Can Democrats Move Left — and to the Suburbs?

Make Orange County Republicans Vote Democratic Again? Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On November 8, Donald Trump kicked the legs out from under blue America. Liberals barely took the time to writhe on the floor, before arguing about how to get back on their feet. Many of these arguments concerned the relative merits of “identity politics” and “economic populism.”

Such debates were often incoherent. After all, there is no inherent tension between the aims of reducing identity-based disadvantage, and promoting economic equality. To expand access to abortion — or prevent police violence — is to aid the economic liberation of working people. To redistribute income and wealth from rich to poor, is to redistribute power from dominant identity groups to marginalized ones.

In a perfectly woke world, the values of racial and gender equality and economic justice would be bound together, inextricably. But in the fallen realm of American politics, they aren’t — and not without reason.

“You are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour,” the Hillary Clinton campaign’s former communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, said of the anti-Trump protest movement earlier this month. “It’s all about identity on our side now … They want to show, ‘He does not support me. I support you, refugee. I support you, immigrant in my neighborhood. I want to defend you.’ Women who are rejecting Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are saying ― they’re saying this is power for them. ‘Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously? Well, I’m showing you my value and my power.’ And I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering.”

Palmieri’s remarks were met with derision in progressive circles. And it isn’t hard to see why: By minimizing the demands of a (profoundly successful) workers’ movement — while celebrating the empowerment one can find in boycotting Neiman Marcus — Palmieri served up a parody of the corporate liberalism Sandernistas long to reject.

But while the left can comfortably mock Palmieri’s prescription (fight Trump, one Nordstrom purchase at a time), it can’t so easily dismiss her description of the anti-Trump movement. Without question, there is an energized, left-wing faction in the Democratic Party. But you don’t have to be a democratic socialist (or even a social democrat) to despise the immigrant-bashing, pussy-grabbing maniac in the Oval Office.

You could, for example, be one of a growing number of upper-middle-class Democrats who like the parts of the progressive agenda that don’t cost them money (legal abortion, gay marriage, humane immigration policy, etc.) but have no great appetite for issues of labor or redistribution. As the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall wrote in 2015:

Over the past two decades, the Democratic Party has successfully won over – or perhaps it’s better said that the Republican Party has lost – many well-educated, well-paid, fiscally moderate men and women. These voters are repelled by a social conservatism that is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights. But they are not eager to see their taxes raised.

In 1992, Bill Clinton lost the most affluent segment of the electorate, voters with household incomes over $75,000, by 12 points. In 2008, Obama lost voters with household incomes from $100,000 to $200,000 by 2 points, 50-48, and actually carried voters making over $200,000, 52-46.

As the Democratic Party gained these upper-middle-class votes, they bled white-working-class ones, particularly in midwestern labor strongholds, where the collapse of the union movement loosened many voters’ attachment to Team Blue (or to voting, at all).

The Trump-Clinton race both reflected and accelerated these trends. The GOP nominee ran a campaign aimed squarely at white, Rust Belt angst. The Democrat put forward a progressive economic agenda, but focused her paid messaging on the virtues of multicultural tolerance and professional expertise — themes affluent meritocrats could comfortably endorse.

These messages hit their targets. While the heart of the Trump GOP’s coalition was still the upper middle class and rich, the mogul lost voters making under $30,000 by 16 fewer points than Romney did; and those making between $30,000 and $50,000 by six points fewer.

Meanwhile, among voters who made between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, Hillary Clinton did nine points better last November than Barack Obama had in 2012. Among those who made more than $200,000, she equaled his unusually high (for a Democrat) 2012 share of the vote.

Considering how well-represented the upper middle class and rich are in the Democratic tent — and the general (though, not absolute) tendency of those demographics to favor moderate economic policies — Palmieri is likely right that not everyone who took to the streets on January 21 is passionate about a $15 minimum wage; and that many are more likely to express their politics by boycotting fashion lines, than by supporting picket ones.

And that description applies even more broadly to the voters Democrats will need to win in November 2018.

During last year’s campaign, some Democrats welcomed the shifting class composition of their party’s base. As Chuck Schumer infamously reasoned, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

This notion wasn’t baseless — just fatally overstated. Schumer’s ratio was off, but Clinton did make significant gains in Romney country. From 1936 to 2012, Orange County, California, gave the majority of its votes to Republican presidential candidates. Then, it backed Hillary Clinton by a nine-point margin. In 2012, Texas’s 7th congressional district — which encompasses much of Houston’s affluent suburbs — backed Mitt Romney by more than 20 points. Last November, it was “with her” by a margin of 1.4.

In fact, Clinton beat Trump in 23 House districts that are currently represented by Republicans, while narrowly trailing him in ten others. And, as Bloomberg’s Conor Sen notes, “what we know about those districts that swung toward Clinton is that they’re full of rich people.”

