What is the biggest obstacle to Democrats truly winning a national election and pursuing a progressive agenda? What is the biggest obstacle to Democrats winning big enough, geographically broad enough, and deep enough to overcome the constitutional barriers to a governing majority in America?
I posed that first question in The American Prospect in a piece titled “From Crisis to Working Majority,” which I wrote at the time Bill Clinton was preparing to run for president. Focusing on the Reagan Democrats who lived in middle- and working-class suburban communities like Macomb County, Michigan, I came to the conclusion that Democrats needed to address disaffected white industrial workers. Many of them were union workers, frustrated that Democrats had failed to identify with their struggles and values. They were very open to a Democratic economic agenda that raised taxes on the rich, penalized CEOs, promised health care as a right, and cut middle-class taxes. That openness to government activism, however, required a Democratic Party that would lead the reform of a welfare system that did not reward work, and the reform of a government that did not work for the middle class. That allowed Bill Clinton to run as the candidate of the “forgotten middle class.”
Bill Clinton’s formula for winning the national vote and the Electoral College lay in reclaiming enough support of the declining white industrial male workers and combining that with the votes from the Democrats’ growing liberal cultural coalition—a product of the civil rights and women’s movements, the influx of immigrants, and the protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
President Clinton and some in the Democratic Leadership Council described this formula as “running to the center,” though as a pollster and strategist for Clinton, I never did. I described it as a formula for building a progressive majority from the bottom up—and it did allow Democrats to win again in the industrial Midwest and run better in some parts of the South.
Democrats today have won the most votes in five of the last six presidential elections and are formidable favorites to win the presidency in 2016, yet Republicans hold large majorities in the U.S. House and Senate and have total partisan control in 24 of the states. At the heart of that deeply frustrating contradiction is the 36 percent of the vote Obama won with white non-college-educated voters nationally. He did get 40 percent of the votes of white workers outside the South and in most rural states, yet that number still limits the scope of Democratic gains.
The same contradiction could bedevil a Hillary Clinton election in 2016. In a simulated run, she won comfortably against Mitt Romney, yet she was getting 32 percent of the white non-college votes, about the same as Obama got with those voters in his last run. That would be insufficient to produce a Congress with a governing majority.
Some have argued Democrats need to repeat the Clinton formula of proposing more “moderate” policies, running to the “center,” and downplaying and toning down the appeal to the Rising American Electorate and the new majority of blacks, Hispanics and new immigrants, millennials, unmarried women, and seculars. They also mean toning down the progressive agenda those voters are demanding.
Those who advocate such “centrism” could not be more wrong. The key to both winning today’s white working-class voters and building overwhelming majorities with the Rising American Electorate is a robust agenda of progressive reform and government activism.
The old formula, to be honest, has been made irrelevant by the seismic economic and cultural shifts that are transforming American politics. On the one hand, Republicans have successfully nationalized every presidential and off-year election because they are waging an ever-more-intense and polarized counter-revolution against the country’s national trends. On the other, Democrats are the beneficiaries of these inexorable trends, but Democrats have not addressed the profound wage stagnation and the special-interest corruption of government that leave the middle class out in the cold. That leaves Democrats’ potential majority without a reason to stay consistently engaged—and leaves Democrats short on white working-class votes as well. The key for the Democrats now is a bold reform agenda relevant for these new times.
The Defining Republican Dynamic
The seismic transformations happening in America today—increasing racial diversity, rising immigration, growing secularism, evolving family structures, and swelling metropolitan centers—are not simply economic and demographic changes. They matter so much because they are tied to revolutions in America’s values, particularly the values held among millennials and those living in the cities. These revolutions have produced a furious counterrevolution and battle for America’s values—though it is a counterrevolution that cannot prevail.
Those battling against these seismic transformations in values honor an individualism that is grounded in personal responsibility, self-reliance, self-restraint, and self-discipline. In their view, an individual who is not encouraged to learn self-direction and self-reliance will become idle and dependent. Accordingly, they value industriousness, conscientiousness, and a strong work ethic. Their beliefs are grounded in their faith. They seek purity before God and admire those who live a sanctified life, uphold faith-based moral absolutes, and respect traditional authority. They honor marriage and the traditional family in which the man plays the breadwinner role. They value patriotism, love of country, and those who defend us from our enemies. U.S. citizens come first. And they deride those who fetishize diversity and multiculturalism, and suffer from misplaced compassion. They abhor secularists who cannot understand the primacy of faith in making moral judgments.
