The coming bloodbath of the Democrats
Joe Biden's woke, green agenda will cost him dearly at the ballot box.
The depression-era comedian Will Rogers once famously said he did not belong to an organised political party because he was a Democrat. Yet today the traditional factiousness of the Democratic coalition has been engulfed by an almost Stalinist attitude that brooks no dissent on its most treasured policies – even though these do not resonate well with the bulk of the electorate.
To recover, Democrats need to find a way back to their historic base of working-class and minority voters, who now seem to be heading to the GOP. Franklin D Roosevelt’s alliance between big cities, small towns, labour unions and farmers was often awkward, but it still achieved remarkable success in restoring US confidence and winning the war. In contrast, President Biden’s boneheaded embrace of a progressive agenda that is widely detested across most of the population may prove to be one of the greatest political blunders of recent American history.
Given the probability of a significant loss in this November’s Midterms, we should expect – and hope for – a full-scale brawl over the party’s trajectory. There needs to be something equivalent to the New Democrats who, under Bill Clinton, revived the party after the devastating defeats of George McGovern and Michael Dukakis in the 1970s and 80s by moving the party to the centre and connecting it to the country’s diverse regions. ‘Too many Americans’, wrote New Democrats Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck in 1989, ‘have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defence of their national security’.
This time around, the rhetorical knives are already coming out to counter the Democrats’ seemingly inexorable shift to the left. Much of the emerging argument centres around the most unappreciated and largest voting bloc – working- and middle-class Americans.
Many of these voters may be receptive to the traditional, economic-centred social-democratic message of the Democrats. But they are less enthused about the priorities of the now dominant progressives – especially the loudest and most pervasive among them, namely, the climate-change activists. Backed by the media and numerous celebrities, and funded generously by tech and Wall Street oligarchs, they have asserted their dominance since the very beginning of the Biden administration, and appear to have further solidified their control over energy policy, even in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its numerous after-effects.
To some prominent Democrats, this is the ultimate in self-delusion. Some former Obama officials – including former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, campaign strategist David Axelrod and economic adviser Steve Rattner – have criticised Biden’s attempt to blame inflation on Russian president Vladimir Putin. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, roughly 60 per cent of all voters, notes one recent survey, disapproved of Biden’s economic leadership.
The economic metrics are awful. Despite nominal GDP gains and higher wages, inflation, largely driven by energy prices, has been particularly cruel to minority and working-class voters. Overall, when asked if they are better off now than a year ago, twice as many Americans said ‘worse’ than better in a recent poll.
The cave-in to the greens has increased the Democrats’ economic vulnerability, particularly in the wake of Russian aggression and the continued role of China as the world’s dominant greenhouse-gas emitter. The well-funded American environmental elite lack the grudging sense of realism of their German counterparts, who have been forced to reconsider some of their energy policies in light of the invasion. But in resource-rich America, the green grandees still oppose boosting fossil-fuel energy supplies, despite 80 per cent of voters, and an equal percentage of Democrats, favouring the use of both fossil fuels and renewables. Public support for Net Zero / the Green New Deal hovers around 20 per cent.
Essentially the Democrats’ Net Zero obsession could result in a political disaster. In February, according to Gallup, only two per cent of voters named climate or the environment as their biggest concern, one-fifth the number who named inflation and barely one-tenth the number who cited poor government leadership. Relentless climate scaremongering has not moved the needle among voters. ‘Climate catastrophism’, notes political strategist Ruy Teixeira, is a political ‘loser’, particularly among working-class voters of all races.
Cultural issues represent another fault line between the bulk of the electorate and the tin-eared elites of the party. Democrats’ have embraced what former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville scathingly labels ‘the politics of the faculty lounge’, such as support for the increasingly discredited Black Lives Matter movement and its calls to ‘defund the police’. This idea may be beloved at places like Harvard, but among the less elevated mortals it is widely unpopular, even among minorities, including two of the nation’s Democratic African-American mayors, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and New York City’s Eric Adams.
Voters view crime as the second-most pressing issue, after the economy and inflation. Here again the survey results are equally distressing for the progressive agenda. Voters, according to one recent survey, blame the Democrats for the current crime wave by a margin of two to one. Moderate Democrats, like retiring Florida congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, herself a refugee from Vietnam, found her support for legislation that would penalise undocumented criminals got her labeled as ‘anti-immigrant’ by the party’s dominant progressive mob.
Indeed even as New Age leftists speak about America’s serious class divides, much of the left itself increasingly rejects grassroots populism because, as Thomas Frank notes in the Guardian, many regard populists as ‘racist authoritarians’ who ‘ignore the authority of the learned’. We have seen this divide play out most clearly in public schools, where teachers’ unions and administrators have told parents they should cede all control of curricula to progressive educators – something that led last year to the shocking Democratic defeat in Blue-leaning Virginia.
