The democratic nations of the world are in a global struggle against authoritarianism. That struggle has international fronts — starting with the need to confront, repel and weaken Vladimir Putin.
But that struggle also has domestic fronts — the need to defeat the mini-Putins now found across the Western democracies. These are the demagogues who lie with Putinesque brazenness, who shred democratic institutions with Putinesque bravado, who strut the world’s stage with Putin’s amoral schoolboy machismo while pretending to represent all that is traditional and holy.
In the United States, that, of course, is Donald Trump. This moment of heightened danger and crisis makes it even clearer that the No. 1 domestic priority for all Americans who care about democracy is to make sure Trump never sees the inside of the Oval Office ever again. As democracy is threatened from abroad, it can’t also be cannibalized from within.
Thinking has to be crystal clear. What are the crucial battlegrounds in the struggle against Trump? He won the White House by winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with strong support from white voters without a college degree. Joe Biden ousted Trump by winning back those states and carrying the new swing states, Arizona and Georgia.
So for the next three years, Democrats need to wake up with one overriding political thought: What are we doing to appeal to all working-class voters in those five states? Are we doing anything today that might alienate these voters?
Are the Democrats winning the contest for these voters right now? No.
At the start of 2021, Democrats had a 9-point advantage when you asked voters to name their party preference. By the end of 2021, Republicans had a 5-point advantage. Among swing voters, things are particularly grim. A February 2022 Economist/YouGov survey found that a pathetic 30% of independents approve of Biden’s job performance. Working-class voters are turning against Biden. According to a January Pew survey, 54% of Americans with graduate degrees approved of Biden’s performance, but only 37% of those without any college experience did.
Are Democrats thinking clearly about how to win those voters? No.
This week, two veteran Democratic strategists, William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, issued a report for the Progressive Policy Institute arguing that Democrats need to get over at least three delusions.
The first Democratic myth is, “People of color think and act alike.” In fact, there have been differences between Hispanics and Black Americans on issues like the economy, foreign policy and policing. Meanwhile, working-class people have been moving toward the GOP across racial lines.
“Today, the Democrats’ working-class problem isn’t limited to white workers,” veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote in The American Prospect. “The party is also losing support from working-class Blacks and Hispanics.”
The second Democratic myth is, “Economics trumps culture.” This is the idea that if Democrats can shower working- and middle-class voters with material benefits, then that will overwhelm any differences they may have with them on religious, social and cultural issues — on guns, crime, immigration, etc. This crude economic determinism has been rebutted by history time and time again.
The third myth is, “A progressive ascendancy is emerging.” The fact is that only 7% of the electorate considers itself “very liberal.” I would have thought the Biden economic agenda, which basically consists of handing money to the people who need it most, would be astoundingly popular. It’s popular, but not that popular. I would have thought Americans would scream bloody murder when the expansion of the existing child tax credit expired. They haven’t. Distrust in government is still astoundingly high, undercutting the progressive project at every turn.
What do Democrats need to do now? Well, one thing they are really good at. Over the past few years, a wide range of thinkers — across the political spectrum — have congregated around a neo-Hamiltonian agenda that stands for the idea that we need to build more things: roads, houses, colleges, green technologies and ports. Democrats need to hammer home this “builders” agenda, which would provide good-paying jobs and renew American dynamism.
But Democrats also have to do something they’re really bad at: craft a cultural narrative around the theme of social order. The Democrats have been blamed for fringe ideas like “defund the police” and a zeal for “critical race theory” because the party doesn’t have its own mainstream social and cultural narrative.
With war in Europe, crime rising on our streets, disarray at the border, social unraveling in many of our broken communities, perceived ideological unmooring in our schools, and moral decay everywhere, Democrats need to tell us which cultural and moral values they stand for that will hold this country together.
The authoritarians tell a simple story about how to restore order: It comes from cultural homogeneity and the iron fist of the strongman. Democrats have a harder challenge: to show how order can be woven amid diversity, openness and the full flowering of individuals. But Democrats need to name the moral values and practices that will restore social order.
It doesn’t matter how many nice programs you have; people won’t support you if they think your path is the path to chaos.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.