These revolutions and the counterrevolution are producing an increasing cultural and political polarization in America, but the polarization is hardly symmetric. History is on the side of the ascendant revolutions, and thus the opponents believe they must never let up. Indeed, they must engage the forces of change with increasing intensity if they are to forestall the Armageddon. When we look back and ask how America became so polarized and gridlocked, we will likely focus on 2004. This is when Karl Rove decided to join the culture war so as to build Republican support with religious and evangelical voters.
Defenders of traditional values have been able to wage a counterrevolution of increasing ferocity by encamping in the 20 states of the South, the Appalachian valley, and parts of the Great Plains and Mountain West. These are the most race-conscious, evangelical, religiously observant, and rural parts of the country. From this base, conservatives have fervently joined the culture war to reassert endangered values and warn of the high risks of the new mores. For them, all elections are national.
To stop the revolutions, Republicans are attempting to restrict access to abortion and even contraception, and are fighting demands for equal pay for women. They are defending the institution of traditional marriage as more states accept the legality of same-sex marriages. The Republican Party continues to resist voting rights for blacks and Latinos, and is battling to reverse Obama’s actions to give legal status to undocumented immigrants, including even the Dreamers who came to the United States as minors. They work to end unemployment benefits and Obamacare subsidies, which they view as welfare undermining the incentive to work.
This is producing a profound, asymmetric ideological polarization, as reflected in the important Pew Research Center study “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Instead of using voters’ self-placement on a liberal-moderate-conservative scale, Pew measured ideology according to people’s responses to a range of defining political choices on a variety of values issues, including government wastefulness and regulation, corporate profits, helping the poor, racial discrimination, immigration, use of the military, environmental regulation, and homosexuality. The Pew study views ideology as an expression of political value choices, though those choices are clearly expressions of deeper attitudes about morality, community, and way of life.
In that context, the battle over values is translating into real-life choices about where to live—what kind of neighborhood with what kind of people—and whether to accept the country’s new diversity and multiculturalism.
A stunning two-thirds of “mostly conservative” people and three-quarters of the “consistently conservative” want to live in a community where the houses are larger and farther apart and schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away. Less than a quarter of consistent conservatives say being near an art museum or theater is important to them. These responses are flipped for the ideologically liberal, whose views reflect the growing preference for urbanism and metropolitan centers. More than three-quarters of the consistently liberal prefer to live in communities where houses are smaller and closer together, with schools and stores in walking distance. Nearly three-quarters of consistent liberals also say living near art museums or theaters is important to them.
The most dramatic cultural difference brought out by this unique national survey is whether you prefer to live with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and whether you prefer to live with people who share your religious faith. Those factors are at the heart of America’s accelerating racial diversity and rising secularism, as well as the conservative reaction. Just a fifth of consistent conservatives say they are looking for that kind of diversity in the communities where they live; almost 60 percent, however, are looking for communities where many people share their faith. In stark contrast, three-quarters of the consistently liberal are looking to live in racially and ethnically diverse communities, but finding those who share their faith is not important to them at all.
That alignment is taking place in a country that is increasingly diverse, immigrant, secular, young, and living in metropolitan centers, which is why conservatives are under siege. Half of consistent conservatives say, “It’s important for me to live in a place where most people share my political views”—15 points higher than for consistent liberals. And even more, 63 percent, say it is important that “most of my friends share my political views”—14 points higher than for consistent liberals. Conservatives unhappy with these national trends are looking for solidity of friendship and community.
Those numbers do not quite capture the swelling stakes for the supporters of each of the national parties. Increasingly, they think that if the other party gets to advance its values agenda, the country is at risk, though it is Republican conservatives who are leading the country to the edge of this perceived national crisis. Now, 27 percent of Democrats say Republicans “are a threat to the nation’s well-being”—but 36 percent of Republicans say that about Democrats. Half of consistently liberal Democrats say Republicans are such a threat, but they are outdone by consistently conservative Republicans, two-thirds of whom say the Democratic Party’s pursuit of its values and agenda puts the country at risk.
