×
↓ Freedom Centers

Eyes Wide Shut

A Democrat looks at what his party can’t see

By Ruy TeixeiraNational Review

(Roman Genn)


As a lifelong man of the Left who very much wants the Democratic Party to succeed, I regret to report this: The Democrats and the Democratic brand are in deep trouble. That should have been obvious when Democrats underperformed in the 2020 election, turning what they and most observers expected to be a blue wave into more of a ripple. They lost House seats and performed poorly in state legislative elections. And their support among non-white voters, especially Hispanics, declined substan­tially.

Still, they did win the presidency, which led many to miss the clear market signals this underperformance was sending. That tendency was strengthened by the Democrats’ improbable victories in the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, which gave them full control of the federal government, albeit by the very narrowest of margins.

At the same time, Trump’s refusal to concede the election — his bizarre behavior in that regard probably contributed to the GOP defeats in the Georgia runoffs — and his encouragement of rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 led many Democrats to assume that the Republican brand would be so damaged by association that the Democratic brand would shine by comparison. And yet, two years later, the Democrats are in brutal shape.

Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40s, only a little above where Trump’s was at the same point in his presidential term, which of course was the precursor to the GOP’s drubbing in the 2018 election. Biden has been doing especially poorly among working-class and Hispanic voters. His approval ratings on specific issues tend to be lower, in the high 30s on the economy and in the low 30s on hot-button issues such as immigration and crime. Off-year and special elections since 2020 have indicated a strongly pro-Republican electoral environment, and Democrats currently trail Republicans in the generic congressional ballot for 2022. It now seems likely that Democrats will, at minimum, lose control of the House this November and quite possibly suffer a wave election up and down the ballot.

Most Democrats would prefer to believe that the current dismal situation merely reflects some bad luck. The Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus did undercut Biden’s plans for returning the country to normal, interacting with supply-chain difficulties to produce an inflation spike that angered consumers, but that is not the whole picture. 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 several deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to many American voters who might otherwise be the party’s allies. I locate these deficiencies in three key areas: culture, economics, and patriotism.

Culture. The cultural Left has managed to associate the Democratic Party with a series of views — on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, and, of course, race and gender — that are far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural Left but an electoral liability for the Democratic Party. From time to time, Democratic politicians, like Biden in his State of the Union address on March 1, try to dissociate themselves from unpopular ideas such as defunding the police, but the cultural Left within the party is still more deferred to than opposed or ignored. Their voices are amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as by party officials and activists. Increasingly, a party’s national brand defines state and even local electoral contests, and Democratic candidates across the ballot have a very hard time shaking the party’s cultural-Left associations.

To understand this state of affairs, we must understand the trajectory of the American Left in the 21st century. It is now out of touch with its working-class roots and dominated by college-educated professionals, typically younger people in big metropolitan areas and university towns. They fill the ranks of media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, and foundations and are overrepresented in the infrastructure of the Democratic Party. They speak their own language and highlight the issues that most animate their commitments to “social justice.”

Those commitments are increasingly driven by identity politics, which originated in the 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against, and establish equal treatment of, women and racial and sexual minorities. Gradually, the focus has mutated. Advocates now attempt to impose a narrow worldview, emphasizing the need to oppose multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles — the traditional remit of the Left — advocates now police others on the left, including those within the Democratic Party, pressuring them to use an arcane vocabulary for speaking about purportedly oppressed groups and to prohibit logical, evidence-based discourse by which the assertions of those who claim to speak on behalf of minorities and other demographic groups could be evaluated.

Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” mean, and does it explain all the socio­economic problems of non-whites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Is constant specification of personal pronouns necessary and something the Left should seek to popularize? Are trans women the same as biological women? Are those who ask the question simply “haters” who should be expelled from the left coalition? This list could go on. Politically predetermined answers to the questions are simply to be embraced by Democratic progressives, in the interest of “social justice.”

