The Cultural Conundrum

By Mike Koetting February 28, 2923

In 2002, Ruy Teixeira, along with John Judis, wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority in which they forecast the dawn of a new progressive era—something to rival the 40-year run of neoliberal hegemony.

These days neither sees circumstances the same way. In a recent Washington Post article, Teixeira expressed concern that the Democrats are losing ground among the entire working-class, not just the White working class. He ascribes this to the Democratic party’s insensitivity on cultural issues, which are how voters assess who is really on their side and who isn’t.

While Democrats still maintain a very large percentage of the non-White working class, there is abundant evidence that a material portion of the population is alienated by what they see as excessive “wokeness” from Democrats.

I think this evidence is sufficient that we can’t flick it away as more MAGA-foolishness. There are voters who broadly agree with most policies of the Democrats, but who just feel unsympathetic to what they see as “extreme” viewpoints. Some of this, of course, is more a reaction to the way Republicans have exaggerated and twisted what was in fact said. But, either way, it’s a real problem for Democrats.

A September poll by The New York Times reported that 59% of White working class respondents said Republicans were the party of the working class. A survey of voters that significantly oversampled self-proclaimed “swing voters” found that while most respondents agree with Democrats on many critical issues, they still found the Democratic Party as “extreme” as the Republican Party. (And, by the way, both parties too extreme for their tastes.)

I don’t know what exactly is cause and what is effect, but there are two shifts that have transformed the Democratic Party over the recent past. It has become more liberal, more than Republicans have become more conservative. And it has become more educated, dramatically switching positions with the GOP in the last 25 years. These shifts have created the conditions in which these tensions grow.

The problems get manifested in many ways. Some of it is about ‘language purity”—which is as annoying to many Democrats as it is to Republicans. And, while this fuss over words can be frustrating, is readily open to ridicule and generally adds fuel to the cultural wars, I think the issue goes much deeper.

It is the underlying question of who do people think share their core values—who is more like them. Policies are transactional; the core problem is at the meta-policy level, if you will. The sense people have, rightly or wrongly, that in the crunch you are either “like” them or “not like” them.

Take, for instance, the debate over renaming schools in San Francisco. A large number of schools—including those named after Abraham Lincoln and George Washington—were slated to be renamed because of connections to slavery, oppression of indigenous people, or other issues. The entire project was eventually set aside but it left a sour taste with the majority of Americans.

Let’s face it. It is hard to understand how the manifest accomplishments of these American icons could be dismissed on the basis of standards that did not apply at the time. I am part of the majority of Americans aggravated by this. Almost any historical evaluation of Washington or Lincoln leaves one with the unmistakable conviction that these men were remarkably positive forces in America’s uneven ascent along the moral arc of the universe.

By the same token. there is in fact a real issue there. These great men had blind spots that reflected foundational problems in the creation of America that continue to be problematic. Which is the real nub of the issue.

Democrats are losing support among working class voters because those voters don’t feel “sympatico” with the current center of the party. On the one hand, what is being raised involves issues that are truly unresolved. This goes way beyond an argument of whether to talk about pregnant women or pregnant people. Those wording issues are skirmishes at the edge of the real conflicts. While there has been important (and decidedly not trivial) progress, there is still systematic racism against Blacks in America and women are still demeaned in countless ways. And while not every claimed incident is an actual problem, there are plenty that are all too real.

On the other hand, given the state of political division, the consequences of ignoring the disaffection of parts of the population—particularly those with whom there are many possible areas of agreement—are potentially huge.

This is not a new issue. From the inception of the country, there has been a rift between those who wanted to go faster on social issues and those who weren’t ready to move so far beyond the status quo. By the way, crude Marxism aside, this is distinct from the struggle over the economic rewards of the nation’s bounty. Some times these struggles have overlapped, but as often as not they proceeded on different fronts. That is how we get the seemingly anomalous circumstance of working class alliance with a Republican party that clearly does not have their economic interests at heart—indeed, anywhere on their horizon.

And so….

The obvious question for Democrats is how to approach this conundrum. The threat of a DeSantis presidency looms large. And, even if Democrats prevail in the presidency, it is also the case that governance does not rest solely on who occupies the presidency. In America’s federated system, there are many contests that make a difference and cultural issues are salient from local school boards to state legislatures to the Senate.

If I had any great answers, you would probably have heard them by now. But I am pretty sure simply insisting that members of the working class who are voting Republican are “wrong” is not going to get anyone’s vote. And, general pleas to progressives to reconsider some language haven’t proved effective.

Maybe a couple thoughts

One thing that would help is more people in leadership positions on the political left taking a stance against “maximalist” positions. In this I’m harkening to an essay last summer by Maurice Mitchell, National Director of the Working Families Party. Reacting to a truly disconcerting wave of progressive organizations being hobbled by internal disputes, he urged leaders to redouble efforts to get staff and supporters to focus on organizational “North Stars” and understand that compromise and coalition are an essential part of progress. He suggested that at times the pursuit of a perfect world was standing in the way of significant progress—or even allowing retrogression–on our broader goals.

Leaders of those organizations that provide the critical energy for progressive causes are of course caught on the same conundrum, perhaps worse because their organizations depend on people who are there because they are devoted to these causes. But, by the same token, perhaps there is some leverage through these organizations precisely because they are aggregations of people devoted to the broader goals.

A second consideration is to think of policy proposals that are specifically designed to moderate divisions. My two previous blogs proposed a focused change in the income tax toward that end. I was also impressed by the action of Governor Shapiro of Pennsylvania to eliminate the requirement for “a college degree” for most state government jobs, calling it an “arbitrary requirement”. This is politically attuned to the bigger issue and puts in action his sentiment that unless everyone is treated with respect, faith in government erodes. There are no doubt other potential policies that can soften the impression that somehow people without a college degree are not as important.

Which brings me to my last—and impossibly difficult—point. Donna Hicks, who has spent most of her career negotiating major conflicts, has concluded that the fundamental issue in these deep and apparently irresolvable conflicts is dignity. She says that, in her experience, negotiations can proceed and it appears there are logical solutions, but then they hit a wall because, she asserts, one side or the other, or both, feel their essential dignity has been violated.

This seems to describe the problem of Democrats and the working class.

I don’t know what to do about this. I work very hard at trying to understand the nuance in positions and why people have principles I find wrongheaded. I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m not sure whether understanding how people get to positions I completely disagree with constitutes validating their dignity. Moreover, I am not sure whether these individual attempts at understanding make a real difference in the context of the cultural and media divides that currently afflict the country, many of which, deliberately or unconsciously, are being fostered for personal gain.

Still, I suspect that in the absence of getting a handle on that problem, it will be difficult for the Democratic party to develop a convincing majority no matter the degree of agreement on specific issues.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “The Cultural Conundrum”

  1. I’ve been on vacation but thinking about these same issues. I think you hit the right note — one that’s eluded me.

    Ira Kawaller (718) 938-7812



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