The Democratic Party needs a new brand — because its current one only appeals to a majority of voters.
Since 1992, Democratic nominees have won the popular vote in all but one presidential race. No party in U.S. history has ever won popular backing for its standard-bearer so many times in so few elections. And yet, over this same three-decade period, the Democratic coalition has also grown increasingly electorally inefficient.
America’s political system underrepresents urban-dwelling voters at every level of government. This bias is most egregious in the U.S. Senate, which gives equal voice to sparsely populated rural states and highly populous urban ones. As a result, a voter in Wyoming enjoys 70 times more influence over Congress’s upper chamber than one in California. And since a bit more than 50 percent of Americans live in ten densely populated states, this disproportionately urban majority gets 20 percent of the Senate’s votes, while the rest of the nation commands 80 percent. Given existing population trends, these figures are poised to grow even more lopsided in the coming decades.
America’s House and state legislative maps are biased in the same direction. This partly reflects Republican gerrymandering. But the underrepresentation of city voters would exist even with nonpartisan maps, so long as America retained single-member, “winner-take-all” districts (as opposed to proportional representation). Across the industrialized world, left-of-center parties have always boasted disproportionate support in urban centers, due to the greater prevalence of trade unions in such areas at the dawn of the 20th century, and the inherent cosmopolitanism of city culture. For this reason, if you draw geographically intuitive maps — and make winning a plurality of a district’s vote worth as much as winning a landslide majority — you are going to end up shortchanging left-leaning city voters, whose preferred party will “waste” votes running up the score in a few central districts. (The Electoral College is a bit more complicated. One can imagine a world in which a large, heavily urban state like Texas becomes 52 percent Democratic — and suddenly, the party of city slickers enjoys a large built-in advantage in presidential elections. As is, however, the Electoral College’s tipping-point states are more Republican than the nation as a whole.)
The Democrats’ reliance on urban voters has long been a liability. But for most of the 20th century, Democrats were able to mitigate this disadvantage through their status as the party that beat the Depression and the Nazis, their vestigial support in the old Confederacy, and the capacity of individual Democratic candidates to tailor the party’s brand to local tastes.
But this is no longer the case.
For Democrats, education-polarization means down-ballot devastation
For many years, across the Western world, electorates have been growing more polarized along lines of education; those with college degrees have moved left, while those without them have turned right. This phenomenon has many plausible causes, among them, trade-union decline, white racial backlash, the growing salience of cultural issues that divide parochial and cosmopolitan constituencies, the nationalization of political media, and the center-left’s embrace of a meritocratic liberalism that both materially and symbolically devalues nonintellectual labor.
Whatever education polarization’s causes, it has profoundly exacerbated the Democratic Party’s rural problem, since residents of low-density areas are disproportionately non-college-educated. In fact, to some extent, the density divide may be the education divide in disguise: As Bloomberg recently illustrated, Biden most outperformed Hillary Clinton in “exurban” counties, while underperforming her in “working class” counties of all densities. This is likely because exurban counties tend to have relatively high rates of college graduates.
Meanwhile, it has grown much harder for Democratic candidates in rural, heavily non-college-educated areas to differentiate themselves from the national party. This is because both the demand for, and supply of, local journalism has collapsed over the past decade, as social-media platforms attained dominance, and broadband reached deeper into rural areas. Today, the typical swing voter does not form her opinions about a congressional race by perusing each candidate’s views in her local newspaper. Rather, her opinions are shaped by the impression she derives of each party from viewing national TV news, and reading national political coverage on Facebook. This appears to be a leading cause of the decline in ticket-splitting in U.S. elections (the practice of voting for one party in a presidential race, but the other party down-ballot).
These realities cost Democrats dearly in the 2020 election. The party won the presidential popular vote by 4.5 percent — a nigh-landslide by the standards of our polarized era — yet failed to flip a single state legislature, lost at least nine seats in the House, and will need to sweep two runoff elections in Georgia next month to eke out a bare majority in the Senate. The party’s poor showing down-ballot partly reflected ticket-splitting among Romney-Clinton-Biden voters in the suburbs. But this was a tiny fraction of the electorate. The primary issue was that Biden’s coalition was more geographically concentrated than that of any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history: He won about 51.5 percent of America’s votes, but just 17 percent of its counties. In New Hampshire, the Democratic nominee bested Trump by 7.5 percent statewide. Yet, because Biden’s support was overwhelmingly concentrated in denser parts of the state, Republicans managed to flip the state legislature and gain full control of the New Hampshire state government.
