I got barbecued for my post yesterday about the 100-county campaign. That’s okay. Politics will always entail lively debate, and Sen. Jackson has an enthusiastic following on social media that I fully expected to come to his defense. No bloggers were harmed in the making of that blog post. Today, though, I want to give Jackson credit for an insight that has become crucial to Democratic chances in the long Trump era. That’s the threat of fortress liberalism.
I derived the term from an essay published years ago in Democracy Journal that advocated “fortress unionism.” In essence, the author Rich Yeselson called for labor advocates to concede their losses and focus on buttressing union strength in areas where the policy environment was less hostile. Agree or disagree on Yeselson’s strategy for unions, the same concept has become useful for understanding political geography. Increasingly, political liberalism predominates in big cities and college towns while having lost almost all of its reach in rural and exurban America.
The data are clear. Both nationally and here in North Carolina, Democrats find themselves more and more dominant in urban areas. Joe Biden won 79% in the Bronx and 78% in Manhattan. Biden took 71% in Los Angeles County and took Detroit by a staggering margin of 95% to 3.49%. In North Carolina, the now-President took 81% in Durham County, one of the most urban in the state. He won the precinct containing Fayetteville Street in Raleigh by 92%-5%. This a picture of near-absolute dominance.
And it’s not just in big cities that Democrats enjoy an increasingly complete hold on electoral support. College towns, too, exhibit support for Democrats at levels that would make the most skilled politician blush. In 2016, more Berkeley, California voters supported Jill Stein than Donald Trump. In my postdoc-and-professor-heavy precinct in Chapel Hill, NC, 94% of voters are registered Democrats. Bright spots for Democrats in otherwise difficult regions like western North Carolina most often crop up where universities are present; see Watauga County, where Appalachian State is located, and Transylvania County, home of Brevard College.
But beyond this supreme performance in cities and college towns, Democrats struggle more and more. With the exception of what blogger Matthew Yglesias calls “favored quarter” suburbs, Democrats are increasingly persona non grata outside their strongest precincts. Beto O’Rourke’s stunningly successful challenge to Ted Cruz struggled to pick up even 25% in rural Texas. The story was much the same in all areas of even competitive Southern states. In predominantly rural states like Arkansas, Joe Biden was scarcely even a factor.
This state of affairs threatens to prevent Democrats from claiming the majority status their popular-vote support would seem to justify. The fact is that America’s political system underrepresents the types of communities where Democrats derive the overwhelming bulk of their support. This is especially true in the U.S. Senate, but also the electoral college and many House districts, gerrymandered and not. If Democrats cannot restore some measure of support outside the urban cores, the fact that America is now a center-left nation will not translate into majorities or policy success for the progressive movement.
I still do not believe that in the short term, expending finite resources on extremely inhospitable precincts is a wise use of resources. Partisan polarization is an extremely potent force in America. Democrats should seek to reshape the electorate by registering new voters in rural and exurban areas–and particularly in North Carolina many rural areas are quite diverse–while driving up turnout to win statewide elections. But that’s not enough if the party is to achieve a sustainable majority in this country where the power of non-urban voters looms disproportionately.
Repairing Democrat’s relationship with non-urban America is ultimately a task for the national party. In tone and ideology, the Democrats’ identity has become almost entirely urban and college-town. It is of the utmost importance that Democrats start to open their party up to people who have deserted them. But 2022 may be too soon for that effort to pay off.
Fortresses are for history buffs and tourists. Majorities are for political parties.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.