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
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
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.

What We're Following See More »
Senate Intel Postpones Testimony by Cohen
1 days ago
Senate Rejects Effort to Nix SALT Tax Changes
2 days ago

"Senate Democrats on Thursday failed in their first attempt to save the state and local tax deduction, which helps many residents of California and other high-cost states reduce their federal income tax bills. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 52-47 to reject an amendment that would have prevented the Senate from considering any bill that repeals or limits the deduction as part of a planned tax overhaul."

Lewandowski Meets with Senate Intelligence Committee
2 days ago

"President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared on Capitol Hill for a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter. Lewandowski is the latest senior official in Trump's orbit who has met with the committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign."

Some Members Seek to Wrap Up Russia Investigations by Year’s End
3 days ago

"A growing number of key Republicans are sending this message to the leaders of the congressional committees investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians: Wrap it up soon. In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition."

Trump: Marino Withdrawing Nomination for Drug Czar
4 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.