The Democrats have paid a considerable price for their militant identity politics, which lends the impression that the party is distracted by, or even focused on, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to the progressive worldview and speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They are looked down upon by substantial segments — typically younger, well educated, and metropolitan — of the Democratic Party. An emerging rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region is clear.

This rupture was made deeper by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. On the left, the dominant interpretation of white working-class support for Trump was that it reflected racism and xenophobia: As America became more multicultural and multiracial, working-class whites didn’t like their alleged loss of status and privilege. This interpretation was odd, since Democratic progressives had just spent many decades sternly denouncing the American neoliberal economic model, arguing that it was ruining the lives and communities of all working people.

The Trump years further deepened the influence of identity politics on the Democratic Party, particularly in the wake of the nationwide protest movement following the murder of George Floyd. That left its stamp on the 2020 edition of the Democratic Party, notwithstanding their old-school standard-bearer, Joe Biden.

It has also left its stamp on how Democrats have handled difficult cultural issues since the election. They have fallen prey to what I have termed the “Fox News fallacy” — the idea that, if Fox News and the like are criticizing the Democrats on an issue, the criticism must be unsound and the disputed policy should be defended at all costs. That reflex has not served the Democrats well as Biden’s term has evolved.

Start with crime. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown and as vastly exaggerated by conservative media, the rise in violent crime is clear, and voters are highly concerned about it. They include black and Hispanic voters, as indicated by polling data and confirmed by Eric Adams’s base of support in the New York mayoral contest. No wonder more Democratic politicians are running as fast as they can away from any hint of “defund the police,” the slogan that, beloved of the activist Left, was put on the ballot in Minneapolis . . . and soundly defeated, especially by black voters. According to a recent poll from Pew Research, black and Hispanic Democrats are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.

Despite Biden’s assertion in his recent State of the Union address that funding the police is a good idea (followed by his new budget proposal), Democrats still seem far from “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” the felicitous slogan of former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. Fox News may exaggerate, but voters do want law and order — carried out fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats — with some exceptions, including Eric Adams — are still reluctant to emphasize their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals. It is no surprise, then, that Republicans, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, are favored over Democrats on the crime issue by 20 points.

Another example of the Fox News fallacy can be seen in the immigration issue. The Biden administration initially insisted that the surge at the border would subside as the hot-weather season arrived. Most Democrats echoed that line, invoking the idea that the issue was mostly a Fox News talking point.

Not so. It is now apparent that the perceived liberalization of the border regime under the Biden administration did encourage more migrants to try their luck at the border. An astonishing 1.7 million illegal crossings at the southern border were recorded in the 2021 fiscal year, the highest total since at least 1960, when the government first started keeping track. To stem the tide, the administration has scrambled to deploy whatever tools it has at its disposal, including some left over from the Trump administration. That upset immigration advocates, who staged a (virtual) walkout on top Biden officials in late 2021 to protest the policies.

These and other pressures, as well as the desire not to agree with Fox, have led most Democratic politicians to treat the topic of border security gingerly (though Biden in the State of the Union address did at least allude to the need to “secure the border”). As a result, there is no clear Democratic plan for an immigration system that would both permit reasonable levels of legal immigration and provide the border security necessary to stop illegal entry.

Voters have noticed. In the Wall Street Journal poll previously cited, Republicans are favored over Democrats by 26 points on border security. And Biden, as noted earlier, has abysmal approval ratings on the immigration issue, typically in the low 30s.

Democrats would do well to remember that public-opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.

Finally, consider critical race theory, or CRT, a particularly flagrant example of the Fox News fallacy. Democrats refuse to admit that there might be a problem here. Originating in aca­demic legal theory, “critical race theory” has been used as shorthand by the Right, who have made it a catch-all term for the intrusion of race essentialism into teacher training, school curricula, and the like. The standard Democratic comeback to criticism about CRT in the schools is to say that any voters, including parents, who worry about CRT are manipulated by right-wing media into opposing proper teaching about the history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and so on.

