Against the Grain

Democrats Caught in a Culture-War Trap

Even as economic issues increasingly unite the party, the energy among Democrats is on cultural issues. That’s a long-term threat to their party’s political health.

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams smiles before speaking to supporters during an election-night watch party May 22 in Atlanta.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
May 29, 2018, 8 p.m.

Over the weekend, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote a thoughtful column arguing that Democrats have successfully bridged their ideological divisions. In it, he cited the campaigns of centrist Rep. Conor Lamb in western Pennsylvania and proudly progressive gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and made the counterintuitive argument that they’re more alike than they appear.

Leonhardt’s argument was premised on the fact that both are running on populist economist issues. Like most other Democrats, Abrams wants to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia. Lamb ran against House Speaker Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms. “When Democrats talk about health care, education, and jobs, they can focus the white working class on the working-class part of its identity rather than the white part,” Leonhardt argues.

But Leonhardt all-too-conveniently sidesteps the most important lesson of our politics in the Trump era: that cultural and racial issues, not economic ones, are the driving forces behind voter preferences. Trump supporters and #Resistance activists alike are voting on their values far more than economic self-interest. And while Abrams and Lamb agree on some boilerplate Democratic fiscal policies, they are miles apart on the issues that are animating their core constituencies.

Lamb won his election because he was able to reassure enough culturally conservative voters that he wasn’t a wide-eyed acolyte of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A Marine Corps veteran, he opposed additional gun-control measures (even in the wake of the Parkland school shooting), backed fracking, and bragged about bringing drug dealers to justice on the campaign trail. By contrast, Abrams is adopting among the most liberal positions on gun control and criminal-justice reform for any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in her state’s history.

Abrams’s explicit argument in the Georgia governor’s race is that Democrats can win in a red, Southern state because of their progressivism. It’s why she’s exciting so many activists well outside her home state. But let’s not pretend that the enthusiasm is primarily based on her populist economic appeal. After all, nearly every Democrat backs expanding Medicaid—it’s one of the most common positions for any candidate in the party to hold these days. And being an economic populist isn’t particularly groundbreaking in the Deep South, a region where such views were once widespread (and entangled with the region’s odious history of racism).

Abrams is drawing so much national attention because she’d make history as the first African-American woman to become governor in the country—and is promising to forge a groundbreaking path on social, cultural, and racial issues in a state with a deep-seated conservative bent. Most of the state’s Democratic governors—Jimmy Carter, Zell Miller, Roy Barnes among them—hailed from the rural conservative parts of the state. Abrams grew up around Atlanta, and is running a campaign that reflects the socially progressive sensibility of the vibrant, fast-growing region. It’s a stark contrast with the approach of Lamb, who preemptively distanced himself from the culturally ascendant wing of his own party.

By focusing so much on economic issues at the exclusion of cultural ones, Leonhardt is making the same analytical mistake that congressional Republicans did after passing their signature tax cut. Many GOP strategists assumed a sizable tax cut would energize their base and win over enough tax-sensitive suburbanites back into the GOP fold. But Republican candidates are hardly talking about tax cuts, and focusing instead on Trumpian cultural staples like NFL anthem protests and building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Democrats are making their biggest inroads in affluent GOP-held districts where tax cuts are traditionally applauded.

Despite the policy differences between these two candidates, Leonhardt is right on his larger point on how the Democratic Party is (mostly) united. They’re united in their deep-seated antipathy towards President Trump. And they’re becoming much more unified on these increasingly important cultural issues, to the point where many of Lamb’s views are now an outlier within the party and Abrams’s positions are well within the Democratic mainstream.

The larger problem for the party is that there isn’t more diversity within the party on these hot-button cultural flashpoints. There’s a reason Trump uses many of them as wedge issues; they don’t just mobilize his base, but win over swing voters as well. The NFL drew major backlash over its decision to require on-field players to stand for the national anthem, even though a clear 53 percent majority of Americans say it’s “never appropriate” to kneel during it. Some restrictionist immigration policies receive surprisingly healthy support from the American public. There’s good reason why Rahm Emanuel boasted of “record deportations of criminal aliens” when he worked as a leading adviser for President Clinton.

As the progressive analyst Sean McElwee wrote in The New York Times: “We’re witnessing a historically unprecedented shift left in opinions about race among Democratic voters. … Democratic politicians will no longer have the option in general elections of using a Sister Souljah strategy to win over independent whites the way Bill Clinton did in 1992—the Democratic base simply won’t allow it.”

That’s the bigger story facing the Democratic Party these days—not whether they all share the same views on entitlement programs or government spending levels, but whether they can remain a big-tent party on increasingly divisive cultural issues. They need the moderates to hold majorities in the Senate and House, even as their social views are increasingly heterodox within the party. That’s the real difference between politicians like Conor Lamb and Stacey Abrams, and it’s one that will only intensify if Democrats return to power.

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