Supporters of both major political parties have become ever more hostile to the other party and fearful of where it would take the country, though Republicans and consistent conservatives are in a league of their own on the perceived threat. A stunning 72 percent of consistent conservatives have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, and that has jumped almost 20 points since 2004. A majority of consistent liberals—53 percent—are none too fond of the Republicans, but the growth in hostility is half the rate it is for conservatives, and the level of negativity about the other party is 19 points lower.
The launch of the culture war in 2004 brought the thoroughgoing ideological polarization of the two parties. A nearly complete 99 percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, and that measure has reached 98 percent for Democrats with respect to the median Republican. That level of partisan ideological unanimity has jumped more than 10 points for the partisans of both parties since 2004, after remaining fairly steady in the prior decade.
The revolutions and counterrevolution have produced political parties that are ideologically polarized expressions of the emerging values conflict, though the shifts in underlying attitudes and fears are hardly symmetrical. Republicans are more alienated from what they see as the revolutions’ ascendant values, living styles, and multiculturalism, and they want to live in communities where more people share their faith and political views. They are more hostile to the Democratic Party and much more likely to believe the country is at risk if the Democratic Party wins elections.
That asymmetry, and the political mobilization that it stimulates, has allowed Republicans to over-perform in off-year elections since the election of Barack Obama, and to build their base in the more rural states. Republicans sustained high off-year turnout in 2010 and 2014 by constantly raising the specter of Obama and the grave risks to the country’s traditional values if Democrats hold office. They raised the stakes in order to build turnout among their base, and the predictable consequences played out after the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in 2010. They have also helped produce an off-year, white working-class voter who is older, more religiously observant, more socially conservative, and anti-government.
By winning big in the South and in Appalachian, Plains, and Rocky Mountain states, the Republicans are able to compete for control of the Senate and govern in at least 40 percent of the states, even though the population there counts for only a quarter of the nation.
Their success in mobilizing and governing with this conservative model only makes winning national elections more difficult. After 2010, the actions of the Tea Party–dominated House sent Republican poll ratings plummeting. Even so, Republicans managed to gain control of both houses of Congress in 2014. After that sweep, Republican leaders promised their base supporters that they would block Obama’s executive action on undocumented immigrants and his efforts to limit coal pollution, and they will still battle to repeal Obamacare. And it has taken just a few months for the party’s brand to get badly tarnished and for Democrats to regain their presidential-year advantage.
The more Republican strategies succeed in animating and motivating their voters to win off-year elections, the more they alienate their party from America’s burgeoning new electorate. Democrats enter 2016 as the favorites to win the popular vote and perhaps an Electoral College landslide.
However, Republicans can also slow the progressive project nationally, with the full electoral advantages that come from having a rural base and a constitutional system that favors ruralism over urban density, as well as a conservative Supreme Court that blunts both popular liberal initiatives and the expanding new electorate. The GOP holds on by fighting ferociously to block government spending for the poor, to stop uncontrolled immigration, to prohibit abortion, and to defend traditional marriage.
The success of these tactics has serious consequences for Democrats and a progressive agenda. It enables the Republicans to pursue a full-throated conservative agenda in the 20 states of the “conservative heartland” and to block major portions of any Democratic president’s agenda in Congress. But those successes come with a huge price tag. They raise the odds that Democrats will win the presidency, executive branch, and eventually even the judiciary.
Confronting the Contradictions of the New America
Barack Obama fully identified with the new America’s growing majority and its values, and that was his formula for Democrats winning national elections in 2008 and 2012. It is a formula that will be available and even more potent for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Rising American Electorate of African Americans, Hispanics, millennials, and unmarried women will constitute 54 percent of the electorate in 2016. If you also include the seculars with no religious affiliation, this rising share of the electorate will increase to 63 percent. Each of these groups is steadily growing and, as of early 2015, nearly two-thirds of them intend to vote for Hillary Clinton, assuming she is the nominee.
The metropolitan areas are indeed a cauldron for these economic and cultural revolutions, making the metropolitan revolution a political one too. A majority of the country now lives in large metro areas, and Obama won 77 percent of votes in the urban core and 62 percent in the inner suburbs. In 2012, Obama won 27 of the 30 most populous cities, and nine of the ten cities with the highest GDP per capita.
The revolutionary changes captured in the large metro areas are moving states out of their traditional Electoral College column and restricting the national Republican Party to the core conservative states. The dramatic changes in metropolitan areas have moved Virginia, Colorado, and perhaps Florida beyond purple-state status and put North Carolina in play, though voter suppression weakened that trend.
