Can Democrats avoid a looming electoral disaster? | #192 – April 17, 2022
The Democratic Party was strongest electorally when it was a party for class-based economic liberalism. Regaining that identity will require compromise, but is its best chance at survival
I have read quite a few articles recently about the Democratic Party’s bleak near- and medium-term electoral future. As far as I can tell, this all started with a guest post by Simon Bazelon, a Yale political science and philosophy student, in Matthew Yglesias’s newsletter Slow Boring. I think the article is good and worth a read; Bazelon presents a good amount of historical data which suggests Democrats are in trouble in the House in 2022 and Senate in 2024.
The post spread widely thereafter. Bazelon went on Slate’s popular Political Gabfest podcast, and the underlying data he cited — analyzed by progressive prognosticator and friend of the blog David Shor — was mentioned in a New York Times Opinion column by Ross Douthat. “Will Democrats Soon Be Locked Out of Power?”, Douthat asks— and answers thus:
According to calculations by liberalism’s Cassandra, David Shor, the convergence of an unfavorable Senate map for Democrats with their pre-existing Electoral College and Senate disadvantages could easily produce a scenario where the party wins 50 percent of the congressional popular vote, 51 percent of the presidential vote — and ends up losing the White House and staring down a nearly filibuster-proof Republican advantage in the Senate.
From my read of the data, this all seems fair and right enough. Democrats are currently sitting at about 49% of the two-party vote in FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of generic ballot polls. And since the party in power tends to lose ground in midterms as election day approaches, they are likely to lose by an even larger margin. This is all made worse by the fact that they need to win the House popular vote by about 2.5-3 percentage points to hold onto their majority — even after accounting for the boost they got from a semi-favorable redistricting cycle. Prediction markets currently give Democrats just a 20-30% chance of holding onto their majority.
The picture in the Senate is even worse. In this cycle, Democrats are defending seats in Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Arizona — all of which have neutral or Republican-leaning partisan voter indexes. Things are even worse for the party in 2024; Democrats will be defending incumbents in Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, and West Virginia. All of these 8 races are potential flips for Republicans, especially if the natural environment drifts to the right (as we would expect it to if Joe Biden’s approval rating remains at about 41-42%).
I agree, further, that many Democrats do not seem to be taking the prospect of being locked out of power for the short- to medium-term seriously enough. If Republicans win back the House in 2022, take back the White House in 2024, and defend a very favorable map in 2026, Democrats may not regain full control of the federal government until 2028 or 2030. To quote Douthat: “The political landscape after 2024, however, might look more like liberalism’s depictions of its Trump-era plight.”
Where other writers are neglecting, and where I think it is worth spending some more time on now, are two questions. First, how did Democrats end up in this situation? What are the long-term trends that led them to incur such a serious bias in the Senate, for example?
And, second, what are they going to do about it?
I. Nationalization, polarization, and geography-based electoral systems are all bad for the party that represents cities. The Senate magnifies this bias to an undemocratic extreme
As a starting point, my advice for Democratic practitioners is to rip a page out of WHY CITIES LOSE, a book on political geography by political scientist Jonathan Rodden. Literally: turn to page 43 and rip out this graph:
Okay, maybe don’t literally rip it out, but whatever — I’m sure Jonathan would be glad if you bought his book whether or not you defaced it. Anyway, the graph shows the increasing correlation between population density and Democratic vote share in counties across Pennsylvania. Since 1916, denser counties have gotten more Democratic and sparser ones more Republican.
Rodden traces this polarization to a few sources — which I cannot possibly comprehensively summarize in one newsletter. But the basic takeaway is that the Democratic Party has transformed from a worker’s party to an urban party. While this has become especially true as union membership has fallen off a cliff over the last 70 years, the real shift came about via a different process entirely.
In the early 20th century, Rodden’s data shows, Democratic vote share was highest in places that were closest to railroad tracks — where manufacturing was strong and working-class mobilization spurred support for the pro-worker party. The Democratic party then was an economically progressive organization promising its voters respite from the abuses and ills of the capitalist ownership class.
By the mid-to-late 1900s, however, political competition in America had come to center more around social progressivism. Social movements for the rights of women, African Americans, and LGBT voters drew support from voters who were clustered in cities and tended to vote Democratic. As a result, the Democratic Party changed its official platform to include rights for these voters — and it grew notably more socially progressive as an organization. Republicans, seizing on the electoral opportunity, became vocal opponents of these movements. (I talked more about this dynamic in a subscribers-only newsletter on the “Brahmin-ization” of the Democratic party last week.)
