In the past few decades, the Democratic Party has undergone a seismic shift. Kitchen-table issues like the economy and public safety have been overshadowed by more elitist topics like identity politics, gender ideology, defunding the police, climate change, and the vaguely defined yet rigidly enforced ideology of anti-racism, which sees white supremacy as the force behind every institution in America.
But while activists, lobbyists, and pundits were busy reshaping the Democratic Party, ordinary voters—including the working class, middle-class families, and ethnic minorities—were simply leaving. All of which has stranded a large group of Americans on an island, voters in the center of nowhere.
Two people who have spent years thinking about how the Democratic Party lost its vision are political analysts John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Their new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, offers up a map to help us understand how liberals lost their way.
On today’s episode of Honestly, guest-hosted by Michael Moynihan, Judis and Teixeira trace the influence of big money forces behind what they call the Democrats’ “shadow party,” and offer a path forward away from the radical cultural issues embraced by party elites and back to core economic issues that matter to the working class, a group that Democrats need to win back if they want to win in 2024.
Read an edited excerpt from their conversation below or click here to listen to the whole thing.
On the trajectory of the Democratic party over the last 20 years:
Michael Moynihan: Before you wrote your new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, you wrote another book together called The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002 about a new wave of Democratic voters that was emerging in America. How does it look 20 years later?
John Judis: In the late 1990s, Ruy discovered that the white working class was disappearing from the Democratic ranks and I discovered that this new group—the professionals—was coming in. And we constructed what we thought was a plausible scenario for the Democrats having an advantage over the next decade or two, and it would consist of professionals, nurses, teachers, people with college degrees, particularly single women, minorities, and young people. And when Obama won in 2008, it was hallelujah—we were prophets and we figured it all out! But then two years later, in 2010, the Democrats lost big. They lost the House, and we started figuring out that something was the matter. After the 2016 election, it became clear that the Democrats had lost out on its central issue: the economy. And it also had all this extra baggage, which Trump summed up in the idea of “political correctness.”
Ruy Teixeira: We never downplayed the importance of the white working class. In fact, it was very clear that in a lot of key states, there would be no way for the Democrats to sustain what we called at the time “the progressive centrist coalition,” unless they were able to retain the loyalty of these voters. In 2016, with Trump’s victory built on the backs of white working-class voters in the Midwest especially, it was very clear that the Democrats were not able to maintain the kind of share of the white working-class vote they needed to make the political arithmetic of a changing America work out in their favor. But as we saw after 2016, Democrats summarized their loss as being about the reactionary parts of America—the racist, the xenophobes, the left-behinds—and it didn’t seem to have much to do, in their view, with questions of economics. It was all about how they’re not “down” with the multicultural, multiracial America that’s coming into being, and that’s all there is to it. So, they thought, why even bother with these people? They’re “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton famously put it.
JJ: I used to always hear Democrats saying, “The election was all just Trump’s racist appeals,” but I actually went to the rallies in 2015. He would talk about bad trade deals. He promised to bring back Glass-Steagall, which is the bill regulating finance. He talked about health insurance. He was going to do a plan that actually would cover all Americans and wasn’t going to be like a rat’s maze. And if you compare the ads, his ads were overwhelmingly more policy-oriented than Clinton’s. She was really just attacking him as a bad guy and it didn’t work.
MM: So, you didn’t anticipate that the party that said, “We are the party of Paul Ryan, we’re the party of tax cuts, we’re the party of Milton Friedman,” would actually start to sound more liberal on economic policy?
RT: Yeah, and that’s another way in which Trump was misunderstood. He got the nomination because the Republican Party itself was changing and was becoming more of a working-class party driven by these kinds of voters. They didn’t want to hear the Paul Ryan message over and over again. They didn’t want to hear just about tax cuts. They didn’t want to just hear, “We unleash the free market, everything will be great. Trust us on this.” They were mad, and they thought the elites of the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party were selling them out. So Trump’s message fell on receptive ears, and that shock to the Republican Party system is still with us today, because I don’t think there’s any turning back to the former economic approach of the Republicans. Trump is the guy who changed the landscape. This gets away from looking at him as just an avatar of white supremacy or whatever it is he is frequently portrayed as by some Democrats.