The upshot of all this: Despite winning an unusually high share of the vote by modern standards, the Democratic Party may be incapable of governing in 2021, and is extremely likely to lose control of Congress after the 2022 midterms. After all, if the party lost (at least) nine House seats in a national environment that favored Democrats by 4.5 points, in a midterm environment (that almost always advantages the opposition party), it’s likely to lose more. This is especially true in light of the party’s poor showing in state legislative races: Following the 2020 census, states across the country will be redrawing their House maps, and Republicans will now have far more say over redistricting than Democrats. Given advances in precision-gerrymandering technology and the growing geographic concentration of Democratic voters (which makes it even easier to dilute their influence through biased map-making), we can expect the House playing field to be even more tilted toward Republicans over the coming decade than it was in 2020.
There are no easy answers to the challenge that urban-rural polarization poses to the Democratic Party. Trump’s apparent gains with non-college-educated Hispanic votes in 2020 undermines the notion that demographic change will solve the problem, while this year’s high turnout complicates the idea that the party can secure governing majorities through sheer mobilization.
In other words: There appears to be no alternative to winning over a lot of Trump voters. And that means getting Republican-leaning non-college-educated voters to see the Democratic Party in a different light.
Democrats need a clear and broadly appealing national identity
It is unclear how much Democrats can broaden their appeal through messaging changes alone. To a significant degree, contemporary polarization is rooted in genuine, intractable conflicts between the cultural values of city and countryside. Contrary to Republican rhetoric, this is no clean “elite-working-class” bifurcation; if anything, it might be better understood as an intra-elite conflict between the provincial gentry and corporate cosmopolitans. Nevertheless, it is the case that many of the New Deal Democratic Party’s working-class constituents never subscribed to liberal positions on questions of immigration, gender roles, racial justice, firearm regulations, or the role of religion in civic life, among other things. As these issues grew in salience — in response to emergent policy challenges, the decline of the labor movement, and the growing ranks of college graduates (and thus, of cosmopolitan liberals in the electorate) — a good number of culturally conservative voters were liable to become conscious of this disconnect between their worldview and the left’s. Meanwhile, no rebrand can fill the hole opened up by the decline of left-wing civic institutions, from unions to liberal churches.
All this said, how the party chooses to characterize itself in public pronouncements is one thing that it enjoys direct control over. And there is reason to think that Democrats can improve on their present approach.
In the past, Democrats sought to broaden their party’s appeal by decentralizing their messaging, giving candidates leeway to run on whatever themes played well in their discrete districts. In today’s nationalized environment, however, growing the party’s big tent actually requires centralizing messaging. Or so the Democratic data analyst David Shor argues. In his account, the nationalization of politics means that moderate and progressive Democrats are yoked to the same brand, like it or not. As such, they should come together around a handful of substantively worthwhile policies — that poll well in every part of the country — and talk about those policies (and only those policies) whenever possible.
There are suspect aspects to Shor’s analysis; he suggests that Democrats must conspicuously condemn members who evince support for unpopular policy concepts like “defund the police,” a tactic that seems liable to increase the salience of the very policy association he wishes to minimize. But in my view, his broader call for the party to define itself around a small number of clear, popular policies has much to recommend it. The electorate’s perception of political parties does seem to be shaped by national media to an unprecedented degree. And it seems intuitive that a party would need to exert exquisite message discipline if it wishes to dictate how it is portrayed in such media — and thus, perceived by potential swing voters, who tend to pay less attention to politics than strong partisans do.
Centering the Democratic Party brand around a small number of highly popular issues need not entail moving “right” on policy or messaging. The left has no monopoly on controversial ideas. To the contrary, some of the most unpopular policies that Democrats have associated themselves with over the past decade — from the individual mandate for health insurance to entitlement cuts — have emanated from the party’s center. What’s more, moderates’ anxieties about the deficit, while rooted in polling data, likely took a grave toll on the party’s electoral fortunes in recent years. Had Democrats opted to make the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies dramatically larger, and more widely available — and the 2009 stimulus three times more expensive — the political cost of triggering deficit hysterics would likely have been overwhelmed by the benefit of delivering actually affordable health insurance, and hastening the return of full employment. (The Trump era lends credence to this counterfactual: The president ran up the deficit to a historic degree through tax cuts and spending increases, and reaped high approval on the economy as a result.)
Centralizing messaging also does not require abandoning all unpopular causes. The Republican Party does not campaign on making it easier for corporations to poison children because it knows that voters do not support that policy. But the GOP has a principled commitment to helping pesticide producers and coal-fired power plants increase their profitability by killing and maiming kids. So, it quietly guts regulatory requirements for such firms — after winning elections by promising tax cuts and pretending to support affordable health insurance for people with preexisting conditions. Democrats can take a similar approach to pursuing the more controversial items on their coalition’s agenda.
What centralizing messaging should entail is reaching internal consensus around a small number of policies that are (1) broadly popular, (2) difficult if not impossible for Republicans to support, (3) especially resonant with non-college-educated voters, and (4) of high substantive value (since centering these policies in messaging will mean putting them toward the top of the governing agenda upon victory). Ideally, the policies would also lend themselves to a snappy, alliterative slogan.
