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Opinion|Democrats Are Playing Checkers While Trump Is Playing Chess
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Democrats Are Playing Checkers While Trump Is Playing Chess

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People at a rally for Trump in Geneva, Ohio, last October. Credit Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

For Democrats, the warning shots are coming thick and fast.

“More than half of Americans don’t think Donald Trump is fit to serve as president, yet he has a clear path to winning reelection,” Doug Sosnik, who served as President Bill Clinton’s political director, wrote in the Washington Post last week. “Are Democrats Headed for a McGovern Redux?” Alan Greenblatt asked in Politico on Oct. 9. On the same day, a New York Magazine headline declared: “No One Should Rule Out a Trump Re-election in 2020.”

What can Democrats do?

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month documented the growth of the partisan divide: “the median (middle) Republican is now more conservative than 97% of Democrats, and the median Democrat is more liberal than 95% of Republicans.” The two accompanying charts illustrate the heights partisanship has reached.

Much of the current polarization is driven by difference of opinion on issues of race and immigration. Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke who has focused much of her research on the racial attitudes of whites, emailed me to comment:

It’s clear that the Democrats have lost many whites because of whites’ attitudes about race. We can see that over time, whites’ racial attitudes have become increasingly linked to their party identity, with more racially conservative whites identifying more with the Republican Party.

Coming Apart

More Americans have migrated to the most liberal and conservative edges of the political spectrum.

2004

2017

MEDIAN

DEM.

MEDIAN

DEM.

MEDIAN

REP.

MEDIAN

REP.

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

2004

2017

MEDIAN

DEMOCRAT

MEDIAN

DEMOCRAT

MEDIAN

REPUBLICAN

MEDIAN

REPUBLICAN

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

Partisan scale based on responses to 10 political values questions. Blue areas indicate distribution of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents; red areas are Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

By The New York Times | Source: Pew Research Center

Disrupting this linkage is an uphill battle for Democrats:

Unfortunately, changing hearts and minds when it comes to racial attitudes is no easy task. What is more, there’s growing evidence that some of the previously effective tactics Democrats have used to call out Republican politicians for race-baiting no longer work especially well. If Republican political candidates continue to stoke racial attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiment, there’s reason to think they’ll continue to be politically effective, and it’s not entirely clear what Democrats can do to inoculate themselves against this strategy in the near term.

According to Cornell Belcher, a prominent Democratic pollster who worked for President Barack Obama, attempts to win white working class votes in presidential elections should not be the Democrats’ top priority. He wrote me:

The greatest threat to the next Democratic nominee for President isn’t white working class voters, but in fact our inability to cobble back and hold together the core of Obama’s back to back majority coalitions. The “protest vote” by millennials — HRC’s significant underperformance with younger voters, particularly younger voters of color — is actually where she was most notably off of Obama’s performance in the overall battleground aggregate.

Belcher pointed out that

when you have between 6 to 9 percent of younger voters of color breaking 3rd Party in their ‘protest vote’ that kills the Democrat’s chance to reach Obama’s margins most notably in places like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In terms of Congressional and state legislative contests, Belcher argues, “we can and should do better among non-college white voters” because they are crucial to the outcome in many districts. But doing so, he argues, will be a tremendous challenge:

When Trump stands up in front of his audience at rallies during the campaign and tells them he’s going to give them their country back, Trump is having a conversation about race. Our response is that we are going to raise the minimum wage — we are having a conversation about economics. We are playing checkers while Trump is playing chess. And he continues to do so as he focuses on things like Black N.F.L. players taking a knee. Until Democrats can inoculate against some of the heightened angst, most prominently found among blue collar whites, about the changing face of America, they will struggle to compete for white non-college voters.

Significantly, Belcher contends, the anxiety about rapid social change is politically salient. Offering economic palliatives will not adequately address that anxiety, he said:

Heightened tribal polarization is the primary hurdle to Democrats’ ability to better compete and win white non-college voters. Avoiding that conversation isn’t going to work. We can’t solve for that angst with a promise to simply help make college more affordable. Until we can better engage these voters in a conversation that lessens their very real angst about the changes that are happening in the country and pivot to a compelling narrative about how we all win the future together or divided we will certainly lose it to our competitors, Democrats will struggle mightily to compete for white non-college voters broadly and particularly in The South.

