John Davis, the non-partisan political analyst with a conservative bent, has a message for Democrats. He says the party needs to stop viewing politics through a 50 year-old lens. If they don’t, they could squander a tremendous political opportunity heading into 2018.
Davis is really talking about the focus on identity politics. Or as he puts it, they need to “get beyond their strategy of inclusiveness that excludes everyone except minorities and liberals.” He believes the party is pandering to agendas of certain groups while ignoring the economic messages that cross identity boundaries.
Davis implies that the party looks a lot like the one that fell apart in 1968 and again in 1972. Back then, Democrats built a party largely based on pro-civil rights organizations and anti-war groups. Under Lyndon Johnson, they had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The women’s rights movement was coming into its own and the gay rights movement came into focus with the Stonewall Riots. These movements dramatically changed America for the better and Democrats became an activist party, focused on causes and discrimination, not jobs and wages.
For many Americans, the transformation was too fast and the push for further changes alienated them, especially the white working class. They became Nixon’s Silent Majority that carried him to victory in 1968 and then helped him win a landslide victory in 1972 against George McGovern. McGovern’s campaign politicized a lot of young people who would later shape the Democratic Party, but it also lost most of the older, whiter voters who made up the bulk of the electorate.
Like then, Democrats today are coming off of historic victories that will change the social landscape of the country. We elected the first African-American president. Marriage equality offers LGBT people the same rights as the rest of us. Universal access to health care is now a mainstream idea that Republicans oppose at their own political risk. We’re transitioning from a carbon-based economy to one based on renewable energy, despite resistance from gas and oil companies and climate change deniers.
Again, the shifts in policies are dramatic and, for many people, too fast. Public opinion is still catching up with public policy. Even people who may agree with the policies themselves may feel ignored by a Democratic Party focused on issues they don’t believe affect them directly. Those people have not completely recovered from the Great Recession or are buried in student debt or worried about the impact of trade agreements and technological changes on their careers.
To be successful, Davis and others argue, Democrats need to rebuild their tent and talk more about economic issues that have broad impact instead of issues that affect narrow constituencies. Democrats should look at Rep. Cheri Bustos who represents a rural district in northwest Illinois that Trump won. She beat her opponent by 20 points talking about bread-and-butter issues and downplaying more divisive ones. She’s pro-choice in a pro-life district but still wins handily. It’s a road map Congressional candidates in North Carolina should follow.
Democrats will always be the party that stands up for the rights of minorities and those left behind by society. Sometimes, though, leading with those issues is a losing formula. Winning elections leads to making policy. Democrats should find messages that win, not just ones that inspire certain constituencies.