In a few days, President Joe Biden will deliver his first State of the Union speech. He might want to consider some advice from two political analysts who have a track record of success.
In 1989, William Galston (my esteemed colleague on the “Beg to Differ” podcast) and Elaine Kamarck, both of the Brookings Institution, looked at the state of the Democratic Party and offered some tough love. Their party had just lost its third consecutive presidential election. Many Democrats were self-soothing by pointing to the flaws of their 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis (“slightly less animation and personality than the Shroud of Turin,” according to one pundit), but few seemed able to confront the uncomfortable truth that Galston and Kamarck delivered, namely that Democrats were out of touch with most Americans.
Galston and Kamarck are offering Biden and today’s Democratic party new advice about appealing to a broader swath of the electorate, but this time, they are writing with more urgency. They recommended a course correction in 1989, they write, because they feared for the future of liberalism. Today, the stakes are far higher, as the GOP is led by someone who attempted to overthrow a free and fair election.
Democrats are in the grip of several self-defeating myths. One is that turnout is their friend. It isn’t. The Democrats did a fantastic job boosting turnout in 2020 — but so did the Republicans. Trump earned 11 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. In Virginia’s 2021 election, high turnout favored the Republican.
Another myth is that “people of color” will deliver victories to Democrats very soon. White voters, Democrats have been telling themselves, will be subsumed in a new “rising American electorate” populated mostly by people of color. As Galston and Kamarck note, Hispanics have been trending away from the Democrats quite markedly. “Nationally, support for Democratic presidential candidates fell from 71% in 2012 to 66% in 2016 and 59% in 2020 among Hispanic voters.” As CNN reported, in 2020 Trump performed 10 points better in Texas counties where Latinos comprise a large majority than he did in 2016.
The term “Hispanic” is so broad as to subtract from understanding. Voters who trace their ancestry to Mexico or Puerto Rico have quite different views from those who fled from Venezuela or Cuba, for example. And their experience here is very different as well. Galston and Kamarck note that only 12% of African American voters believe police misconduct to be a matter of isolated incidents, contrasted with 40% of Hispanics. And “by 43 to 18%, Hispanics oppose teaching CRT in public schools, while African Americans favor including it, 43 to 20%.” As Ruy Teixeira warns, the trend among Asian voters (the fastest-growing minority) is also worrying for Democrats.
More cold water: The electorate, however tinted, is not becoming more progressive. Conservatives and moderates outnumber liberals and progressives. Only 9% of voters say they approve of the policies of Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On no issue is this myth more damaging to Democrats than on crime and policing. Kamarck and Galston quote Rep. Jim Clyburn to the effect that the “defund the police” slogan probably cost the Democrats 12 congressional seats in 2020. Even among African Americans, the group most likely to hold critical views of policing, shrinking police forces or cutting funding (as opposed to reform) is unpopular. In Minneapolis, an initiative to replace the police force with a “department of community safety and violence prevention” was defeated in 2021. Among African Americans, 75% were opposed.
The authors argue that we are both extremely polarized and closely divided. Our national elections are determined by tiny margins in key states, and that means, yes, the party should tack to the center. How did Biden win? By gaining votes among certain key constituencies. He earned 48% of the male vote, up from Hillary Clinton’s 41%, including 31% of white working-class men, which improved on Clinton’s anemic 23%. “Biden moved five crucial states from the Republican to the Democratic column by making large gains among swing voters in the heart of the electorate, especially moderates and independents.”
Those moderates and independents are the very voters Democrats are losing today. Between March of 2021 and January of 2022, Biden lost 22 points among moderates and 21 among independents.
Galston and Kamarck join a growing chorus of realist Democrats, including James Carville, David Shor, Ruy Teixeira and Stan Greenberg, who are begging the party to disabuse itself before it’s too late. These are not conservatives, far less Republicans. They are simply people who have excellent advice for those not too blinkered to receive it. There is still time for a course correction, if only just.
Mona Charen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.