On the non-white working class:
MM: In 2021, I went down to Starr County, Texas, which I believe is the most Hispanic county in America. They went about 40 points for Hillary Clinton, but they went for Joe Biden by about 3 or 4 points. These voters are Mexican Americans who have been in America for a very long time. They supported Trump on immigration. They were very concerned about culture war issues that they thought the Democrats had gone too far on. Is that ultimately the failing of this type of identity politics that lumps a very disparate group of people together and says, “Well, they’re Latino,” and not acknowledging that there’s variations in that?
JJ: All that stuff is goofy. I mean, Puerto Ricans vote differently than Cubans, who vote differently than Latinos in Texas. So, yes, but it is also a fact that except for the Cubans, minority voters are pretty much Democratic on economic issues. The Democrats have started to lose them more recently and it’s partly over economics, but it’s also over culture issues and over immigration and abortion.
RT: It should have really shocked Democrats more than it did in 2020 when Hispanic working-class voters bailed out en masse from the Democratic Party. Democrats can’t any longer count on working-class voters of any color to be stable in their levels of support.
The Democrats also made a serious error in melding Hispanics into this construct of “people of color” in the United States who are all oppressed by the fact they are non-whites in a white supremacist society; who are all the victims of racism and discrimination; who all believe in a very liberal immigration policy. None of those things were correct. Hispanics think of themselves as Americans. They think of themselves as people who want to pursue economic uplift for themselves, their families, their communities. They want healthcare. They want safe streets. They want a normal, good, prosperous American life. And they’re not so sure the Democrats really have their backs on economics.
If you look at the data from what people think about how they fared under Trump as opposed to how they fared under Biden so far, Hispanics give very solid margins to Trump, and that has something to do with the lack of inflation when he was in office. Wages were going up. Things were stable. Then there is the whole issue of the lockdown, which really did not sit well with a lot of Hispanic voters who felt we were locked down for too long. Immigration is another example. I listened to a focus group of swing Hispanic voters recently, and it was extraordinary how negative and outraged they were on the immigration situation. This just gets back to the white, educated, liberal part of the Democratic voter base that thinks what they believe about the world must be what other elements of their base constituencies think.
Has the party changed, or have the constituents changed?
MM: You say there’s no one single factor that has driven working-class voters from the Democratic Party. You compile this long list of possible reasons: Democrats’ enthusiasm for immigration of unskilled workers, the support for abortion rights, support for strict gun control, support for and identification with the quest for new identities and lifestyles, particularly among the young, Democrats’ insistence on eliminating fossil fuels, and many others. Aren’t these people you’re describing just lost to the Republican Party at this point because they’re too conservative for the Democratic Party?
JJ: I think the electorate is much mushier than the political scientists make out. If you look at Gallup’s polling on party identification, the number of independents has just been rising to the stratosphere in the last ten years. There’s a huge number of discontented voters and a lot of those are working-class voters. So, those voters are up for grabs. The Democrats’ main problem may be geographic. I don’t think the Democrats are ever going to win West Virginia back, as long as climate change is an issue. But bringing industry to Ohio, for example, if the UAW starts to organize some of these non-union foreign firms like Honda that have plants there, then I think you could see a lot of movement in certain parts of the Midwest. The other factor is suburbanites, women. So I think that the Democrats, in that sense, have a chance to win a lot of these people back.
RT: I don’t think the cultural barriers are as big as people think for the Democrats being able to win back over some of these voters. Most people are culturally moderate. They’re not super conservative.
MM: So how do you marginalize the cultural extremists in the party?
RT: Well, how did the Sister Souljah thing work for Bill Clinton? He drew a line. He named names. I think this is something Democrats are very reluctant to do. When Biden, in his State of the Union address, said, “Fund the police, fund the police, fund the police,” that was fine, except he didn’t point out any of the places in the Democratic Party where people aren’t doing that. He didn’t say, “I disapprove of that. That’s not what Democrats are about.” Democrats need not just to make gestures toward the center. They have to really mean it and they have to emphasize it and actually make it part of their brand, their persona, their offer to voters. That’s what Biden and Democrats, by and large, have not been willing to do. So if you want to disidentify the Democrats with cultural radicalism, you have to do it aggressively. The progressive left is a paper tiger. They’re threatening that if you move to the center on any of these issues, that gazillions of young people who are controlled by liberal organizations, or listen to them, won’t turn out or won’t vote. I think that’s baloney.
