Saturday, November 20, 2021

What Democrats Can Learn from Obama and Abrams About Winning Back Working Class Voters

After the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, conventional wisdom focused on geography, suggesting that Democrats needed to nominate a (white male) Southerner in order to win. Then in 2008, along came Barack Hussien Obama - who wasn't only Black, he was born in Hawaii and lived in Chicago. Conventional wisdom shifted to demography and the "emerging Democratic majority" made up of people of color, women, and young people. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 shifted all of that to class, with a focus on the need for Democrats to win back white working class voters. 

Perhaps you'll excuse me if I take that latest bit of conventional wisdom with a grain of salt. These predictions have never been right - perhaps because they're constantly looking at the past rather than the future. 

Nevertheless, the fact that Terry McCauliffe lost the governors race in Virginia has sparked a whole new emphasis on the latest conventional wisdom about class. Perry Bacon calls it white appeasement, David Shor calls it popularism, and Ruy Teixeira, who once chronicled the "emerging Democratic majority," has now done an about-face and adopted right wing talking points about Democrats needing to drop a focus on "wokeness." 

Given the structural advantages Republicans have in our elections, the base of their argument is not completely wrong. Here's Bacon:

Certainly, there is a real case that Democrats need to prioritize wooing White voters — and by whatever means necessary. The Republican Party is growing increasingly radical, raising the stakes for the country in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Even as the United States becomes more racially diverse, White Americans remain about 70 percent of voters overall and make up an even larger bloc in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats can’t win presidential elections or control of the Senate if they lose too many White voters to the GOP.

So if Democrats need to woo white voters (especially working class white voters), the question is "how do they do that?" Bacon posits that a certain amount of white appeasement is necessary (think Sister Souljah). But as he suggests, that can also be problematic.

[T]he limits and dangers of Democratic White appeasement are serious and substantial. Past policies adopted by party leaders to appeal to White voters have hurt people of color in deep and lasting ways. And many of those moves didn’t actually attract many White voters, either. Centering White voters now could push the Democrats away from a recent positive trajectory that includes increasingly embracing candidates of color and aggressive efforts to address racial inequality.

Heading into the 2020 midterms, Shor's focus is on congressional races. Here's how Ezra Klein summarized his prescription:

Shor has built an increasingly influential theory of what the Democrats must do to avoid congressional calamity. The chain of logic is this: Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss. To avoid it, they need to win states that lean Republican. To do that, they need to internalize that they are not like and do not understand the voters they need to win over. Swing voters in these states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.

All this comes down to a simple prescription: Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff. “Traditional diversity and inclusion is super important, but polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks,” Shor said.

In an explanation of Shor's popularism, Nate Cohn focuses on Barack Obama's 2012 campaign as a model. 

[Shor's] also clear in believing that the Obama '12 campaign is the model for Democrats. As far as he's concerned, that was the last time Democrats thought in a popularist--tactical--way, including about salience/messaging on race, immigration, culture...And I think it's pretty easy to see the Obama campaign as an exercise in popularism. Its core message in the Midwest was to tout the autobailout and attack Romney as a corporate raider who would outsource jobs and hollow out the middle class...Obama didn't exactly shy away from talking about liberal cultural issues. But it is true that they weren't the central question of the election, either.

For his recommendations, Teixeira relies on the conclusions of a study about working class voters conducted by Jacobin/Center for Working Class Studies/YouGov.

Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates whose campaigns focused primarily on universalist policy issues such as jobs, health care, and the economy performed better than those who focused on group-specific policies, such as racial justice or immigration. In addition, woke messaging decreased the appeal of other candidate characteristics. For example, candidates employing woke messaging who championed either centrist or progressive economic, health care, or civil rights policy priorities were viewed less favorably than their counterparts who championed the same priorities but opted for universalist messaging. 

But here's the dilemma Democrats face: It is clear that Republicans will continue to run on racial grievance (with Senator Hawley adding male grievance to the mix). It worked pretty well for them with the election of Donald Trump, but more recently in the Virginia governors race against a fairly moderate white guy. According to Shor and Teixeira, Democrats should simply ignore all of that because their positions on race and gender are unpopular with working class voters. 

One of the main problems with these recommendations stems from the assumption that working class voters are responding to policy issues and that Democrats can win them back with a focus on things like jobs, health care, and the economy. That completely ignores the appeal of grievance politics, as well as messages like those we heard from Republican politicians at the recent National Conservatism Conference.

The politicians’ speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics:

“The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging,” said Hawley. “Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.”

“The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America,” said Cruz. “It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.”

“We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life,” said Rubio.

All of that is backed up daily by right wing media propaganda. 

While it's true that Democrats shouldn't completely cede to Republican messaging, simply ignoring it isn't an option either. Furthermore, in documenting coverage of the 2016 presidential race, the Berkman Klien Center at Harvard found that the media focused on supposed Clinton scandals and Trump's "issues."

So even if Democrats ignored the issue of immigration (something both Shor and Teixeira recommend), that doesn't mean it won't emerge as a hot topic.

Going back to Cohn's example of Obama, there are two things Democrats can learn from him to improve their chances with working class voters. In order to combat the apocalyptic lies coming from right wingers, they can emulate the most important speech Obama ever gave - the one at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?...

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America...

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it...

Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Jon Favreau once said that "every election is a competition between two stories about America.” Obama's speech is a story of America that counters the one being told these days by right wingers.

Jamele Bouie once pointed to something else we can learn from Obama. I'll warn you that it can seem counter-intuitive at first. But he makes a great point. He suggests that, to the extent that Republicans make these elections about race and identity, candidates of color might be the best option. That's not simply because they'll automatically win with voters of color, "but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity" (emphasis mine).

Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to [Trump's] racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

In many ways, that is what Ed Kilgore noted about Stacey Abram's "new Democratic coalition."

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes.

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

As an example of what that looks like, here's an excerpt from the speech Abrams made after winning the Democratic primary for governor of Georgia (emphasis mine).

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

Of course, Abrams didn't win that election (perhaps due to Republican voter suppression). But at least in part due to her efforts, Biden won the state two years later and Georgia elected Raphael Warnock as their senator. 

What worked in Georgia might not be effective in every red or swing state. But to the extent that Democrats must figure out a way to appeal to working class voters, there are lessons we can learn from Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams. 


  1. It's the usual arrogance, shared I must admit by left and center, that whatever we favor is the way to win elections, because we are the voters. For the media, we stand up for the center (and the umlimited access to Washington insiders that it affords), and thus so do the voters (without that).

    It overstates the role of policy choices in swinging subsequent elections, if for no other reason than that precisely the informed press that (again seeing mirrors of itself everywhere) knows such things cold. It thus forgets how partisans shape what voters think is each party's position, and it refuses responsibility for the media's own role in doing so. And then comes the blatant contradiction: it ignores what the actual policy positions are.

    Kevin Drum, say, spent the last couple of weeks of endless negotiations pleading with Democratic leaders both to start looking out for the economic interests of working voters and to negotiate with (i.e., cave to) the two Senate Democrats who were doing nothing of the sort. Besides, there's just no path to victory that involves throwing blacks, Latinos and women under the bus. Who in the world do these pundits think are the passengers?

  2. I just had to go through eight successive tests of my robothood, most of them further extended by replacing images I checked. PLEASE make this easier. Not a single other site that requires image recognition makes it so hard. PLEASE.


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