abortion. The Democrats faced setbacks in the 1970s during Jimmy Carter's presidency, unable to control inflation and unemployment, eroding their reputation as economic stewards.

Teixeira highlights Gallup data indicating a decline in the perception that Democrats could ensure prosperity, particularly among working-class individuals. The '90s saw Bill Clinton's strategic adaptation as a New Democrat, blending neoliberal economics, free trade, immigration, financial deregulation, and moderation on social issues. The ensuing success in the 1990s faltered in the 2000s amid de-industrialization, job losses to China and Mexico, leading to another backlash against Democrats.

Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012, influenced by factors like the Iraq War, Katrina, and the Great Recession, didn't address underlying issues. Obama's hesitation to increase deficits and the perceived drawbacks of Obamacare contributed to the Democrats' drubbing in 2010. Despite a resurgence in 2012, Democrats became overconfident, adopting a simplistic view of an emerging Democratic majority that disregarded the importance of regaining working-class votes. The analysis by Judis and Teixeira offers a historical lens through which to understand the complex evolution of the Democratic Party.

The electoral landscape undergoes a seismic shift with the arrival of Donald Trump, who taps into the grievances of working-class voters by promising to build a wall and tackle illegal immigration. The subsequent support he garners from these voters leads to victories in traditionally Democratic states in the Midwest. Despite concurrent gains among college-educated voters, the Democrats' inability to stem the loss of working-class support becomes evident in the elections of 2010, 2014, and culminating in Trump's triumph in 2016.

The pivotal moment in 2016 signifies a turning point, as Democrats experience a brutal hemorrhaging of white working-class voters, particularly in the Midwest where this demographic had previously shown resilience. The Democratic Party's response to this defeat revolves around attributing it to the perceived racism and xenophobia of the white working class. This interpretation prompts a shift in strategy, with a doubling down on courting the rising American electorate, while dismissing the white working class as reactionary and unworthy of pursuit.

The authors, Judis and Teixeira, highlight a crucial failure in the Democratic Party's post-2016 analysis. Rather than deeply examining the reasons behind the loss of white working-class voters, the focus shifts towards condemning neoliberalism and emphasizing class disparities. The oversight leads to a neglect of the cultural nuances and grievances that played a pivotal role in shaping political preferences in small and mid-sized towns, particularly those adversely affected by de-industrialization.

Interviews and polling reveal that a significant issue for these voters was perceived political correctness, encapsulating the cultural divisions between communities affected by industrial decline and those thriving in metropolitan centers driven by high-tech, finance, education, and advanced healthcare. The book thus underscores the importance of understanding the multifaceted factors that influence voter preferences, moving beyond economic considerations to address the cultural and identity-based dimensions of political allegiance.

Residents of small and mid-sized towns in America, who have rooted themselves there for generations, find their expectations disrupted as traditional jobs vanish, leading to a reliance on concepts of family, nation, religion, faith, and guns as protectors of their homes. This clash of identities creates a complex landscape that influences political preferences.

In the aftermath of the 2018 elections, where moderate Democratic candidates performed well by focusing on economic and healthcare issues, the party's interpretation of the results becomes skewed. The success of more progressive candidates like AOC is misinterpreted as a sign of the rising American electorate taking control, overlooking the fact that these candidates won in already Democratic-leaning districts.

The run-up to the 2020 presidential nomination witnessed Democratic candidates attempting to out-left each other to appeal to the perceived rising electorate. However, Joe Biden ultimately secured the nomination by presenting a more moderate and sensible platform, particularly resonating with Black voters. This highlighted a misinterpretation of what minority voters truly prioritize.

A critical turning point in 2020 was the increasing defection of non-white working-class voters from the Democratic Party. While the party had been relatively unconcerned about losing working-class voters, assuming they were predominantly white and on the "wrong side of history," the significant swing among Hispanic working-class voters in 2020 posed a serious challenge to the demographics-as-destiny strategy.

