Do Democrats Have a Future?
They need to get 55 percent of the vote to get back the legislature. Will any strategy work?
The recent elections confirm a storied cycle: Democrats win in presidential election years and Republicans in off-year elections. As a result, Wisconsin looks like Minnesota when electing presidents, Virginia when electing US senators, and Mississippi when choosing state government. Can Democrats break this cycle?
Democrats face several inherent obstacles in retaking state government:
- When Wisconsin’s constitution was amended to increase the governor’s term from two to four years, the election was scheduled midway between presidential elections. Presumably the amendment’s authors hoped to reduce partisanship; instead they gave Republicans an advantage based on the larger decline in Democratic turnout.
- After the 2010 election, Wisconsin Republicans took advantage of their control of all three branches of government to gerrymander legislative districts to give themselves a permanent advantage. The extent of this advantage is evident in the result of the 2012 election when Obama won Wisconsin by nine points, but lost the majority of Wisconsin’s congressional, state senate, and assembly districts.
- The voter ID law, if it is ultimately upheld, will add a third disadvantage, by disproportionately discouraging voting by Democratic constituencies.
It is not enough for Democrats to enjoy the support of a majority of registered voters. To win the governorship, they need the support of a majority of actual voters in an off-year election. To win the legislature, they need to win a super majority—around 55 percent–of the actual voters.
In trying to broaden their coalition, Democrats additionally face self-imposed handicaps and obstacles:
- Taking a leaf from the Tea Party, there has been an attempt to purge the party of heretics. This first became evident in the repeated attempts to get rid of longtime Democratic State Senator Jeff Plale. Plale’s opponent Chris Larson went on to lead successful purges of other Milwaukee Democrats who had taken positions he disapproved of. This tendency can also be seen in continued efforts to paint Chris Abele as a conservative. A narrowing of allowable viewpoints runs directly counter to the aim of creating a bigger tent. It says to the wavering voter, “we want your support but someone with your ideas may have no place in our party.” In addition, a party that insists on ideological purity is going to find it harder to imagine innovative solutions to problems. Organizations which insist on conformity become brain dead. One result is that few in the present Democratic leadership know how to talk to voters who aren’t already won over.
- A second problem that became obvious in the recent election was the number of Democratic candidates who hoped to win by pretending they were not really Democrats. The Mary Burke campaign avoided having her appear with Obama. (An extreme example was the Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate refusing to say whether she had voted for Romney or Obama.) This practice demoralizes supporters without gaining the vote of Obama haters, conveying the message that there is something shameful about the Democratic Party.
- Democrats nationally have been losing a steadily growing proportion of the white vote, especially that of middle aged and older white males without a college degree. This is a particular challenge in states like Wisconsin where the growth of minority voters Democrats depend on is smaller. While white males are a declining portion of the overall population, they vote in large numbers including in off-year elections. Ironically, they are the modern version of the cohort that formed the core of the New Deal coalition.
The current Democratic response seems to be to hang tight and await rescue from the ongoing demographic shift favoring Democratic constituencies. In Wisconsin, this could be a long wait and when it comes there is no guarantee that demographic voting patterns will be the same as today.
A more interesting approach would be to try to understand the reasons behind the loss of white male Democratic voters and how to win them back. What are the reasons they have so heavily shifted to voting for Republicans?
So far, attempts to reach out to those voters have been less than impressive. Some conclude that these men are unable to identify their own interests, that they are bamboozled by the Koch brothers and Fox. Others suggest that they suffer from a morally inferior world view: here is how one consultant to Democratic groups describes the difference: “For progressives, empathy is at the center of the very idea of democracy.” He then goes on to describe conservatives: “For them democracy is supposed to provide them with the liberty to do what they want, without being responsible for others and without others being responsible for them.” Starting by insulting the people one wishes to convince is unlikely to be productive.
Part of the Democratic view of white men results from a statistical fallacy—the view that averages for a group tell something about the individual members of the group. To illustrate, I sometimes point out to my statistics classes that if Bill Gates were to join our class each class member would have an average net worth somewhere between two and four billion dollars. Just because the wealthiest Americans are mostly white males does nothing for a white man struggling to support his family or seeing narrowing opportunities for his children and grandchildren.
Rather than waiting to be rescued by the expected demographic shift, Democrats would be better advised to concentrate on issues that affect families across Wisconsin, such as growing economic inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class. This is an issue that should resonate with white working class males, as well as members of the existing Democratic coalition.
Making inequality a winning issue among white working class males, however, will not be easy. It will face an additional challenge: the belief that government cannot be trusted to act in their interest. The challenge for Democrats, then, is to become, not the party of government, but the party that will make government work in the interest of average people.