Opinion | How Much Longer Can ‘Vote Blue No Matter Who!’ Last?

The liberalism of white Democrats cuts across a wide range of issues. Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, cited data collected by the Cooperative Election Study:

In 2020 white Democrats scored similarly low on racial resentment as Black Democrats. And white Democrats actually have significantly lower levels of sexism than Black or Hispanic Democrats. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Democratic Party was indeed fairly divided on issues of race in particular, but that no longer seems to be the case.

Now, Schaffner continued, “white Democrats appear to be the most liberal group in the party on a range of issues, including immigration, climate, crime/policing, abortion, health care, gun control and economic/social welfare.”

I asked James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, how the meaning of “liberal” changed over the past 40 years. He replied:

The term has become infused with racial content. That may be the key to the conversion of educated suburban voters into liberals and Democrats. Trump’s open racism must surely have added greatly to the new meaning of liberalism. Perhaps the L-word has become a way to say, “I am not a bigot.”

Along similar lines, Viviana Rivera-Burgos, a political scientist at Baruch College of the City University of New York, pointed out how much the liberal agenda has transformed in a relatively short time:

Issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights and immigration have become important ideological cleavages in the past 40 years or so. Being a liberal today means you’re most likely pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-expansion of L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights and anti-restrictive or punitive immigration laws. These issue positions couldn’t be inferred based on someone’s ideology alone 40 years ago.

Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, argued in an email that there is a danger of overemphasizing the liberal tilt of the Democratic electorate:

Although the percentage of Democrats calling themselves liberal has grown over the past three decades, it still remains true that only about half of self-described party members identify that way — in contrast to Republican voters, about 80 percent of whom call themselves conservative. So Democrats have long had and continue to have a more ideologically diverse coalition to assemble, with nearly half of the party calling themselves moderate or conservative.

Erickson did not hesitate, however, to describe the party’s educated left wing as

overrepresented in the media, on Twitter and in positions of power. That group is loud and more culturally liberal, though they often purport to speak or act on behalf of communities of color. Meanwhile, the African American and Latino voters who deliver victories to Democratic candidates in nearly every race have remained much more ideologically mixed.

“If we continue to let white liberals on Twitter define what it means to be a Democrat,” Erickson warned her fellow Democrats, “we are going to continue to alienate the voters of color who are essential majority makers in our coalition. While the Twitterati wants to ‘Defund the Police,’ communities of color want their neighborhoods to be safe — both from police violence AND violent crime.”

To build her case, Erickson cited that role of minority voters in the last New York City mayoral election: “They elected Eric Adams and rejected the far-left candidates whose voting blocs were made up primarily of white liberals,” noting that “Adams outpaced Maya Wiley by 23 points with Black voters and 10 points with Hispanic voters.”

In local elections in 2021, Erickson continued, Black voters “rejected a measure in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, to defund the police: According to ward-level data, the predominantly Black Wards 4 and 5 rejected the Minneapolis ballot measure by wide margins (over 60 percent voted no), while predominantly white wards drove the measure’s support.

Erickson suggested that the culturally liberal tilt of the party’s left wing was a factor in declining minority support:

Case in point: Democrats dropped nine percentage points with non-college voters of color between 2012 and 2020, falling from 84 percent support in 2012 to 75 percent in 2020, according to Catalist. This was most pronounced with non-college men of color who went from 81 percent Democratic in 2012 to 69 percent in 2020.

These losses reflect “a divergence in priorities and values,” Erickson wrote, citing poll data showing that

while Democratic primary voters say hard work is no guarantee of success, Black voters disagree — saying most people can get ahead in America if they work hard — and that by a two-to-one margin, Black Americans say it is necessary to believe in God to have good morals. Democratic primary voters of all races disagree with that statement by similar margins.

While the party is divided on values and priorities, Erickson pointed out that Democrats in Congress have reached general agreement on many issues that were highly divisive in the past:

There is only one pro-life Democrat left in Congress, and today’s moderate Democrats are loudly supportive of reproductive rights. There are no more N.R.A.-endorsed Democrats on the Hill, and if gun safety legislation were brought up tomorrow, every single Democrat in federal office would support it. Similarly, every Democrat not only supported the Respect for Marriage Act but would’ve likely gone further to explicitly codify marriage equality into law at the federal level.

The major intraparty conflicts that remain, Erickson wrote,

are concentrated around two big questions. One is a process question: Do you believe progress is achieved by incremental steps or revolutionary change? The other is a values question: Do you believe that, with some basic policy reforms, our economic system can deliver a good life to those who work hard in this country, or rather that it needs to be torn down and fundamentally rebuilt from the ground up?

The transition from a partisan division among white voters based on economic class to one based on level of educational attainment has had substantial consequences for the legislative priorities of the Democratic Party.

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, pointed out in an email that “the class base of the parties has atrophied” with the result that “the party system in the U.S. simply does not represent that ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’ Both parties represent a mix of haves and have-nots in economic terms.”

Because the Democratic Party must hold down “a coalition of upper-income whites and minority constituencies across all income groups,” Lee wrote, party leaders

are likely to prioritize issues that do not pit the well-off against the poor very directly, such as the rights agenda (e.g., voting rights, abortion, gays and lesbians) and climate/environment. Democrats in government are unlikely to genuinely prioritize the economic interests of low-income and working-class voters, because those voters simply do not represent a majority of their party’s coalition.

As an example, Lee wrote, “Current Democrats are much more concerned about forgiving student loans than about the majority of voters who will not or did not go to college.”

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