Democrats Are Losing Touch with Middle America

Voters feel the party is drifting too far to the left.

Joe Biden
American president Joe Biden walks away from a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, January 19 (White House/Adam Schultz)

The easiest way to win an election is to appeal to the voter in the center. Fanatics will come up with all sorts of reasons to deny it, and lose. It’s not a perfect rule. In a tight election, turning out your base matters too. But in a two-party system, the party that puts the most distance between itself and the median voter is the one most likely to end up in opposition.

Take Britain’s Labour Party. It kept Jeremy Corbyn as leader for five years through six defeats. His supporters insisted his policies (raising the minimum wage, a four-day workweek, universal child care) were popular, and many, polled individually, were. But his approval rating was always under water. Middle England didn’t trust the man who opposed the Falklands War in 1982 and the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; who called the assassination of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy” and praised Hamas for their commitment to “peace”. Corbyn’s fans mistook his refusal to compromise for principle. It accomplished nothing for Labour voters.

Democrats in the United States are in the process of making a similar mistake. Many of their policies — the $1.9-trillion coronavirus recovery program, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, canceling the worst of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, subsidizing child care, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement — are popular, but the party is not.

43 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Democrats. 42 percent support Joe Biden and 42 percent plan to vote for a Democrat in the midterm election.

The only consolation is that Republicans are disliked even more: just one in three have a favorable view of them. Yet 46 percent would vote Republican in November. It seems Republicans don’t need to be loved to win.

Too extreme

The average American thinks both parties are too extreme. 45 percent believe Democrats are too left-wing. 37 percent believe Republicans are too right-wing.

I’ve written a lot about Republican extremism over the years, most recently here. I doubt they find their way back to reason soon. I have more faith in Democrats, but they need to clamp down on the fanaticism in their midst.

Voters who pay little attention to politics may not have heard Joe Biden call for higher police spending in his State of the Union address. They will have heard there is a movement to “defund the police,” and they think that’s insane.

They might not be able able to point to anything concrete Biden and Democrats have done in the name of “equity” other than refer to people of South American descent as “Latinx”. But they will probably have heard something called “critical race theory” is being taught in schools, books have been removed from libraries in the name of “decolonization” and there is a “crisis on the border” (there always is).

Especially if they have family or friends who watch Fox News and listen to conservative radio.

Few Democrats actually run on “woke” policies. Biden’s “equity agenda” consists of bringing broadband internet to rural communities and making National Parks more accessible to Americans with disabilities.

Republicans and right-wing media single out left-wing extremists, but Democrats won’t change minds by complaining the other side is unfair. They need to do more to persuade persuadable voters that they’re not beholden to the far left.

Bread and butter

Americans care about the ever-rising cost of health care, inequality and low wages, crime and illegal immigration.

Identity politics are a race to the bottom, and the right is always willing to stoop lower. Center-left parties everywhere do better when they focus on bread-and-butter issues — and frame their policies in universal, rather than particularist, terms.

Biden does. Child subsidies and free preschool would benefit (single) black parents more than white parents, but Biden talks about helping “families”. Making higher education affordable and ensuring all Americans have broadband internet would provide opportunity to especially people of color, who have lower social mobility than whites, but Biden calls this “rebuilding the middle class.”

Frame your policies as benefiting one group (“marginalized communities”) and it will stir resentment in others, who are afraid to lose out. You can call this racist (sometimes it is) and try to shame people into supporting your policies anyway. Or you can sidestep the controversy by describing how your policies will lift up everyone.

Taking voters seriously

There is no prize for being right in politics. To get anything done, you need to win an election. It’s hard to do that when voters don’t feel you’re taking them seriously.

There are racist cops. The American criminal justice system is institutionally racist. Black men are more likely to be stopped by police without just cause, they are more likely to be suspects in a crime, they are more likely to be arrested, they are more likely to be prosecuted, and they are more likely to be found guilty than white men. It’s also the case that murders are rising. It’s not racist to point this out, nor is it helpful to deny it.

Biden is right that American police need more funding, nor less, to pay for better training (especially in conflict management and mediation), higher salaries (to attract higher-quality recruits) and community policing (to build trust).

It should also be easier to fire bad cops. Prosecutors should prioritize violent crimes. Judges must end racial disparities in sentencing.

There are ways to make America safer and less racist, but if voters are encouraged to believe there is a tradeoff between the two, most will choose safety.

Slap in the face

Critical race theory may not be taught in schools as a theory, but when parents discover that their children are asked to “declare their pronouns” in class (potentially forcing gay and transgender kids to come out of the closet before they’re ready); are segregated by race in the (mistaken) assumption that creating race-based “affinity spaces” will help children understand systematic racism; when they learn that schools want to ban standardized testing as well as gifted and talented programs, because they reveals racial disparities, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on external “equity assessments” — money that could be spend on airconditioning, school lunches and higher teachers’ pay — telling them “critical race theory” isn’t being taught is not reassuring.

When 1.7 million illegal crossings are recorded on the southern border in a year, the highest since counting began in 1960, and just 2 percent of immigrants who are denied asylum or a visa are forced to leave the country, telling voters there isn’t a crisis — or, worse, that their concerns about immigration are racist — feels like a slap in the face.

Two-thirds of Americans support immigration, but only a third want it to go up and almost no one believes borders are racist. That includes millions of Americans who were born elsewhere.

Democrats are not the party of “open borders”, but they are reluctant to talk about the measures they’re taking to secure the border. It gives voters the impression only Republicans care about border security (when they talk more but do less).