Does Winning Affluent Districts Require Selling Out The Poor?

History professors Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter penned a tremendous op-ed in the New York Times yesterday that should not be missed. In it they argue that the Democratic Party’s efforts to solidify the votes of affluent suburbanites have come at too high a policy cost in terms of winning lower-income white communities–essentially that the deregulatory and low-tax preferences of the educated and upwardly mobile have hollowed out the Democratic Party’s economic program such that it cannot compete in huge swaths of the country.

Despite the usual objections from some quarters, the premise is spot-on accurate. But the piece’s conclusion that Democrats should not try to win affluent suburbs does not necessarily follow from the argument. In fact, it is just as mistaken and doctrinaire in its own way as the notion that Democrats should simply abandon all Trump voters as too prejudiced to bother with. Just as Democrats can win over many marginal Trump voters without making sacrifices in terms of social justice, so too can team blue win over many affluent suburbs without giving ground on progressive economics.

The essential gist of the op-ed is correct: beginning with Jimmy Carter but gaining particular steam after the re-election of Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Party saw the Southern Strategy working against them in concert with the increasing power of big money backing the Republicans and determined that its long-term future lay in a combination of empowered women, communities of color and educated whites. The labor-centered economic program that had guided the party since at least FDR began to vanish in part to win the money and votes of those more closely aligned with the financial sector centered in New York and, over time, the tech sector in Silicon Valley.

Republican dependence on racism and sexism combined with a steady (if not terribly forceful) commitment to expanded civil rights and domestic social justice ensured that Democrats would continue to win the majority of the votes of women and people of color. But it also presaged a collapse among lower-income and less educated whites that was not due just to prejudice, but also in large part to a widespread social and economic decline reflected in factory closures, high mortality rates and much more. Democrats did little to offer alternatives and support to these increasingly dying communities even on their own terms, much less to salve them for the loss of what W.E.B. Du Bois rightly called the psychic wages of whiteness. The result was the combination of ugly racism, sexism and (yes) nationalist, protectionist economic anxiety that crushed the Rust Belt blue wall and delivered the White House to Donald Trump, and placed the House and Senate in the hands of the most extremist Republican Party in history.

In order to clamber out of the political wilderness, Democrats must do what is distasteful to both sides of their ongoing civil war: win over some Trump voters using economic arguments that many would like to dismiss as impossible, as well as continue to gain ground in many increasingly blue, well-educated suburbs that cause queasiness to many economic progressives. And they must do so simultaneously, while maintaining and increasing commitments to both social and economic justice through sentencing reform, jobs guarantees and much else.

How is this possible? It’s fairly simple, actually. The answer lies in the fact that most voters–and particularly most persuadable voters—are not pure partisans. They are often what political scientists call “cross-pressured,” which means they hold multiple strong views that don’t fit neatly within one political party or another and force them to choose what they might consider the lesser of two evils in a two-party system.

It is self-evident that Trump voters by definition didn’t see a problem with voting for a racist, sexist buffoon. But many Trump voters also proved remarkably indifferent to Republican economic orthodoxy, and many want high taxes on Wall Street, robust jobs programs and investment in domestic industry, and libertarian social policy on many issues like drugs. Neither party will give them everything they want, but a committed progressive economic agenda that rejects the muddled market-directed pabulum of education and retraining as a solution to all ills can be successful in winning many of them over, even though the progressive commitment to racial and gender equality might rankle them as just so much social-justice-warrior political correctness. This isn’t idle speculation:  a very large number of registered Democrats are already just so cross-pressured. Appallingly, a full third of Democrats have a negative opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a quarter of Democrats think millions voted illegally in the 2016 election. If they register as Democrats anyway, it’s a fair bet that economics are their top priority. It stands to reason their number could be increased to regain some of the voters who chose Barack Obama twice, and then flipped over to Trump.

So, too, can cross-pressured affluent suburban Democrats be won over by a stridently economically progressive Democratic Party in spite of their potential reservations about their tax bracket, mutual fund returns, McMansion values and budget deficits. Sure, these voters might not like the idea of transaction taxes on Wall Street impacting their dividends or affordable housing being built near their bungalows, but their commitments to social equality and their desire not to have jingoists running the country’s trade and foreign policy mean that they will generally choose the party of both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders over that of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Republicans have understood this for decades. The three legs of their electoral stool (social, economic and foreign policy) don’t particularly like one another or mesh well together, but they have largely held together due to combined mutual interest.

A Democratic Party that takes seriously commitments to both social and economic justice can do likewise, even though some of the former may not be palatable to part of the white working class, and some of the latter may not be desirable among the well-heeled. It must do so if it wants to regain power.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.