Obama's Cultural Liberalism Helped Sink Democrats
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership in the 1990s, the Democratic Party tried to appeal to culturally conservative white working-class voters without abandoning its liberal convictions. During the middle of the George W. Bush administration, Democrats revived that approach, running candidates opposed to abortion and gun control in some rural districts.
But the political collapse of Republicans at the end of the Bush administration and demographic changes favorable to liberalism made this kind of trimming seem unnecessary to Democrats. In the Obama years, the Democratic Party seemed to be able to move left while enjoying an enduring advantage in presidential politics. In the early months of President Obama’s second term, he concentrated on issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, legalization for illegal immigrants and gun regulation, without much concern for bringing these voters back into the Democratic coalition.
In this year’s campaign, Hillary Clinton repudiated much of the record of her husband’s administration and ran on a platform more culturally liberal than ever. For the first time, it had an explicit call to end restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion.
The new Democratic strategy had a few disadvantages. It made polarization worse. The heavily urban, progressive coalition it envisioned was capable of winning electoral-vote majorities, but its geographic distribution put it at a structural disadvantage in races for the House, the Senate and governorships. And the coalition has turned out to be fragile even at the presidential level, precisely because it did not have sufficient appeal to white voters without college degrees. Since the Democrats' coalition worked best at the presidential level, losing there created a risk of being shut out of power -- as they now will be.
Democrats still have alternatives to courting those voters again. They can hope for favorable circumstances, like a well-timed recession or missteps and scandals in the coming Trump administration. They can wait on demography: The white working class is shrinking as a percentage of the population. They can look for a candidate who excites the Obama coalition more than Clinton did. They can continue to try to appeal to these voters based purely on their economic interests, ignoring their values and beliefs.
As distasteful as progressives may find it, though, they may want to consider trying an updated version of their 1990s strategy, if only as an insurance policy.
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