Trump’s first month in office has only exacerbated the class divide among white voters. The latest Pew poll finds that 61 percent of college-educated whites disapprove of the president; among whites without college diplomas, 57 percent approve of Trump.

These demographic trends — combined with Republican gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — have left Democrats with only one plausible path to a House majority in 2018. And it doesn’t run through the lands that “Bernie would have won.” As the New York TimesNate Cohn writes, “only two of the 24 most competitive districts went for Bernie Sanders in a primary contest. Many broke for Mrs. Clinton by landslide margins.”

This math goes some way toward explaining why a Democratic communications operative doesn’t wish to paint the anti-Trump movement in populist terms — and, perhaps, why Republicans plan to run against Elizabeth Warren in 2018.

So: There is a considerable, short-term incentive for the Democratic Party to resist calls for a leftward turn — particularly on issues of redistribution. Perhaps, Clinton would have been better served in the Electoral College had she broadcast a louder, more populist economic message. But the themes she ran on played just fine in the Sun Belt suburbs where the most vulnerable House Republicans live.

Whether it’s in the Democratic Party’s long-term interest to court Romney voters is less clear. Hillary Clinton’s communications director might not be keen on centering economic populism, but one of her top super-PACs is.

In January, Priorities USA commissioned an extensive survey of two key voting groups — Obama-Trump swing voters and traditional Democrats (largely African-American and millennial) who stayed at home on Election Day. In an op-ed for USA Today, the super-PAC’s chairman, Guy Cecil, summarized its findings:

These voters — swing voters and turnout targets alike — are deeply concerned about their economic situation. They cite, for instance, how their income is falling behind the cost of living. As they continue to struggle, they have serious questions about whether the “establishment,” including the Democratic Party, will do anything to improve their lives…But these voters are still not convinced Trump will make good on his promises to prioritize the working and middle class. They fear Trump and the Republicans will put the interests of wealthy Americans and corporate executives first.

Steve Phillips of the Center for American Progress argues, more explicitly, that the party should move further left to recapture the liberal voters that Clinton lost to Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or apathy:

If Democrats had stemmed the defections of white voters to the Libertarian or Green Parties, they would have won Michigan and Wisconsin, and had they also inspired African-Americans in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton would be president. If progressive whites are defecting because they are uninspired by Democrats, moving further to the right will only deepen their disillusionment.

To mobilize their base — and recover some of the white working-class votes that once built them a blue wall — Democrats may need a sharp, class-conscious message about economic opportunity. But centering the party’s commitment to the parts of progressivism that don’t cost rich people money (which include many issues associated with “identity politics”) may give it a better chance of taking back the House, and retaining the loyalty of the upscale voters who helped provide Clinton a popular vote majority.

Democrats may be able to balance these imperatives. After all, it’s not impossible to run different messages in different races — in the year of Trump, Republicans managed to win Vermont’s governor’s mansion. Plus, Trump’s tenure may prove disastrous enough to render the Democrats’ internal class tensions irrelevant.

But for the American left, the Democratic Party’s growing reliance on rich voters is a more fundamental challenge. On the stump, Bernie Sanders often suggested that the only things standing between the American people and social democracy were the campaign contributions of millionaires and billionaires. But his party’s dependence on the votes of the upper middle-class may be as significant an obstacle.

This dependence is not merely the product of white workers shifting rightward; it is also the result of the declining democratic participation of middle- and working-class voters of all races. As Edsall notes, in 1992, lower- and middle-income Americans accounted for 74 percent of the electorate. They made up just 52 percent of the electorate two decades later. Edsall offers a pithy summary of this shift’s implications:

[T]he size of the target constituency for a political strategy emphasizing middle-class populism has grown substantially smaller, while the size of the affluent voting population that would bear many of the costs of financing the new populism has grown larger.

Absent an uptick in working-class-voter participation — and the concentration of such voters into a single political party — it will be difficult to move economic policy dramatically leftward. Considering that the policies of the Obama era failed to avert the growth of income inequality, an explosion of the racial wealth gap — and the triumph of right-wing populism — it’s understandable that many on the left find the party’s status quo agenda inadequate. And this desire for more sweeping economic change likely informs many lefties’ belief that a populist, class-conscious message would bring working people — of all colors — off the sidelines and into the Democratic tent. From this vantage, there is little tension between the Democratic left’s policy goals and political expediency: The rage of the dispossessed (and the biases of the Electoral College) demand Sandersism or barbarism.

It’s also understandable that some progressives might look at Trump’s deep unpopularity with college-educated whites, and conclude that an alliance with fiscally moderate suburbanites — and, thus, a tempering of the left’s economic ambitions — is the surest way out of our Trumpist emergency.

If there is a genuine tension among Democrats between those who wish to emphasize “identity politics” over “economic populism” — or vice versa — it may be rooted in which of these analyses each side prefers to understand.

Can Democrats Move Left — and to the Suburbs?