A Deepening Divide

The distribution of Democrats and Republicans along the political spectrum is much more lopsided now than it was when George W. Bush was re-elected.

Percent of Democrats more liberal than the median Republican:

2004

2017

MEDIAN

REP.

MEDIAN

REP.

68%

97%

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

Percent of Republicans more conservative than the median Democrat:

2004

2017

MEDIAN

DEM.

MEDIAN

DEM.

70%

95%

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

2004

2017

MEDIAN

REPUBLICAN

MEDIAN

REPUBLICAN

68% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican

97% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

2004

2017

MEDIAN

DEMOCRAT

MEDIAN

DEMOCRAT

70% of Republicans

were more conservative than the median Democrat

95% of Republicans

are more conservative than the median Democrat

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Mixed

views

Consistently

conservative

By The New York Times | Source: Pew Research Center

Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who is an expert in elections and party politics, wrote in an email that many voters in 2016 were worried about the rate of changes taking place in the racial and ethnic composition of their communities and in the continuing shift from manufacturing to service industries:

Republican strategists seem to understand the consequences of these changes. You can see this difference when contrasting the slogan “Make America Great Again” with the slogan “I’m with her.” The subject in the Trump tagline is America. The phrase directly addresses growing anxiety about the rate of change. The subject in the Clinton tagline is the candidate herself.

This difference played into a second Democratic liability, according to Lupia:

Many liberal elites, who see right-leaning voters as blindly following the edicts of an unbending dogma on many issues, have little to no awareness of their own blind allegiance to an unbending dogma on many issues. This blind spot, which has only grown in recent years, makes the left exceptionally easy to troll. In other words, the left’s lack of awareness of the excesses of their own evolving dogma makes it increasingly easy for Breitbart, Fox News, and similar-minded others to portray liberals as hypocritical and out of touch with the day-to-day lives of many Americans.

Voters who cast Republican ballots last year experience disproportionately higher levels of both cultural and economic anxiety than Democratic voters, Lupia argued, but “many people on the left mock this uncertainty and those who feel this uncertainty are quite good at knowing when they are being mocked.”

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, agrees with Lupia in many respects, but places greater emphasis on economic policy as a coalition building mechanism:

The problem is both substantive and cultural, and hence the Democratic response has to be on two levels. Substantively, the party needs to develop a stronger program regarding the job opportunities and economic prospects of these angry white voters. If all the jobs and money are on the coasts, and the industries that used to support workers are increasingly automated and subject to complex trading across NAFTA countries, then we need to make sure that US workers have the skills to participate in that economy. We made only halfhearted efforts with respect to NAFTA and when they did not work well because workers did not want to move from their communities or because the job skills they got were not adequate, the party moved on.

Cain is critical of the lack of attention Democrats paid to economic issues in 2016:

Hillary taking support behind the blue curtain for granted is symptomatic of the party’s shift to middle and upper middle class professional and creative class workers. The party needs to offer policies that assist them, and it has to be something that moves forward towards engaging the new economy, not retreating to the past a la Trump.

In Cain’s view, the lack of focus on the economic needs of the heartland is of a piece with the sociocultural remoteness of Democratic elites:

The cultural problem is Democrats looking down their noses at blue collar work and flyover country. First, cut that shit out. Second, let’s get back to celebrating the work of those who fix pipes, install wind farms, etc. Many of us in Democrat bubble lands are just too full of ourselves. Also, let’s look at how to upgrade vocational schools and training to make it more prestigious, not places where people are relegated to because they cannot compete in a college prep curriculum.

Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant and adviser to Bill Clinton, also comes back to the cultural breach between upscale Democrats and the white working class and poses this basic question:

If you look at the Democratic platform, or Hillary’s speeches on the economy, Democrats have a raft of good ideas, loads of sound policies that would make life better for the white working class. So why have they rejected us?

White working-class Americans are “dying before their time,” Begala wrote in an email, specifically citing the rise in alcoholism, cirrhosis, drug addiction, overdoses, suicide and poisoning:

If the life expectancy of, say, Somali immigrants in Minnesota suddenly took a dive, Democrats would be falling all over each other trying to ascertain the causes and advocate the cures. We owe white working-class Americans no less.