Even San Francisco, the cosmic capital of left-wing lunacy, has just recalled three ultra-progressive school-board members for their refusal to deal with a deteriorating education system. Traditional Democrats may favour expanded medical coverage, better roads and cleaner air, but they’re less enthusiastic about having their youngsters indoctrinated in the fashionable racial theories embraced by the educational establishment. The teachers’ unions may be arguably the Democrats’ most powerful support base, but they have become widely disdained by parents, most of whom oppose their woke ideology.
Progressive attitudes on issues like border control seem peculiar to most people, especially amid massive increases in undocumented immigration. This is undermining Democratic support among even some border-state Hispanics. These are traditional Democrats alarmed by what some consider to be a direct threat to their personal safety and economic security. Overall, barely 36 per cent of Hispanics nationwide, according to one recent survey, support President Biden.
Fuelled by ideological passions, Blue America is in danger of falling in on itself and taking the Democrats with it.
The party’s increasingly draconian climate agenda – even in the face of the Russian challenge – all but guarantees continued losses in the leading gas- and oil-producing states. With the exception of California, which is committing itself to wiping out its large local energy industry, these were working-class communities once ruled by Democrats. Today the Democrats instead represent 27 of the nation’s 30 wealthiest congressional districts.
The losses have been particularly harsh in the more politically critical Heartland – that is, the Midwestern states. In 2009, according to one report issued by concerned Midwestern Democrats in 2018, the putative ‘party of the people’ held the majority of the Heartland’s House seats; by 2017 its share had fallen to under 40 per cent. There are now almost no Democratic senators from the energy-producing states and only a handful in the south. The ranks of ‘prairie populist’, long a feature of left politics in America, have been thinned out to almost non-existence.
The losses in the South, now America’s predominant region, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the population, are even starker. Outside African-American strongholds, the Democrats have become a non-feature in the region that largely birthed it. A half-century ago, representatives from the 11 former Confederate states made up nearly a third (31.4 per cent) of all the House Democrats, notes Pew. Now they account for only 22 per cent.
After November’s Midterms, calls to change the Democrats’ class and geographic agenda will get louder, as they did after George McGovern’s defeat in 1972. A key goal will be to preserve a racially diverse party base in the South and Midwest, largely by abandoning the toxic cultural politics of the left. The base for a more centre-left party exists. Among Democrats, notes Pew, barely 12 per cent belong to the progressive left, less than a fourth of those who are traditional liberals and below those who consider themselves conservatives.
Two critical barriers stand in the way of reviving the Democrats. One lies in changes that create a more tolerant and less authoritarian populism. The New Democrats, who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, operated in a very different environment. It was a time before the rise of China, and many were optimistic about the long-term benefits of globalisation. A successful Democratic agenda today would necessarily be a more nationalistic one, far less open to allowing foreign firms to undercut US firms, especially if they use far more destructive environmental methods to attain lower costs.
Perhaps the best way forward may be to follow the traditionalist model, which blends social-democratic policies as a critical part of the national purpose. Americans remain far more patriotic than Europeans and say they would pay at least somewhat higher prices for domestic goods.
Most voters want Biden to move to the centre and focus on their concerns, as opposed to mainly environmental or cultural concerns. The problem, however, lies with the takeover of the party by the super-affluent of Manhattan, Menlo Park or Malibu, and the party’s continued shrinkage outside the big inner cities. This pattern could be reinforced in the election as candidates in middle- and working-class districts may end up paying for allowing themselves to be frogmarched into supporting policies largely unpopular in their constituencies.
Potential reformers this time face formidable barriers. A large section of the progressive media believe that the real problem with the Democrats is the ‘milquetoast politics’ of a handful of moderates. Some progressives would be happy to lose these moderates. According to some on the left, a Democratic thrashing in November could be welcomed as long as it creates a more decisively progressive party. But rather than attack West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin, a classic New Deal Democrat, for his support for the local economy, the progressives could learn from this very traditional Democrat – not least, from his ability to retain his popularity in a now very GOP-leaning seat.
Parties, like people, can change when forced to, as occurred after the McGovern disaster. The big show in 2022 may not be the election itself but the internal party debates that will come after it this winter, as sentient Democrats recognise the need to boost the appeal beyond the big cities, college towns and elite coastal suburbs. A healthy Democratic Party remains a necessity if nothing else to prevent the unopposed triumph of Trumpism in 2024.
Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin
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