Voters’ worries about CRT cannot be bludgeoned away so easily. Parents are far more worried that their child is taught — no matter the name of the theory — to see everything through a racial lens than they are concerned that she is learning about historical instances and practices of racism.

This issue has become caught up in general dissatisfaction with how Democrats have handled schooling issues during the pandemic. In Virginia, voters 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 instruction in traditional academic subjects.

“Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools,” according to the Democratic firm ALG Research, in a memo on focus groups with Biden–Youngkin voters in suburban Virginia:

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, [but] 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.

Again, these issues cannot be waved away simply by dismissing complaining parents as racists or dupes of Fox News. This is particularly the case for Asian parents. It would be difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key to upward mobility — a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats are seen to be anti-meritocratic and opposed to standardized tests, test-in elite schools, and programs for the gifted and talented — areas where Asian children have excelled.

Because of its record on these and other cultural issues, the party’s — or, at least, Biden’s — attempt to rebrand Democrats as unifying, speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class, has so far failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high-quality nonideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.

The Democrats find themselves weighed down by those whose tendency is to emphasize the identity-politics angle of virtually every issue. Decisive action that might lead to a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism (Biden is getting some of this right now) or simply never proposed.

Nevertheless, Biden and the Democrats must persist in their efforts to rebrand. The alternative would be to cede to Republicans a culture-war advantage that would mean not just probable defeat in 2022 but the continued failure of Democratic efforts to forge a clear majority coalition for years to come.

One obvious issue on which to rebrand is crime. Democrats should build on Biden’s recent, tentative steps in this direction.

Consider that Democrats are associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seem quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as major cities suffer a spike in murder, carjackings, and other violent crimes. This is twinned to a climate, of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes, that is degrading the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control.

This has got to stop. Weakness on crime not only damages the Democrats’ brand but harms some of their most vulnerable constituents.

“It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” London Breed, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, said in December. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullsh** that has destroyed our city.”

Strong words. But Breed — and Adams — are on to something. Normie voters hate crime and want something done about it. They’re not impressed by talk about the availability of guns when it fails to include talk about enforcing the law against criminals who use the guns.

Biden (or some other leading Democrat) could say something like this, as recommended by the excellent Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark: “We must continue the fight for social justice, but it should not come at the price of public safety. In some of our biggest cities we have folks who think that we shouldn’t put criminals in jail or downplay the dangers of violent crime. They are wrong. We have to protect our families and our neighborhoods.”

And then name some names. Maybe it’s not time for a “Sister Souljah moment.” But how about a Chesa Boudin moment? I bet London Breed would have your back. 

Economics. 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. Voters, however, are foggy about what those legislative accomplishments consist of and are not sure the economy has landed in a better place yet.

Neither are they 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 preoccupied with social issues. Parties face an opportunity cost when allocating their limited attention and resources; Democrats have not had an obvious and unifying laser-like focus on economic growth and the creation of good jobs.

To the extent that 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 result in strong growth and an abundance of good jobs, someday. But the story is muddled. It’s not getting through.

A standard Democratic take on that problem is that their economic ideas and accomplishments are great but haven’t been properly communicated. I think the problem runs far deeper. Consider the debacle around the Build Back Better bill.

That was the multitrillion-dollar bill that Democrats were, until recently, trying to maneuver through Congress. Dem­ocrats talked about the care economy, a Green New Deal, and other big ideas associated with Build Back Better, but what they added up to was not clear. Would the bill have created a more dynamic American capitalism, one capable of lifting up broad segments of the country that had been left behind? Build Back Better appeared to be a means of funneling money to a wide variety of Democratic priorities. Some of the spending would have supported useful expansions of the notably stingy American welfare system, and some of it would have supported useful public investments not provided for in the infrastructure bill, particularly in clean energy.

None of that, though, would have led to more productivity, higher growth, and an American economy less unequal across regions.

It is a mistake to lose sight of the need for faster growth. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time, and Democrats presumably stand for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes the achievement of Democrats’ other goals easier. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most people, they see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward generosity, tolerance, and collective advancement.