This led to a decrease in Democrats’ support from working-class, culturally conservative voters who preferred the now-solidly-conservative Republican politicians knocking on their doors. And the increasing urban identity of the Democratic Party left little room for Democrats elsewhere to establish their own identities or hue from the party platform on moral issues. This story was repeated across western democracies, from Canada to Australia to the United States. Left parties, according to Rodden, transformed from “advocates of the nineteenth-century industrial working class to catchall urban parties” of the modern era.
This manifests itself in our electoral system in two major ways. First, when a party’s voters are clustered in cities, it is easier for politicians to draw electoral boundaries that split them up. From the 1970s to today Rodden shows how Pennsylvania’s state senate districts have become markedly more biased in favor of Republicans. And that’s not because they only recently discovered gerrymandering.
A similar dynamic has played out in Congressional seats, which now give Republicans a sizable bonus in most years. Notably, that will be true even after the 2022 Congressional maps are finalized; estimates put the GOP bias in the House at between one and two percentage points, meaning Democrats have to win the national presidential popular vote by 2 points to be favored to control the chamber (although the real bias can be larger depending on where the party over- and under-performs its benchmarks).
But the urbanization of America’s left has also manifested itself in the geographic separation between the group of pivotal, competitive Congressional districts and states (with their Senators and Electoral College votes) and those that are deep blue — with cities being safe and ultra-progressive, and suburban areas being more moderate. This has had the effect of making it hard for moderate Democrats to run in purple and red seats, both because they get attacked by their parties’ progressives in the cities and because they get grouped in with them by conservative rural opponents. This is why terms like “woke” and backlash to Black Lives Matter have become staples of conservative rhetoric over the last decade.
Republicans, meanwhile, do not face such a large split over geography in their party. This is partly because they punch above their weight in the Senate — they can win control with as little as 43% of the cumulative national two-party vote, according to a Daily Kos analysis of the three-cycle aggregate of Senate vote totals across states over the last two decades. They can focus on satisfying their conservative base while marginalizing some moderates and still prevent Democrats from winning elections.
II. Democrats need to think outside the box about how to fix [*waves hands in the air*] “all this”
This has had the effect, according to David Shor’s math, of putting the Senate at its most biased point in recent history. The median state leans roughly 3 percentage points to the right on margin, giving Republicans an extra two Senators per state which falls between a 0 and 3 percentage point Democratic margin. Assuming no split-ticket voters — which is the trend in American politics is moving — that is an extra 6 states and 12 Senators.
This all means that Republicans could control a majority of Senators with just the 47% of the vote they won in 2020. In that scenario, they would have enough votes to abolish the filibuster and cram through any legislation they want — presumably with a Republican House and Republican president also elected by a minority vote.
What can be done about that?
I have not read many proposals from Democrats about what they’re trying to do to fix these two big-picture problems (those being the urbanization of the party’s identity and its structural disadvantage in the House, Senate, and Electoral College). One idea, promoted by Joe Biden and his allies in Congress, is that they should focus on passing bipartisan, ideologically moderate, and economically meaningful bills that help Americans afford the expenses that come along with their daily lives. This would cause minimal backlash from moving the average liberalism of government policy and give Democrats credit as problem solvers dedicated to making Washington work for the people.
Another idea, more popular on the left, is that passing an ambitious agenda of economic liberalism, including a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, and medicare drug-price negotiation, married with socially progressive legislation on climate and voting rules, passed through Congress by nuking the filibuster, will transform their image among moderate voters and help them win more elections. Here, the benefit is presumably buttressing their dual image as a party that cares about working-class struggles but also has many constituents on the urban left.
I have to say, based on Rodden’s book, the latter sounds like more of the same strategy that got Democrats where they are today. That is not to say it’s not the normatively or morally right thing to do. If I had my way, Democrats (including Joe Manchin) would immediately expand universal child care, pass a public option for government-subsidized health care, and dramatically radicalize their approach to climate policy. As a bonus, most of those things in isolation are popular with a majority of voters.
Instead, my argument is that this unified progressive agenda does nothing to bring back into the fold the conservative working-class voters — mainly white, but growing significantly more Latino recently — who have abandoned the Democrats and caused the structural disadvantages that are dragging them down today. The party needs a renewed identity as a pro-worker party, not one where coastal elites control the party line on policy and messaging. And it needs to be substantially more diverse in its approach to talking to voters in different areas of the country; messages that work in young, diverse urban cores do not work in educated white suburbs or shrinking exurbs.