On the Democrats’ shadow party:
MM: Is this a media issue? If so few voters believe this kind of cultural radicalism, if they don’t want to defund the police, if they don’t know who Ibram X. Kendi is, why is this worldview so dominant?
RT: The Democrats and their associated shadow party, this penumbra of media pundits and activists and nonprofits and advocacy groups and foundations, really control the commanding heights of cultural production. So the dominant narratives that get out there in a lot of the most prominent cultural and media areas of the country are really those that are consistent with this cultural radicalism that the Democrats are now so associated with. The institutions that dominate our cultural discourse are not channeling the view of the voter. They’re channeling the view of the educated liberal folks who staff these institutions, who write things, who pontificate, who give out foundation grants, who advocate in Washington. And those people are, generally speaking, white, college-educated liberals, if not radicals, who have a particular point of view on the world. So even if, for example, “defund the police” was never anything that had a purchase among ordinary voters, including ordinary black voters, it suddenly blew up into something that people actually seem to be taking seriously and debating, despite the fact it was a terrible idea, and it’s not actually what black people wanted.
JJ: The other factor you have is that if you are organizing a group, or if you become the head of the ACLU, and you want to raise money, you need to have an active base that you’re able to appeal to, and the way you appeal to them is not by having political views that will gain a majority in the country, but having views that will stir them up.
MM: So it’s an incentive problem in some way, too.
RT: Yes. Follow the money, follow the prestige, follow the status. If you can get subscribers, support, likes, and money by taking these positions, you’re going to continue to do it. What it doesn’t do is allow you to form a broad coalition in American politics. But that’s not the priority for a lot of these people.
MM: Talk a little bit about money, because I’ve never seen a book in which every institution that is mentioned is followed by a note about who funds that institution.
JJ: There’s two aspects to it. First is the politicians. That’s what people ordinarily talk about, and that remains important. The other aspect is the role of foundations in funding a lot of these groups that we’re talking about. Black Lives Matter started a group in 2015 called The Movement for Black Lives. And they had a very controversial platform—for instance, guaranteed healthcare and guaranteed income for blacks only. They wanted an end to public jails. Well, the Ford Foundation joined forces with the Borealis Philanthropy to launch a six-year fundraising project aimed at giving $100 million to The Movement for Black Lives. So, you get these very controversial positions being reinforced by the foundations, who are giving them enormous amounts of money.
On the Democrats’ strategy in 2024:
JJ: I think the main problems are going to be to what extent are the Democrats going to define themselves simply in terms of Republican craziness, and to what extent are they going to find a path to winning back a lot of these other voters. And what I would expect in 2024 is not that they’re going to call for “defund the police.” But it’s going to be focused on how crazy the Republicans are.
MM: What do you think of that tactic? If you did a LexisNexis search of MSNBC transcripts, which I have done, of the word fascism in the past four years, you could be clicking through 20 pages with 50 results a page. It’s endless. The argument was that if you stuck with Donald Trump, this is incipient fascism and the American republic will crumble. Do you think that that’s something that most Democrats are going to still push on with as the most effective way of fighting back against Trump?
RT: I don’t think there’s any question that they’re going to stick with that. I mean, look at the 2023 results right now, and in 2022 as well. I think they feel that’s a great motivator for the high turnout parts of their base. And I don’t think they feel comfortable defending Bidenomics or dealing with public safety and immigration issues in any serious way. They just want to highlight Republican extremism because that’s what allows them to be victorious. So that’s why John and I tend to think that because they’ll take this tack, we are looking at another highly contested teeter-totter kind of election where the Democrats might come out on top with a strategy. They might not. But I think that’s what they’re committed to. And I don’t think at this point they see any compelling reason to change their approach. As far as they’re concerned, they think there’s an anti-MAGA majority in this country and we just have to mobilize it, get our people out to the polls, and then we’ll win. We don’t really have to change anything substantively.
JJ: The other thing I’d say is that the Republicans in the House are doing the Democrats an enormous favor, because there’s a big middle of the electorate that’s very skeptical about Washington and getting things done, and for the last 20, 30 years have blamed both parties. And I think if the Democrats had a really powerful candidate for president in 2024, they would win the House big and win the White House.
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