The case for “Workers, Wages, Weed”
Alex Jacquez, a policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, put forward one contender last month:
It’s not clear exactly what policy workers denotes here. But one possibility would be worker codetermination. That policy, which involves requiring large firms to give workers representation on their corporate boards, has net-positive approval in every congressional district in the country, according to polling from Data for Progress and Civic Analytics.
Given the influence that reactionary rich people wield within the GOP tent, it would be essentially impossible for Republicans to triangulate on this issue. And making the case against it all but requires the GOP to disparage the judgment of working people: Why would you oppose giving workers a say over how their employers operate unless you disdain the intelligence of workers relative to executives? For this reason, putting codetermination at the center of America’s national discourse could help Democrats increase the salience of class resentment in U.S. politics, which had until recently been among the party’s greatest assets.
Finally, there is evidence that giving workers a say over how large firms operate would lead to broad-based wage increases, lower inequality, and higher productivity. So, it’s a worthwhile objective on substantive grounds.
As for “weed”: More than two-thirds of Americans support the federal legalization of marijuana according to polls from Gallup and Pew — while non-college-educated voters back legalization at a slightly higher rate than college grads. Nevertheless, the GOP’s reliance on the “square” vote makes it difficult for the party to acquiesce to majoritarian opinion on the issue. And ending the federal prohibition of cannabis would help rectify the historic injustice of Americans paying for headies and ending up with mids. (Oh, and it would reduce incarceration and revenue to criminal enterprises, which is cool too.)
Finally, two-thirds of voters support a $15 minimum wage. And, as recent ballot measures have demonstrated, that support extends into red America. In fact, according to Pew, 56 percent of Republican voters who earn less than $40,000 a year want a $15 federal wage floor. As a substantive matter, in the estimation of Republican and Democratic economists, state-level minimum-wage hikes helped drive a broader increase in wages for non-college-educated workers in recent years.
So, “Workers, Wages, Weed” seems like a solid fit for the Democrats’ branding needs. Though there are surely other policy combinations with similar — if not greater — potency, the impulse to pick a set of signature issues that can be condensed into a three-word slogan seems wise (Vladimir Lenin would have been a dynamite DCCC consultant). And an alliterative one seems ideal. The goal is try to exercise some control over what words come into a voter’s mind when she thinks about Democrats. Just as “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” once worked against the party, so “Workers, Wages, Weed” could work in its favor.
Still, associating the party with a universal long-term care benefit for seniors might be even more electorally advantageous. And one could combine such a policy with Medicaid expansion, higher subsidies for the ACA marketplaces, and a child allowance under the rubric of “care” and run on “Care, Cannabis, Codetermination.” Or, given the substantive imperative to prioritize climate policy, “Green Jobs, Ganja, Guaranteed Long-term Care.” Or a “Public Option, Pot, Paid Family Leave.” Whatever. Moderates and progressives can get together around a table, look at a list of popular policies and a thesaurus and let a thousand pitches bloom. They just need to achieve consensus, and then uniformly exert Bernie Sanders–esque levels of message discipline, such that any time any Democrat is interviewed on television, you know you’re going to hear at least once about, say, “Jobs, Joints, and Just Pay.”
It is not realistic (nor desirable) to have Democrats forswear discussion of all other issues. When a pandemic hits, you’re going to talk about public health; when a white cop tortures an unarmed Black man to death on video, you’re going to talk about race and police violence, and put forward policies for redressing the latter. But building party unity around an affirmative, non-polarizing agenda — and promoting that agenda incessantly, whenever the moment allows — is compatible with those imperatives.
To be sure, messaging around popular things is of limited use if you do not actually deliver them once in power. And just about all of the aforementioned policies are currently opposed by some Democrats in Washington (the president-elect is himself an opponent of marijuana legalization). What’s more, most policies with party-wide support will be impossible to pass unless a future Democratic Senate majority votes to abolish the filibuster. Which is to say: Moderate Democrats are arguably a bigger obstacle to the party positioning itself pragmatically than progressives are.
Pundits have put forward a lot of theories for why Trump retained his 2016 level of support among non-college-educated whites, and made big gains with working-class Latinos. But polls and reporting both suggest a big reason was the fact that he had presided over the tightest labor market in modern memory — and then, thanks to the CARES Act, the largest fiscal transfer in modern history. Good messaging wins some votes; good policy outcomes win more. If Democrats sweep the runoff elections in Georgia next month, they must use their lease on federal power for all it’s worth. “Full Employment, Family Leave, 420” may be a politically promising summary of what Democrats want to legislate; but come 2024, it would be even more potent as a list of what Democrats already delivered.