The Democrats now grapple with the realization that weaknesses among non-white voters, especially Hispanic and Black working-class voters, are substantial. Balancing this concern with the party's commitment to cultural issues and pressure from the loyal base of college-educated "liberalish" voters proves to be a challenging dilemma. The Democratic Party faces the task of reconciling these complexities to forge a path forward.

Donald Trump demonstrated an unparalleled political intuition that resonated with a significant segment of the electorate, particularly those in small and mid-sized towns. Despite his lack of intellectual depth or policy expertise, Trump's ability to coin catchy and emotionally resonant slogans, such as "Crooked Hillary" and "DeSanctimonious," tapped into the grievances of many voters.

The term "liberalish" highlights a performative aspect among liberals, where there's a perceived script for expressing liberal values. As the Democratic Party increasingly relies on college-educated voters and as this demographic assumes leadership roles within the party, the language and attitudes of a certain subset of liberals dominate the public discourse. This has led to an alienation of the Democratic Party from working-class individuals, irrespective of their race, who do not identify with the performative aspects of liberalism.

The conversation touches on whether liberals have lost the ability to accurately interpret polling data. The authors argue that there is a selective reading of poll data, where Democrats approach the numbers with preconceived notions of what the party should stand for, rather than genuinely seeking to understand the perspectives of voters. This approach, they suggest, hinders a comprehensive understanding of the electorate and may contribute to the Democratic Party's disconnect from a broader range of voters.

Judis suggests that many politicians are aware of the polling data but feel constrained by the influence of what the authors term the "Shadow Party" – encompassing major foundations, news media, websites, and advocacy groups. The pressure to align with activist groups and donors often leads politicians to make statements that may seem extreme or irresponsible.

When discussing the impact of the current discourse on the Middle East on the Democratic Party, Judis predicts that Ukraine might overshadow Middle East issues in a year. He notes internal divisions within the party, particularly between the AIPAC wing and another split into J Street and campus groups. The authors highlight the potential for increased opposition within the party against the intersectionality that has permeated Democratic discourse, where various issues, from Free Palestine to climate justice and criminal justice reform, are bundled together.

Teixeira points out a growing discomfort among Democrats with the intersectional approach, where everything is framed in terms of equity and decolonization. This discomfort could lead to pushback against more extreme elements of the progressive left, potentially contributing to a constructive separation from certain aspects of the intersectional left.

As for the future of the Democratic Party, the authors pose the question of where Democrats go from here. The answer remains an open and complex challenge, given the party's internal divisions and the evolving dynamics of American politics.

Judis emphasizes that the trajectory of American politics must be considered, highlighting the peculiar interdependence of the two major parties. Each party harbors extreme wings that, when made more salient, can be detrimental to their electoral success. The key to victory lies in framing the opposing party's extremes as more objectionable to the American public. He illustrates this with examples from the 2022 elections, where Democrats succeeded in areas where Republicans were perceived as the party of "Stop the Steal" and anti-abortion measures. Conversely, Democrats faced setbacks in areas where they were seen as the party of "Defund the Police" and lax immigration policies.

Teixeira suggests that both parties could benefit from moving toward the center on contentious issues. However, he acknowledges the absence of a current impetus for such a shift and doesn't anticipate a centrist move manifesting itself in the 2024 elections. The conversation concludes, noting the ongoing state of an unstable equilibrium between the two parties.

In conclusion, the discussion with John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira sheds light on the complex dynamics within the Democratic Party and American politics at large. The authors emphasize the challenges posed by extreme wings within both major parties and the importance of framing the opposition's extremes as less palatable to secure electoral victories. They advocate for a potential benefit in moving towards the center on divisive issues, yet acknowledge the current absence of a strong impetus for such a shift. The conversation highlights the ongoing culture war between the parties, creating an unstable equilibrium that will likely shape the trajectory of American politics in the foreseeable future.