New Opportunities for Dems Come With Opportunity Costs

One of the interesting things to look for as our country’s politics enter a new phase of more rapid realignment is cases where this messes with the assumptions that were made when our congressional districts were gerrymandered after the last Census. The Republicans did so well in the 2010 midterms that they had a huge national advantage when it came time to redraw districts, but Illinois was a rare exception where the Democrats were able to use gerrymandering to the max to carve out a few extra seats.

And then a funny thing happened:

Located in greater Chicago’s western exurbs, Democrats had drawn Illinois’ 14th District to quarantine hostile Republican voters, but after the well-educated district swung from 54-44 Romney to just 49-45 Trump, GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren could be targeted in 2018.

This is the flip side or positive aspect of the change in voting patterns that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Even as she hemorrhaged votes in small towns and rural regions, Trump lost almost as many votes in the suburbs (and some suburbanizing exurbs). And it’s not just that these areas are getting younger and more ethnically diverse. Trumpism doesn’t sell well even with tax-averse white professional Romney Republicans, let alone with sophisticated college-educated women who may have been raised to see the Republican Party as a signifier of their status. There’s nothing high class about that Access Hollywood tape.

Of course, there’s a certain risk of perversion of purpose if the party of the underprivileged and dispossessed becomes reliant on the three-car garage set for their votes, and that’s a likely side effect of a realignment like this. Votes are always welcome, of course, but chasing after these voters could come with an opportunity cost if it prevents the Democrats from realizing that their power is eroding badly in this trade. And, of course, there’s the moral element to consider, which is that a left that’s worth its name doesn’t leave people behind.

Winning districts like Illinois’ 14th could be the straightest and shortest line to winning back control of the House of Representatives. It’s not exactly a low-hanging fruit, but you can reach it with a step-ladder. The risk is that investing in that step-ladder means focusing on messages and making appeals to certain kind of voters. Depending on how that is done, it might actually accelerate the party’s erosion among the white working class, which is the exact trade that has been costing the Democrats control of state legislatures and losing them governors races and Senate seats that they should control. It’s also what made Trump a winner despite losing the popular vote.

That doesn’t mean that the strategy doesn’t make sense, but it is perhaps more alluring than wise. It will only work out well if it doesn’t catalyze a swifter realignment that has so far been most unfavorable to the left.

In other words, the Democrats shouldn’t allow so much of their attention to be diverted into winning formerly safe Republican suburban seats that they don’t take seriously enough the hard work they need to do to stop their bleeding in small towns and rural/exurban areas.

A lot of the debate right now is stuck on a circular argument that on one side says that going after working class voters necessarily means selling out more reliable Democrats on women’s rights, gay rights and civil rights, and on the other side insists that there is no choice.

One thing that is lost is the idea that a party that becomes anchored on the support of affluent professionals will come to reflect their interests and begin to resist the demands of the economically pressed. This realignment may feel good in some respects. For example, it’s nice to allow all the latter day Jim Crow Democrats to find a new political home that doesn’t contaminate the rest of us. If they’re not on board with gay rights and they want to stop immigration by nonwhite people and they’re suspicious of Muslims and they’re resistant to sensible gun violence control and they’re not reliable supporters of women’s reproductive freedom, and they’re more interested in fracking jobs than climate change then maybe they don’t belong in the Democratic Party. Even asking for their votes can seem like a betrayal of principle. But it’s also a certain kind of betrayal to tell whole regions of the country that there is not going to be any left-wing to represent their interests against the monopolists who have hollowed out their communities and destroyed virtually all entrepreneurial opportunity. The opioid epidemic may have reached the white professional classes in the suburbs now, but its been destroyed these rural communities ever since Oxy-Contin hit the market in the 1990s.

When the left leaves people behind and does a poor job of representing them, the result is riots in our cities and fascism in the heartland. The choice isn’t between purity and cynicism. It’s not about avoiding selling certain people out, and it shouldn’t be about who to sell out. For both moral and practical reasons, the left needs to represent people in every community, and they need to do it on terms that make sense and work for each community.

Also, here’s some cool trivia related to emerging race in the 14th District of Illinois:

High school teacher and Army veteran Victor Swanson recently became the first Democrat to jump into the race, although it’s unclear if the first-time candidate has the skills and connections needed for such an uphill race. At the very least, Swanson might be able to get some fundraising help thanks to his famous brother Andy Richter, a comedian and actor who is best known for his longtime collaborations with late-night TV host Conan O’Brien.

I wish Andy Richter’s brother success, but win or lose, that contest is kind of beside the point.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.