How the GOP won at identity politics

Illustrated | iStock

It’s not hard to find Democrats who are worried about their party’s near-term electoral prospects. In 2020, they underperformed expectations, losing ground nationwide with crucial constituencies like Hispanic voters, just holding the House and barely capturing the Senate. Then-candidate Joe Biden outperformed his party, which pointed to his strength but also to his party’s weakness — yet even with a healthy popular vote majority he barely won the key states that delivered an Electoral College majority.

Since then, President Biden’s previously-solid popularity has dropped significantly, and his heir-apparent, Vice President Kamala Harris, remains consistently less popular still. His agenda is stalled, with progressives and moderates in the House and Senate fighting each other and holding hostage bills with wide bipartisan support. They can’t even raise the debt ceiling without Republican help. Democrats face difficult midterm elections in 2022 that could cost them one or both houses of Congress, followed by a 2024 Senate map that is nightmarishly brutal.

That’s the urgent message from analyst David Shor, who sees just how dire the Democrats’ prospects are if they don’t change course and act now. As he sees it, the Democrats have two related problems: one messaging-related and one structural. On issues like taxes and health care, their views are far more popular than those of the GOP, but the party is increasingly identified with cultural stances that baffle older voters and voters who didn’t go to college. As a result, their vote is ever-more geographically concentrated, giving the GOP a substantial structural advantage in both houses of Congress and the Electoral College. If Democrats can fix their messaging to focus on their more popular ideas, downplay the ones that alienate the median voter, and enact structural reforms like eliminating the filibuster, adding states, banning gerrymandering, and protecting voting rights, then they can not only level the playing field but set themselves up for consistent wins.

Shor’s advice is well-worth heeding — but it still may not be enough.

To understand why, start with the fact that Republicans already have a head-start in following Shor’s advice and focusing on what’s popular. This might not be obvious given the GOP’s indulgence of every kind of crank and fanatic, and its embrace of outright unreality on both COVID vaccines and election results. But Republicans have shown notable willingness on a host of issues to change their spots and enact popular and necessary policies that would previously have been deemed anathema in the Obama years.

After signing Paul Ryan’s deeply unpopular tax cut, and seeing his approval crater, the main domestic accomplishment of the latter part of President Trump’s term was bi-partisan COVID relief so large and generous that poverty actually fell during the pandemic even as unemployment skyrocketed. Since Biden’s election, Sen. Mitt Romney has been advertising his willingness to further expand the social safety net to enact a child welfare entitlement, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that pours huge sums into rail, enacts vital environmental cleanup, and spends significant funds on grid upgrades and electric vehicles to pass the Senate with substantial Republican support. This is not the GOP the Freedom Caucus fought to create — and voters have undoubtedly noticed.

It’s not that Republicans have gone soft, though. Rather, the GOP can be flexible on policy because its coalition is increasingly held together by identity rather than ideology. This is in part a consequence of educational polarization: Better-educated voters tend to be more ideological and therefore less flexible in their views, while less-educated voters have less-settled views on most policy matters. Meanwhile, as educated voters have migrated to the Democrats, and as college graduates have gotten more liberal, Democrats have perforce become more beholden to their ideological demands — particularly on the cultural matters on which swing voters align more with Republicans. And those cultural perceptions can even affect views on matters of economic self-interest, like the child tax credit.

Shor’s prescription for the Democrats is also handicapped by the fact that the median voter is further away from the center of either party than used to be the case. Back in the 1990s and 2000s when most voters clustered toward the center, it was straightforward for either party to gain an advantage by moderating. But this is no longer the case: Instead of a normal distribution, now the distribution of voters is more barbelled, with a hollow center and the center of gravity for each party far from the center of the other. That makes it extremely difficult to scrap over the median voter. But it’s harder for Democrats because the core of consistent liberal voters is more dominant in their coalition, and because cross-pressured voters in the center tend to be more conservative on cultural questions that are the basis of Republican identity.

Meanwhile, attempts to level the structural playing field could further fuel perceptions that Democrats have been radicalized. I doubt most Americans actually have strong views on the filibuster or on D.C. statehood. But it’s quite difficult to argue that you’re a moderate, meliorist party when you’re also saying that the only way to enact your supposedly common sense agenda is by first overhauling the political system itself. That’s why electoral reform is quintessentially the kind of matter that requires bipartisan support. It’s also why, for example, D.C. statehood might not do as much as Democrats hope to restore balance to the Senate; those two new Democratic senators might pull the caucus further to the left, and thereby cost the party seats in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Nevada.

All these handicaps might be overcome with the wind at their backs. But the issue mix itself is trending away from territory on which Democrats have the natural advantage. If any single issue put Democrats over the top in 2020, it was COVID, where the Trump administration demonstrated bottomless incompetence and fecklessness. But today the challenge is to learn to live with an endemic virus with minimal loss of life or quality of life. I doubt this issue cuts the Democrats’ way anymore, because it’s no longer a Democratic success story. Meanwhile, many other major issues give a potential advantage to Republicans. Immigration, which Democrats thought would be a winning cause for Hispanic voters, turns out to be a cause that cuts the other way in heavily-Hispanic border communities. Ditto for crime and public safety, where Democrats are now at pains to emphasize their support for re-funding the police.

Worse, a number of traditionally Democratic issues are also at risk. Education, for example, has long been an area of Democratic dominance, but pandemic closures boosted support for private education, and current education battles focus on issues of equity and ideology that politically cut against Democrats with the constituencies they need most. And the economy, generally by far the most important electoral issue, has also changed in ways that may boost Republicans. Inflation is finally up and consumer spending has recovered to the pre-COVID trend line. With the Fed tapering its support, any Democratic moves to boost demand further are likely to be neutralized by the Fed’s asset sales. If that’s the case, then going forward supply-side issues may matter more for prosperity than the demand side, and Republicans could readily seize the initiative with an agenda of deregulation and infrastructure investment. Finally, the challenge of a rising China seems tailor-made to unite Republicans on foreign policy while posing real risks of dividing Democrats.

Given the landscape, it’s not hard to see an opportunity for Republicans not only to win, but to build a more durable majority. It’s an opportunity I fully expect them to fumble; a party united purely around opposition is not going to have the discipline to chart a path forward, and a party dedicated above all to dividing the country to conquer it can’t build a durable majority of any kind. Between widespread indulgence of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering and Trump’s own distinct pathologies, plus his ability to make himself the only legitimate topic of conversation, the GOP may well crash the car even if the road to victory is straight and clear.

But Democrats do need to reckon with just how straight and clear that path is. Republicans don’t just have a friendly Senate map and a gerrymandered House. They have a friendlier issue landscape than they have in years and the ability, precisely because their identity is defined by opposition to Democrats more than by the issues, to pursue a flexible strategy of popularism. That’s a potent suite of advantages. Democrats have every reason to worry.



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