Obama embraced the new diversity and changes in gender roles and the family, which builds the Democrats’ electoral support among America’s new majority. Obama could get by with just 36 percent of white working-class votes in 2012 because increasingly, Obama’s Democratic formula depends on the two-to-one support the party gets from minority voters, new immigrants, millennials, and unmarried women, as well as the party’s big majorities among professional women and the college-educated.
Obama’s big election victories in 2008 and 2012 were, in the end, the political triumph of the ascendant trends, even though he was propelled across the finish line in 2008 by the economic distress and slowed in 2012 by the limp economic recovery. The huge crowd in Grant Park in 2008 celebrating the election of a young, mixed-race president was celebrating a changed America.
But any new Democratic president will very quickly discover, as Obama did all too soon, that the American mood can easily darken. Two-thirds will very quickly say the country is headed in the wrong direction. This was Obama’s experience by 2011. Whether that occurs again will depend on how the new president decides to address the growing economic and cultural contradictions facing the country—a project Obama did not undertake as the defining challenge of his presidency.
When Obama assumed office after the economic collapse of 2008, he did not view it as a Roosevelt moment, when a Democratic president might have educated the public on the fundamentals of the new economy and advanced a bold reform agenda. But again, that was not his project. He sounded visionary on the campaign trail, but less so as a governing chief executive.
The American citizenry and new majority celebrate the ascendant trends, values, and changing way of life, but they live the contradictions. They struggle daily with the pay gap and work that doesn’t pay enough to live on, piecing together several part-time jobs and participating in the freelance economy while managing work and kids, many of them as single parents. The majority live with the social consequences that arise from more and more households being unmarried; from the reality that working-class men today face a dimmer future than their fathers did; and from the lack of public policies that support women who are fully in the labor force. All the while, they are watching the one percent use their money to influence political connections and rig the system so the economy works in their favor, not for that of the working and middle class.
With those problems unaddressed, the public simmers, waiting for political leaders who get it and who will reform government and bring real changes.Large percentages of the new American majority—the progressive base for change—believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and still give Obama high disapproval ratings. So while Republicans are deeply engaged in a battle against the changing trends, the new American majority is much less engaged because they see politics failing them. The Rising American Electorate could be the Democrats’ salvation—but that electorate first has to be engaged and motivated to vote.
The formula for a real national majority does not depend on winning the “Reagan Democrats” or the “forgotten middle class.” But we now know that identifying with the emergent trends and joining the battle for American values will still leave the Democrats short of the momentum they need to bring change. Democrats have to show they get it and finally join the battle over the central contradictions of our times. Then, they will have a majority that defends its gains year in and year out.
I conducted a national survey for Democracy Corps at the outset of the 2016 presidential cycle, which confirmed the public is ready. A large majority of the country embraces a bold reform narrative that demands leaders confront the special interests’ hold on government and puts the problems of the middle class center-stage. People get excited by leaders who understand their lives. The new American majority is hungry for leaders who know how hard it is for people to piece together multiple jobs to make ends meet—and so is calling for drastic improvements in wages and employment rights. Voters want leaders who appreciate the horrific cost of college and will make college more affordable, and they want leaders who understand how bewildering and difficult it is to balance work and have a family and will therefore offer adequate social supports.
They are ready to see deep investments to rebuild American infrastructure and modernize the country—if it is serious in scale, long-term, and independent of a Congress dominated by special interests and self-seeking politicians. And they understand that this is one way that government can produce good-paying jobs.
And the American people are ready to tax the richest and disrupt that group’s special deal with government. They bring to this period a special disdain for overpaid CEOs and the crony capitalism that makes government work for big business and special interests. The rich paying their fair share is nearly a first principle in economic reform and getting to a good society.
They are ready for government to help—if the stables can be cleaned. The government today is bought and sold to the biggest donors, and it wastes hundreds of billions of dollars at the behest of special-interest lobbyists. They are excited when leaders begin with reforms that restore democracy and get government to work for the middle class again.
So, what is the biggest obstacle to Democrats truly winning a national election and pursuing a progressive agenda? It is failure of Democrats to seize the moment and define an appeal that champions the interests of both the Rising American Electorate and the working middle class. Creating and communicating a reform agenda needs to be the Democrats’ top priority.
This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine.