By Mike Koetting May 10, 2017
Today’s post follows from last week’s discussion of how Democrats and the White Working Class were no longer getting along, as typified in the movie Hell or High Water. (Like last week’s post, this essay was written before the actual election.) It addresses the difficulties of a more inclusive Democratic Party.
It is hard to imagine a pure economic analysis that would suggest lower and middle income people who are worried about their financial situation would choose Republican policies over Democratic policies. Republican policies overtly and dramatically favor the upper end of the economic spectrum. So a drift of the economic anxious to support of Trump, or any Republicans, must also have a powerful undercurrent of issues that have become muddled into economic issues. No matter how much Bernie Sanders or other Democratic populists insist, it seems unlikely these voters will be reached simply by advocating for economic policies that benefit all lower and middle income people without addressing the other issues.
Where does that leave Democrats, or, for that matter, anyone who believes in activist, inclusive government? For openers, there are a number of people who will never be interested in that style of government—because they are attracted to white nationalism, because they are hard-line evangelicals who are wedded to principles fundamentally inconsistent with Democrats or because they have conservative economic principles as either a philosophy or a form of robust self-interest.
That still leaves a substantial number of white voters who are now voting Republican because of “cultural issues” who might be brought into the Democratic column with sufficient explicit attention to the cultural issues adjunct to the economics. Maybe. The issues are fraught.
Consider, for example, the fact that the African American unemployment rate is twice that of the rate for white people. Some people look at that and see it as a measure of the discrimination against African Americans. Other people look at it and see evidence that blacks don’t have sufficient work ethics. It reminds me of the drawing often used in intro psych classes. Depending on how you look at it, it could be a young woman or it could be an old woman.
Of course, many people will say even if both are in some measure true, one is way more important than other. Almost certainly–and, in any event, there are very powerful interaction effects. But as long as both “explanations” are in play, political movements need to either appeal to one or the other or try to encompass both.
For sure, it would require some amazing political prestidigitation to accommodate both views. Perhaps so much fancy work the realpolitik politicians will say: why bother? Republicans have made their choice. Democrats already have a plausible majority, demography is trending in their direction, and any attempt at finessing these kinds of cultural divides has a good chance of alienating a crucial portion of their base—for an uncertain gain.
There are multiple reasons to take some risks to create a political view that doesn’t make it totally improbable for people whose initial impulses are different to vote together. The first is largely political. Democrats across the country have been clobbered down-ballot. Republicans predominate in state governments (and House districts). So far, Democrats have shown limited ability to turn out enough of their base in out-year elections to overcome a concerted Republican gerrymandering effort. The “contestable” Republicans could provide the difference, particularly in some states with big cities.
Second, the current political situation—with government split 50-50 between positions that seem to come from different planets—leaves a country unable to act on policy matters that are essential to our welfare. While I don’t have a solid empirical base for any specific number, looking at voting over the last several elections and what people say in response to specific issue surveys, it seems likely 10% to 15% of Republicans could be “contestable”. Winning even a portion of this group could provide a decisive difference in a country otherwise split fairly evenly. Such a move would also moderate positions in both parties because it would disturb the ongoing drift to more partisan positions that has marked the last 20 years. (Paradoxically, it might be possible to address the very issues that are making the white working class so anxious if they could align their economic interests with the Democratic party, rather than with a fractious Republican party that is mostly arguing against their economic interests.)
Third, even more difficult to accommodate, there is good reason to believe that current approaches to fixing the nation’s problems don’t work that well regardless of who is in charge. For sure, letting Democrats be Democrats would solve a lot of problems. But in the harsh light of day, we can see that some of those approaches don’t work as well as we would hope because they are partial and fragmented or give insufficient weight to the importance of economic competition. Or because they don’t recognize how unresponsive government can be or because they don’t recognize how hard it would be for Democrats to vote for real change, particularly given the importance of “big money” campaign contributions to Democrats as well as Republicans. Obama tried to start some of this dialogue, but it got shut down in the ultra-partisan atmosphere in which we are currently waging our policy discussions. Believing that there were a material number of voters who were actually willing to vote to bridge the different views of the world might help craft more responsive policy options.
Is it really possible to find positions that are sufficiently nuanced to attract “contestable” Republicans to start voting Democratic without alienating the base? It will not be as simple as “splitting the difference” or finding two from column D and one from column R. It will require some hard looks at problems that have troubled our society for the last fifty years, or longer, and try to reach some new consensus points.
But is there any good alternative?