Democrats Are Losing the Culture Wars

Party leaders are moving leftward, naively assuming they can win over working-class voters with a socialist-minded message.

Supporters watch the election results during Hillary Clinton's election-night rally in New York on Nov. 8.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Nov. 15, 2016, 8 p.m.

In the af­ter­math of the elec­tion, shell-shocked Demo­crats struggled to pin­point a reas­on be­hind their stun­ning loss to Don­ald Trump. Hil­lary Clin­ton blamed FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey. Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives cri­ti­cized the Clin­ton cam­paign team for tak­ing the Rust Belt for gran­ted. Bernie Sanders and his as­cend­ant left-wing flank of the party blames the party’s close­ness to Wall Street.

No one is point­ing a fin­ger at the most glar­ing vul­ner­ab­il­ity—the party’s cul­tur­al dis­con­nect from much of the coun­try. On is­sues ran­ging from the pres­id­ent’s hes­it­ance to la­bel ter­ror­ism by its name to an un­will­ing­ness to cri­ti­cize ex­trem­ist ele­ments of protest groups like Black Lives Mat­ter to ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders man­dat­ing trans­gender bath­rooms, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fen­ded the sens­ib­il­it­ies of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic. Among lib­er­al-minded mil­len­ni­als, Pres­id­ent Obama’s ac­tions were a sign that he was chart­ing “an arc of his­tory that bends to­wards justice.” But to older, more-con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­ans, it was a sign that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s views were well out­side the Amer­ic­an main­stream.

Clin­ton tried to win over mod­er­ates by rais­ing red flags about Trump’s for­eign policy and his ra­cially charged, miso­gyn­ist­ic rhet­or­ic. But she didn’t have a Sis­ter Soul­jah mo­ment to cri­ti­cize the ex­cesses of the Left—as Bill Clin­ton fam­ously did dur­ing the 1992 cam­paign—for fear of ali­en­at­ing the Obama co­ali­tion. In fact, her line that “im­pli­cit [ra­cial] bi­as is a prob­lem for every­one” dur­ing the first de­bate was a mo­ment that couldn’t have been more re­pel­lent to those white Rust Belt voters who deser­ted the Demo­crats this year.

As New York Times colum­nist Ross Douthat pres­ci­ently wrote in Septem­ber: “The new cul­tur­al or­tho­doxy is suf­fi­ciently stifling to leave many Amer­ic­ans look­ing to the vot­ing booth as a way to re­gister dis­sent.” Op­pos­ing polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness was one con­sist­ent theme in Trump’s very muddled cam­paign mes­sage.

Demo­crats will be spend­ing their time in the polit­ic­al wil­der­ness fig­ur­ing out how to re­build a shattered party. But early in­dic­a­tions sug­gest that party lead­ers are veer­ing even fur­ther to the left in­stead of mod­er­at­ing their rhet­or­ic. They’ve con­cluded—with the as­sist­ance of Sanders, Eliza­beth War­ren, and po­lemi­cist Mi­chael Moore—that they would have per­formed bet­ter with work­ing-class white voters if they only ar­tic­u­lated a more pop­u­list eco­nom­ic mes­sage. They’ve shown no in­clin­a­tion to re­ject Clin­ton’s con­tro­ver­sial no­tion that half of Trump’s sup­port­ers were de­plor­able and ir­re­deem­able.

Their lead­ing choice to head the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is Rep. Keith El­lis­on of Min­nesota, one of the most lib­er­al mem­bers in the House. His sup­port­ers cham­pi­on him as a lead­er who can ad­voc­ate a pop­u­list eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ment, while en­er­giz­ing the di­verse base of a party look­ing for fresh lead­er­ship. But as a fresh­man con­gress­man, he com­pared George W. Bush to Hitler and hin­ted that the former pres­id­ent might have been re­spons­ible for 9/11. He’s got a com­pel­ling résumé as the first Muslim elec­ted to Con­gress, but that’s marred by his past ties to anti-Semit­ic Na­tion of Is­lam lead­er Louis Far­rakhan in the mid-1990s (he’s since dis­tanced him­self) and fre­quent op­pos­i­tion to pro-Is­rael le­gis­la­tion in Con­gress (he was one of just four House Demo­crats to vote against Iron Dome le­gis­la­tion pro­tect­ing the Jew­ish state from ter­ror­ist rock­ets). Non­ethe­less, he has been en­dorsed by Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and his ex­pec­ted suc­cessor, Sen. Chuck Schu­mer.

Schu­mer’s po­s­i­tion­ing will be fas­cin­at­ing to watch in the com­ing months. If he truly be­lieves that the so­cial­ist agenda cham­pioned by Sanders is the party’s best polit­ic­al op­tion, he may be in for a rude awaken­ing in two years. Demo­crats are bet­ting that red-state voters in states like Mis­souri, West Vir­gin­ia, Montana, and In­di­ana—where Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors are fa­cing reelec­tion in 2018—will be born-again Eliza­beth War­ren boost­ers. It would be en­tirely at odds with the strategy that Schu­mer cham­pioned to take back the Sen­ate in 2006, when he re­cruited can­did­ates with di­verse views on is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion and abor­tion rights. That year, Vir­gin­ia’s Jim Webb was the Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity-maker in the up­per cham­ber.

While the Demo­crat­ic bench is thin, there are prom­ising fu­ture Demo­crat­ic lead­ers who would steer the party in a more prag­mat­ic dir­ec­tion. Rep. Seth Moulton of Mas­sachu­setts, a former Mar­ine Corps of­ficer, is already one of the lead­ing lib­er­al voices on na­tion­al se­cur­ity. Rhode Is­land Gov. Gina Rai­mondo, a cent­rist busi­ness­wo­man, has ad­vanced pro-growth eco­nom­ic policies in the Ocean State. Sen.-elect Mag­gie Has­san of New Hamp­shire was one of the few suc­cess­ful Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates, in part by dis­tan­cing her­self from ele­ments of Obama’s for­eign policy on the cam­paign trail.

Demo­crats face a con­sequen­tial choice ahead: Tack to the left, and risk los­ing the af­flu­ent sub­urb­an voters that Clin­ton car­ried with little guar­an­tee of win­ning back work­ing-class whites. Or move to the middle, re­cog­niz­ing the party can em­brace both ra­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al di­versity at the same time.

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