Yet much of the Democratic Left still regards with suspicion the goal of more and faster economic growth, preferring to focus on the unfairness of the current distribution of wealth. This reflects not just a laudable concern to reduce inequality but also a feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, causing the climate crisis. The latter view has, on the left, led to the vogue for the idea of “degrowth.”

Given such views, it is not surprising that growth does not rank high on the Democratic Left’s list of economic objectives. We saw that in the endless debate around Build Back Better, which was driven by the House’s Progressive Caucus. Almost none of the debate was about how well the bill, at whatever level of funding and with whatever programmatic commitments, would promote growth. That was dismissed as something only conservatives would care about.

Closely related to Democrats’ relative indifference to economic growth is their lack of optimism that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. More common is fear that a dystopian future might await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in them. From smartphones, flat-screen TVs, and the Internet to air and auto travel to central heating and air-conditioning to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. “The good old days were old but not good,” as the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it.

Doesn’t the Left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. They show more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. They rarely discuss the idea of abundance, except to disparage it.

These attitudes help explain why the Democratic Left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competitiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate, and the closely related America COMPETES Act through the House (the two bills have yet to be reconciled into one), but they would provide far less funding and probably have far less impact on scientific innovation than the originally proposed bill, the Endless Frontier Act. Nobody on the left seems to be particularly exercised about this step down — or even to be in much of a hurry to reconcile the two current bills.

If there is to be an abundant clean-energy future, not a degrowth one, it will depend on our ability to develop energy technologies beyond wind and solar. The same could be said about a wide range of other technological challenges that could underpin a future of abundance: AI and machine learning, CRISPR and mRNA biotechnology, advanced robotics and the Internet of things.

That’s why it’s inadequate for Democrats to focus narrowly on a clean-energy, Green New Deal–type future. Make no mistake: What Americans want is an abundant future, not just a green one. For better or worse, combating climate change does not rank high on voters’ priority list (14th in a recent Pew Research poll). Investment in clean-energy technologies needs to be embedded in a broader “abundance agenda” (to use Derek Thompson’s phrase) that drives up the supply of innovation and can deliver not just the avoidance of disaster but a better life for all.

Patriotism. Today’s Democrats have difficulty embracing patriotism and weaving it into their political brand. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” Bill Clinton said not so long ago. Even more recently, when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, he said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

For his part, Joe Biden does try to inject a little of that old-time patriotism into his remarks from time to time. It’s not really taking, though. A big part of his party is singing a different tune, loudly. “The version of ‘history’ that progressives want to teach young people,” the liberal commentator Noah Smith observes, is in general

a cartoonish story in which America is the villain — a nation formed from racism, founded the day the first slave stepped onto our shores, dedicated thereafter to the repression and brutalization of people of color. This “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.

Consistent with that analysis, the think tank More in Common identified a group they termed “progressive ac­tivists,” who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic Party) and “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today.” On the whole, they were “more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.”

These progressive activists’ attitude toward their own country departed not just from that of average Americans but from that of average non-white Americans. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans were highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. Progressive activists were loath to express such sentiments.

This is a problem. One of the only effective ways to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed, much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. Yet many in the Democratic Party blanch at any hint of nationalism — one reason so many are leery of patriotism — because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet, as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well, in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than only their immediate interests.

Given all that Democrats hope to accomplish, it makes no sense not to appeal to Americans’ patriotism and love of country. That too has to be part of Democrats’ rebranding. They must insist that their party is a patriotic party, and they should not shrink from emphasizing the competitive aspect of patriotism. America is indeed in competition with other nations, notably China, and it is not xenophobic to say that America is a great nation that can win that competition.

ADemocratic Party that does not rebrand in these three crucial areas dooms American politics to continued stalemate and polarization — an unpleasant prospect. Conversely, given the serious problems and weaknesses of Republicans, a Democratic Party that occupies the cultural center ground, promotes an abundance agenda, and is unabashedly patriotic has a real shot at a long future of political success.


WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com