Politics & Policy

The Democrats Have a Rich White Progressive Problem

Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Boston, October 1, 2018. (Brian Snyder/REUTERS)
Elite white Democrats are moving away from the rest of the party.

I’m beginning to wonder if the Democratic party is on the verge of its own, internal culture war. No, not right away. Not necessarily in these midterm elections. The smart money is still betting that the #resistance has enough momentum — and there’s enough shared loathing of Donald Trump among Democrats — to drive the party to victory in the House. If they do win the House (especially with a significant popular-vote margin), Democrats will enjoy weeks or months of triumphalism. The “coalition of the ascendant” will be ascendant again, and there will be much rejoicing.

At least until the Democratic presidential-primary season starts. And then we may see significant divides emerge. “The Left” is hardly as monolithic as conservatives tend to think, and if a culture war breaks out, we’ll know who to blame.

White people, of course.

It turns out that there is now an increasing amount of research indicating that elite Democrats are moving away from the rest of the party. Democratic elites are getting more secular, more culture-war-focused, and perhaps even more identity-politics-focused than the minority and working-class voters who still make up a majority of the Democratic coalition.

The religious gap is large and growing. Earlier this year, I wrote about the Democrats’ considerable “God gap.” Only 32 percent of white Democrats believe in the God of the Bible, while nonwhite Democrats’ religious beliefs closely mirror those of white Republicans. That’s a considerable cultural difference, and it looks set to grow. Recent data shows that white Democrats’ expressions of belief have been dropping dramatically:

But it’s not just faith. In a lengthy and insightful Politico Magazine essay, David Freedlander argues that the “Democrats’ cultural divide” is class-based as well. Here’s Freedlander:

Increasingly, the Democratic Party features what social scientists call an hourglass structure, with a smattering of elites at the top and a vast working class on the bottom. It is those on the top who drive policy, and their interests don’t always coincide with the party’s longtime base.

And, interestingly, some of the folk heroes of the more-diverse, more-socialist Democratic party owe their success to the party’s richer, whiter elite than they do to minority or working-class constituencies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, beat Joseph Crowley on the strength of huge majorities in the whiter, richer parts of her New York City–based district. Similarly, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley ran up on the score on Michael Capuano in “expensive precincts” in Boston and Cambridge.

As the white Democratic elite stampedes towards secular progressivism, it’s even moved to the left of black Democrats on key racial issues. As Thomas Edsall notes in the New York Times, white liberals are more likely to believe that racism is responsible for racial inequality than black Americans. For example, 79 percent of white liberals believe “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” versus 60 percent of African Americans.

A significant 32 percent of African Americans agreed with the statement, “Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Only 18 percent of white liberals shared that view.

There is still very broad agreement in the Democratic coalition on a host of issues — and Freedlander rightly observes that the policy differences between Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley and their establishment opponents were “microscopically small” — but the progressive movement’s Democratic/Independent Liberal Elite (“DILEs”) are different from the rest of the party. Here’s Freedlander:

Strikingly, it is the only cohort across the political spectrum not to rank jobs and the economy as a top priority, preferring the environment and climate change. Polls show that people like Winston’s DILEs are also far less religious and far more socially liberal than the rest of the Democratic Party on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. In evaluating candidates, these Democrats consider diversity, and hailing from outside the political establishment, hugely important.

Yet the working-class and minority base isn’t nearly as anti-establishment. More-vulnerable populations recognize that seniority means power, and powerful politicians have more ability to help their constituents. Thus, it’s an open question not just whether the elite and the base share the same values (never underestimate the cultural effect of religious differences), but whether they also don’t have the “same amount at stake.”

So, is there an opportunity for Republicans to fracture the Democratic coalition? They’ve already pilfered a considerable number of working-class whites (just as the Democrats have taken college-educated votes from the GOP), but they still do miserably with black and Latino voters. Why?

The short answer is negative polarization and the politics of race. Freedlander quotes Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, who says that Democrats “are in a coalition with a poorer set of voters who don’t seem to get ahead but who are trapped in that coalition, since if they are poor African-Americans or poor Latinos they view the Republicans as a racist party.”

This is classic negative polarization — allegiance to your political party not out of love for its ideas but instead out of fear for the other side. And it demonstrates how vital it is for the GOP over the long term to double-down on intentional and thoughtful outreach to minority communities, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because there is a real opportunity to create alliances with Americans who are more like-minded than we tend to believe.

It’s at this point that progressives will respond, “but Trump,” and they’re right, in part. His rhetoric and record have often been appalling. But there are reasons why Hillary Clinton won a lower percentage of the black and Latino votes in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012 — even with Obama facing a gentleman like Romney while Clinton faced Trump the partisan pugilist.

People are less motivated to vote for politicians who are more distant from them culturally and politically. And as white progressives keep stampeding to the secular left, they may find that the cultural gap in their coalition grows so broad that it presents a persistent political problem. Trump won’t be the face of the GOP forever, and the next Republican nominee may be able to tell a compelling story to the Democrats’ minority base — that their elite has left them behind, and Republicans are ready for a realignment.


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