To be sure, I do not mean to talk down to Democrats reading my newsletter, and I don’t pretend to know what the optimal solution is. Reversing decades of education polarization and geographic segregation is going to take a lot of work! This is a genuinely hard problem!
One solution, prompted by some of the data presented by Rodden in his book, is that would-be conservative and moderate Democrats in red states should shun the Democratic label and run instead as Independents. This both saves them from being automatically cast aside by rural Republican voters and allows them to adopt some more conservative social positions — say, on gun rights, abortion, immigration, or what-have-you — which Democratic Party activists and organizers would ordinarily fight them on. Dividing the party system anew along economic lines could also decrease the salience of social and moral issues which are currently the main wedge between Americans. That would increase the return Democrats would see on their popular economic policy proposals.
This new cohort of economically liberal, pro-working-class Independent candidates could be funded by outside donors, so there are no problems there. And if they restrict their efforts to very red states, and Democrats refuse to run candidates there, then they would avoid the spoiler effect which has doomed third-party candidates in single-winner plurality electoral systems. They could run as write-in candidates, or maybe even fight for ballot access with a unified name across states. Maybe call it the New America Party or something. Perhaps they could get Joe Manchin to sign on — which would have the added bonus of saving him from having to performatively kill major Democratic legislation in order to appear conservative and anti-Democratic enough for West Virginia’s massively pro-Trump voting population to re-elect him.
III. You can’t save democracy if you’re in the minority
I know that this suggestion seems far-fetched. Admittedly, it is. But the Democrats have yet to present a workable solution to these problems that are causing them significant electoral harm. Thinking creatively — even if it’s just spitballing ideas like I’m doing here — may get the ball rolling on some more profound reforms, be they ideological, based on identity or policy, or etc.
A relevant and harder point to grapple with, however, is that broader party-wide moderation means Democrats may have to give up some ground on their current pro-democracy fight against anti-election Republicans. That presents a unique danger for American democracy. Perhaps the New America Party could also be pro-democracy, angling itself as a home for both culturally conservative Democrats and Republicans who are tired of Trump’s election-mongering. But that is not so large a coalition.
I think most Democrats would agree that ceding precious ground on their campaign for a truly equal multiracial democracy, especially at this current moment in history, is a uniquely bad outcome.
But the relevant rebuttal here is that the Democrats cannot save democracy if they are locked out of power in the medium-term. And if current trends persist, there is a decent chance they do not control the Senate for longer than 2 years at a time for the foreseeable future. The only real option the party has is to figure out how to regain some of its identity as a pro-(white)worker party that cares more about lifting Americans up economically than it does about satisfying the anti-gun, open borders social agenda of coastal elites (NB: using their terms — I recognize that’s not entirely true). It is going to have to figure out how to do that while remaining pro-democracy. Looking at its past can provide some clues to the future.
But, to be sure, that is not a very bright future. And maybe that will lead you to understand why I think the best solution, in the long-term, is to get rid of this two-party system altogether.
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What I’m reading
I have to send a belated recommendation for my friend Gayle Rogers’s book, SPECULATION: A Cultural History from Aristotle to AI. I say belated because I read Rogers’s book a long time ago (maybe in 2021 or earlier; pandemic time all fuzzes together for me now) but could not find the right newsletter issue to mention it in.
I will delay no longer! SPECULATION is a great book — I think I’m even quoted in a blurb on the back? (yep, looking at my copy, there it is!) — though it is more than just a little wonky (Rogers is an English professor by trade, so, go figure). Still, since we use this newsletter to talk about forecasting and speculation about the political future, I think many of you would like it — especially as we move from talking about elections to talking about politics and the future of global democracy. Reading about what we can learn from the history of speculation in the abstract might just make us better thinkers and practitioners for our particular use-cases.
If SPECULATION doesn’t do that for you, you will at least come away from your reading with all sorts of juicy anecdotes and fun stories — such as why John Calvin thinks we’re all sinners for predicting things, for example. Or at least, he would, but he’s dead, and here I am predicting things. Take that, John.
That’s it for this week. Thanks very much for reading. If you have any feedback, you can reach me at this address (or just respond directly to this email if you’re reading in your inbox). And if you’ve read this far please consider a paid subscription to support the blog.