The Democratic Party, if it wants to regain power, must be defined by economic issues and allow for internal disagreement on some social issues.
The recent controversy surrounding Heath Mello, the personally pro-life Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha has exposed a broader tension within the Democratic Party and American politics at large: the tension between the coasts and the middle and between statist and libertarian wings of both major parties.
The Nolan chart looks like this.
It describes people’s political orientations based on their views on personal and economic freedoms. The two major parties in the U.S have typically fallen in the “Left” or “Right” squares. People in those squares are solid party people, your Howard Dean on the Left or your Ted Cruz on the RIght. The fabled “swing voters” often fall in either the Libertarian or Statist (social conservative, fiscal liberal) camps. The “Trump voter” or the “Reagan Democrat” the blue-collar white person who is socially conservative or moderate and fiscally expansionist (as it serves his self-interest), would fall into the Statist category.
Almost anyone who falls into the Left square already votes Democrat, and almost anyone in the Right square already votes Republican. The other two squares, Libertarian and Statist, can be pulled, in various degrees depending on year and message, into the Republican or Democratic camps. The reason that Trump won is that he got all the votes of the right square and a sizable portion of both the Libertarian and Statist voters, because his ideological malleability meant that the both camps felt at home. The key mistake of the Clinton campaign was the almost complete exclusion of the Statist voters from their strategy. Because the Clinton campaign made social issues the defining aspect of their campaign, they excluded those portions of the Democratic base that disagreed even minutely on social issues, even if those voters agreed with the Democrats on economic issues. This meant that the Democrats were trying to win with about 1.5 quadrants on the Nolan chart, the entire Left quadrant and about half of the Libertarian quadrant, while Trump could draw votes from the entire Right quadrant, about half of the Libertarian quadrant, and almost all of the Statist quadrant. This was because Trump did not exclude voters on the basis of social or economic issues; Trump courted pro-choice Libertarian voters because they agreed with him on deregulation and pro-Big Government Statists because they agreed with him on immigration, while Hillary actively rejected pro-life voters even if they agreed with everything else on the Democratic Party platform-in other words, she rejected the statists.
This election season, the Clinton campaign tried their hardest to get the votes of suburban college graduates on the coasts, former Republicans, the fiscally conservative, socially liberal upper-class, people who would fall in the middle of the Libertarian square, while simultaneously distancing themselves from the progressive wing of the party, the wing more concerned with economic justice than with the latest social justice cause celebre, the wing that contains pro-life and pro-gun Democrats, the wing that is prominent in Montana and Nebraska and South Dakota and New Hampshire and Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa other red states, the wing that would roughly fall on the line between Left and Statist, the wing that had the most defections to Trump.
Why? Why would the Democratic Party welcome a rich New Yorker who disagrees with us on every economic issue, who believes in trickle-down economics and deregulation and who opposes the public investment needed to stop climate change, just because he agrees with us on God, guns (because he’s never even held one), and gays while at the same time rejecting a Midwesterner who knows we need to fight climate change, who believes in massive public investment to provide basic services for every American, who agrees with us on every important policy issue, simply because that Midwesterner likes his hunting rifle or is a little uncomfortable with transgender people or has a personal qualm with abortion ?
Why? Because the leaders of the Democratic Party, like the leaders of almost every economically conservative institution today, are themselves coastal elites. They, as wealthy urban dwellers, benefit from neoliberal economic policies like a low minimum wage, less progressive taxation, deregulation of the financial industry, and unrestricted capital movement. Their support for negative rights, rights that entail being left alone by the government like the right to marry or the right to legal birth control, is rooted in an apathy about the actions of others, not some deep sense of justice. As soon as the struggle for justice crosses over into positive rights, rights that require government action like the right to affordable housing or the right to a living wage, they often don’t care, or at least they don’t prioritize those rights. For these leaders and many coastal liberals, politics is more about promoting a permissive society than it is about building a greater one.
For the coasts, politics has become a battle of social issues and identities as coastal factions of both parties have embraced the neoliberal economic consensus. You are a Democrat on the coasts because of what you ARE-a minority, a woman, a gay person, an immigrant, a college graduate- rather that what you BELIEVE.
This transition from an economically-based message to an identity-based one is what cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election. She tried to essentially stack up identity-based groups of voters (blacks, Latinos, gays, college grads, women) to reach a majority, arguing that they should vote for her because Donald Trump threatened what they ARE, regardless of what their political beliefs happen to be. She also strongly aligned herself with Hollywood and Wall Street, two massive symbols of coastal disconnect. In the process, she alienated many economically liberal voters, particularly in the Midwest, who aren’t quite in lockstep with the Democratic Party’s vanguard social beliefs.
I remember discussing the election with a union autoworker at the Chrysler plant in St. Louis, a friend’s dad who had been interested in Bernie Sanders because of his economic positions. He had a Trump sign in his yard, and I asked him why, given that Trump is a billionaire and his economic policies would probably hurt this guy. He responded “Yeah, maybe, but at least he cares about me. Hillary cares more about Beyonce and Jay-Z and the trannies in North Carolina than she does about my job.”
I had no response, because he’s not wrong. To a lot of coastal liberals, and clearly to the Clinton campaign, whether or not a transgender student can use the bathroom he/she wants to use IS more important than jobs being lost to automation, and is a more rigid litmus test of one’s political affiliation than any economic policy position. However, this is not a viable political strategy, if only for the simple fact that there are a lot more auto workers than there are libertines, more statist than there are libertarians.
Going forward, the Democratic Party should emphasize justice and the expansion of rights, both positive and negative, economic and civil rights, as its primary goal. Chief among these must be:
The right to an adequate standard of living.
This will be accomplished by implementing paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare, and more generous social programs, paid for by more progressive taxation
The right to safety.
This will be accomplished by implementing sensible gun control to reduce the number of homicides and by improving police practices to reduce any threat of violence by the State.
The right to equal treatment.
This will be accomplished by implementing non-discrimination laws for employers, by eliminating the male-female wage gap, and by ensuring equal access to healthcare for men and women, particularly reproductive healthcare
The right to share in our common birthright
This will be accomplished by improving access to public land (which will really get us some votes out West, particularly from hunters who feel unrepresented by the NRA-backed Republicans) by making utility monopolies into publicly-owned corporations, and by banning the further sale of federal lands to private companies
The right to progress
This will be accomplished through massive public investments in infrastructure, specifically road improvements and high speed rail, and a government-led transition of our energy base from a fossil-fuel based system to a renewable energy based system.
These rights are things that are broadly supported by all Americans, Democrats just need to tailor their presentation of these ideas to their audience.
If we’re trying to convince a Detroit factory worker that clean energy is important, our argument should be that America has nearly endless acres of wind and sun, and that we can create a lot of manufacturing jobs while becoming a perpetual energy superpower, exporting huge amounts of electricity that costs us nothing to produce. The factory worker, the farmer, the Trump voter, will respond to that message. They will NOT respond to the argument put forward by Clinton and most other coastal liberals, which typically boils down to “Trees are important, man.”
If Democrats want to win elections in the future, they must reorient, from a coastal coalition of Liberals and some Libertarians and Centrists united around a social agenda that is quickly sliding into decadence, into a national coalition of Liberals, Statists, and Centrists united around a vision of economic and social justice for all Americans. This is how the Democratic Party will find its way out of the wilderness, recover the Trump Democrats, and regain power.