Democrats, don’t be fooled by vic­tory

The Citizens' Voice - - Editorial - BY DAVID LEONHARDT

The Demo­cratic Party cer­tainly did well in last week’s elec­tions. In one place af­ter an­other, vot­ers seemed to re­ject Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s hate­ful, law­less pol­i­tics. The re­sults have fur­ther en­er­gized pro­gres­sives for 2018, which will be a vastly more im­por­tant ref­er­en­dum on Trump than 2017.

But if Democrats are go­ing to suc­ceed next year and be­yond, they can’t fo­cus only on last week’s pos­i­tive signs and start be­liev­ing their own spin. They also need to think about the warn­ing signs. There were more of those than many peo­ple re­al­ize.

The re­al­ity is, the Demo­cratic vic­to­ries oc­curred al­most en­tirely in ar­eas that had voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton last year. In Trump coun­try, Democrats con­tin­ued to strug­gle.

Out­side of highly ed­u­cated sub­urbs and racially di­verse ci­ties, Democrats still do not have an ef­fec­tive re­sponse to Trump­ism. And they need one. To build a na­tional coali­tion — one with the power to pass poli­cies that can help the mid­dle class, pro­tect civil rights and com­bat cli­mate change — Democrats have to do bet­ter in whiter, more ru­ral ar­eas.

Vir­ginia — the fo­cus of at­ten­tion last week and a blue-lean­ing state — highlights both the good and the bad. The Demo­cratic mar­gins in sub­urbs and ci­ties were smash­ing, thanks to a surge in turnout. Else­where, though, the sit­u­a­tion was very dif­fer­ent.

Ralph Northam, the Demo­cratic gov­er­nor­elect, didn’t only lose out­side of the big metropoli­tan ar­eas, and badly. He lost by more than the pre­vi­ous Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had in 2013. Of Vir­ginia’s 133 coun­ties and ci­ties, Northam fared worse than McAuliffe in 89 of them.

True, Northam did bet­ter than Clin­ton had, but only mod­estly so, as The New York Times’ Nate Cohn noted. That’s an­other way of say­ing that Trump’s suc­cess with the white work­ing class now looks al­most like the norm.

Patrick Ruffini, a savvy con­ser­va­tive poll­ster, made a sim­i­lar point when an­a­lyz­ing Vir­ginia’s House of Del­e­gates re­sults. On first glance, those re­sults look fan­tas­tic for Democrats. They flipped 15 of the 100 del­e­gate dis­tricts, in­clud­ing a few in­spir­ing long-shot wins. Yet only a sin­gle one of those 15 dis­tricts had voted for Trump. Repub­li­cans largely held the Trump dis­tricts, which let them keep con­trol (pend­ing re­counts), 51 del­e­gates to 49.

I know that many pro­gres­sives are tired of hear­ing about the white work­ing class. They would rather stop ob­sess­ing over small-town Amer­ica and in­stead pur­sue a coali­tion of mi­nori­ties and highly ed­u­cated whites, like the coali­tion that won Vir­ginia last week.

But giv­ing up on the white work­ing class would be a ter­ri­ble mis­take. Whites with­out four-year col­lege de­grees make up fully half of the adult pop­u­la­tion, and they tend to be dis­persed, rather than packed in small ge­o­graphic ar­eas, which in­creases their po­lit­i­cal power.

Ac­cept­ing land­slide de­feats among the white work­ing class ef­fec­tively for­feits many state leg­is­la­tures — like those in Iowa, Michi­gan, Min­nesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia, Vir­ginia and Wis­con­sin, all of which are now Repub­li­can. State leg­is­la­tures don’t just make pol­icy. They are also in charge of ger­ry­man­der­ing.

With­out the white work­ing class, Democrats will need ev­ery­thing else to go spec­tac­u­larly well to re­take the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives next year. Vir­ginia it­self has four Repub­li­can-held seats that an­a­lysts think will be in play. Northam won only two of those four dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to the Vir­ginia Pub­lic Ac­cess Project.

Or con­sider the Democrats’ four special-elec­tion House losses ear­lier this year, in­clud­ing the high-pro­file Georgia race. All were in Trump-won dis­tricts that Democrats couldn’t quite flip.

How can the party do bet­ter? It’s not an easy prob­lem, and I wouldn’t trust any­one who claims oth­er­wise. But the crux of the mat­ter is clear enough: Democrats have to get the white work­ing class to fo­cus on the work­ing-class part of their iden­tity rather than the white part.

Most vot­ers don’t make de­ci­sions by do­ing a cost­ben­e­fit anal­y­sis of can­di­dates’ pro­pos­als. They in­stead tend to vote for can­di­dates who in­stinc­tively seem to get their lives. Vot­ers are at­tracted to can­di­dates with whom they can iden­tify.

Trump­ism fo­cuses peo­ple on the white part of iden­tity. The Vir­ginia cam­paign, for ex­am­ple, re­volved around talk of im­mi­grants and old Con­fed­er­ate heroes. When those are the top­ics, Democrats are go­ing to strug­gle (how­ever frus­trat­ing that may be).

But race isn’t the only part of peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties. When vot­ers in­stead fo­cus on class, Democrats thrive. Think back to Barack Obama’s pop­ulist­tinged 2012 re-elec­tion cam­paign. Or look at the sen­a­tors, like Sher­rod Brown and Claire McCaskill, who hold their own out­side of metropoli­tan ar­eas. Or the land­slide vic­to­ries for bal­lot ini­tia­tives on Med­i­caid and the min­i­mum wage.

The best news for Democrats is that they don’t turn off many subur­ban and ur­ban vot­ers by fo­cus­ing on class. Most of them are strug­gling with slow-grow­ing wages, too.

Again, no one should pre­tend that find­ing the per­fect mes­sage is easy. And no one should pre­tend that the Democrats have al­ready found it.

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