Why Demographics Can't Save the Democrats - But Populism Can

Altered photo showing the bow section of tanker SS Pendleton grounded six miles off Chatham, Mass on the morning of Feb. 19, 1952. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why Demographics Can't Save the Democrats - But Populism Can

In his examination of former Virginia Senator Jim Webb's potential presidential candidacy, New York Times commentator Thomas Edsall explored Webb's potential appeal to "voters convinced that Wall Street owns both parties, voters tired of politicians submitting to partisan orthodoxy and voters seeking to replace 'identity group' politics with a restored middle- and working-class agenda."

Edsall's essay quotes political scientist Morris Fiorina on the Democratic Party's "upscale capture" and Joel Kotkin's characterization of the party's controlling bloc as an "upstairs/downstairs" coalition led by "gentry liberals."

There's a reason why an agenda that addresses core economic problems is often described as "populist." These problems cross demographic boundaries and embrace most of the population. Women are looking for full-time work. People of color are struggling to make ends meet. Same-sex couples are trying to put their kids through school.

It certainly appears that the Democratic Party establishment has been enjoying the best of both worlds for some time now: a perception of liberalism and idealism among the party's core constituencies, along with all the money, support, and opportunities for post-political employment that Wall Street and its affiliated institutions can provide.

Their good times may be coming to an end. The party's leadership has pinned its electoral hopes on demographic shifts - often described as the "rising American electorate' of women, young adults, and people of color - and the cultural shifts that have brought issues like marriage equality to the fore.

But the "rising American electorate" is also sinking, along with many other Americans, into an economic quagmire. If Democrats don't address their needs, they won't just fail to win new voters. They could also lose the ones they have - if not to Republicans, then to a swelling tide of apathy.

The "identity politics" approach is a good fit for the self-described "centrists" Democrats of the party's Wall Street wing. It allows them to appeal to individual groups while downplaying or undercutting any economic agenda that might threaten the "upstairs" portion of that "gentry liberal" coalition.

They may not be able to have it both ways much longer. As wages continue to stagnate and inequality worsens, it will become increasingly difficult to appeal to these demographic groups individually without addressing the broader economic issues affecting them collectively. That could weaken the "downstairs" portion of the coalition, taking the Democrats' electoral prospects down with it.

In fact, that process may have already started. It's true that fewer voters show up in off-year elections, and those who do lean Republican. But 2014's voter turnout was the lowest in 72 years - and there was a world war going on that year.

Off-year turnout for Democratic young voters has flatlined in recent years, despite the party's best efforts. Turnout in the 18-29 age actually appears to have been lower this year than in 2006 (by roughly 3 percent), according to early data. That was the last off-year election before young Americans were energized by Barack Obama's candidacy - a phenomenon that never translated into Democratic off-year support.

African-American and Hispanic voter participation also remained essentially flat this year, while turnout among women fell slightly from 2010 levels.

These figures are even more striking when compared with presidential election years. Minority participation (as a percentage of the overall electorate) was 3 points below 2012 levels, while the figure for young adults fell 6 points.

Exit polling showed some minor, yet potentially significant, signs of slippage among key voting blocs. This year's young voters cast their House votes for Democrats by a 54-43 percent margin, down from 60-38 percent in 2012. Single women voted for House Democrats by a 60-38 percent margin, but that was their lowest Democratic margin in 22 years, according to exit polls. The Democratic margin for women overall fell from 11 percent in 2012 to 5 percent this year.

It is true that participation among core Democratic has been notably higher in past presidential years, and that trend is expected to continue in 2016. But party strategists may want to ask themselves: Do they feel confident that will continue? John Judis and others have warned that 2016 may not be the "cakewalk" Democrats are expecting - not unless the party is able to strengthen its position among older voters and white working-class voters.

And even if they can continue to prevail in presidential elections, should Democrats be satisfied with being an executive branch-only party - one that routinely loses one or both houses of Congress?

There are those who believe that Webb, or someone like him, could unlock these new segments of the population for Democrats. But that may be a misreading of the electorate. It's true that these groups could prove problematic for any politician who seems too close to the financial industry or to economic elites in general. That could make someone like Webb look like an attractive alternative to the Wall Street-cozy Clinton.

But personality alone isn't likely to win the day. Nor will fragmented appeals to disparate population groups. Yes, Democrats should support issues like humane immigration, marriage equality, and justice for African-American communities. But they should do so for moral reasons, not because they think it will lead to some imagined electoral panacea.

There is only one way for Democrats to form a winning coalition of seniors, working-class whites, and its traditional constituencies, and that's by promising to address the economic problems that all of these groups share. While there's no room for a comprehensive list, those problems include:

  • Financial insecurity after retirement or disability, which means support for Social Security expansion;
  • Un- or under-employment, which can be addressed with a meaningful jobs program that includes massive infrastructure investment;
  • Costly or inaccessible higher education, which requires reform of college financing;
  • Inadequate wages, which means support for the union movement, minimum wage increases, and a broad array of worker protections;
  • An overall weakening of the social safety net, which can be addressed through higher taxes on the wealthy and an end to Democratic support for privatization of government services;
  • The economic predation of the financial class, which means stricter regulation of Wall Street;
  • and, a reduction in intergenerational wealth inequality, calling for (among other things) stronger inheritance taxes and programs designed to increase social mobility.

There's a reason why an agenda that addresses these problems is often described as "populist." These problems cross demographic boundaries and embrace most of the population. Women are looking for full-time work. People of color are struggling to make ends meet. Same-sex couples are trying to put their kids through school.

A problem quickly becomes apparent with even a truncated list of economic woes and potential solutions like this one: While an agenda like this could unify seniors and the white working class with more traditionally Democratic constituencies, it is also likely to alienate the wealthy backers of the party's "centrist" wing.

No wonder the Democratic Leadership Council/Third Way crowd prefers identity politics. Unfortunately, a divide-and-conquer approach won't satisfy the Democratic base for long. Nor will it persuade any of the other groups the party must win over if it is to succeed in the long term.

That leaves "centrists" in the Democratic leadership with a choice they would rather not make - between the financial interests that have served them so well for so long, and the policies that would serve the nation economically while boosting their party politically.

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