Begala stresses that Democrats must show respect for the culture of the white working class:

As a straight, white, married, gun-owning, church-going man, many of my hunting buddies feel like Democrats have contempt for them.

Begala’s views are shared by Sosnik, who emailed me along the same lines:

More than any set of issues, the first thing that we Democrats need to do is to deal with the perception that the party is controlled by elites on the coasts who look down on the rest of the country. If we cannot overcome that core disconnect, we will never have a chance at getting their vote. That was part of Bill Clinton’s success as a politician.

Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and political science at Stanford, makes the point succinctly, focusing on the importance of candidate recruitment: “How can the party nominate someone, or be led by someone, like Bill Clinton, rather than Hillary Clinton?”

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Danielle Thomsen, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, recognizes how difficult it will be for Democrats to make inroads into Trump country. She also focuses on the importance of candidate recruitment and candidate quality. Thomsen emailed:

Because the Democratic Party has been moving steadily to the left in recent decades, it will be hard for them to simultaneously appeal to the ideologically liberal base that has been created along with this shift and to white middle Americans who view their interests to be in direct conflict with some of those who make up the liberal bloc of the Democratic coalition.

One approach to “getting Middle America to identify with and see themselves as partners alongside racial and ethnic minorities, environmentalists, feminists, young Americans, secular Americans, and other groups who are squarely in the Democratic coalition,” she suggests, would be a concerted effort to recruit “candidates who represent the slice of middle and working class Americans whose lead they could follow and rally behind.”

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There are some observers who are quite pessimistic about the ability of the Democratic Party to expand its base. Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard, emailed me:

In the short run, there is little they can do. The disconnect between Democrats and rust-belt working-class whites is not about any recent Democratic candidate or particular policy, but about fundamental features of human psychology reacting to large-scale economic and social change. The rightward political shift by rust-belt whites fits a long pattern of backlash politics that happens when places diversify. The backlash that moves voters the right is amplified when people feel economically and socially insecure, so the ingredients in the rust belt are perfect to pull voters into the Republican Party.

In theory, Democrats could shift to the right to appeal to these white voters, but, Enos points out, party leaders

are not going to abandon their ideological commitment to immigration and racial equality and they are not going to abandon the nonwhite voters who are a significant part of their constituency.

In this context, according to Enos,

the best they can currently do is do a better job of mobilizing nonwhite voters in these states and the white voters they still have. There is something to be said for the strategy of nominating a presidential candidate that connects with these voters, perhaps even a nonwhite candidate who mobilizes the Obama coalition.

With polarization driving differences over race, ethnicity and cultural values to new heights, the capacity on the left for the kind of full-fledged empathy for working class Trump supporters described by Sosnik and Begala is at a low point. Indeed, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford and Dartmouth, found in a 2015 paper that partisan identity is now more polarized even than racial identity.

“If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence,” Iyengar told my Times colleagues Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi in the Upshot. “But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.”

In 1972, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote “The Party’s Over,” lamenting the decline of “unvarnished political partisanship.” Broder went on:

There must be real choices presented at election time — choices involving more than a selection between two sincere-sounding, photogenic graduates of some campaign consultant’s academy of political and dramatic arts. The candidates must come to the voters with programs that are comprehensible and relevant to our problems; and they must have the kind of backing that makes it possible for them to act on their pledges once in office. The only instrument I know of that can nominate such candidates, commit them to a program, and give them the leverage and alliances in government that can enable them to keep their promises is the political party.

Forty-five years later an era of hyper-partisanship has taken hold. “Today,” Iyengar and Westwood write, “the sense of partisan identification is all encompassing.”

Clearly there are costs to political schism: gridlock, the loss of comity, the division of the nation into warring camps. But there are also, arguably, benefits: coherent party platforms and vigorous, highly invested political participation. Aggressively contested elections of the type we have at present put real choices before voters, and conflict, as the sociologist Louis Coser argued, can overcome resistance to change, prevent ossification of the social system and generate innovation and creativity.

Real choices raise the possibility that there might be real breakthroughs, real discoveries and real advances. Perhaps the problem is not that we have had too much change, but that we haven’t had enough.

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