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Democrats at a Crossroad: Will They Heed This Data Scientist’s Advice?

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No, they won’t head his advice.

Last time I checked, we’re currently up to 25 different fronts in the culture war. We expect that progressive activists will pick at least another 25 fights before 2024.


Yated: So you are saying that the coalition put together by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, which included blue collar workers and African Americans, is starting to unravel? I’ve always been fascinated by how Democrats have managed to keep the coalition together all these years.

David Shor: Yes, I think it is super interesting. It is the most important question of our era in a lot of ways.

We have to look at the broader context of what’s been happening here and in almost every other country in the West. There has been a pretty consistent story that in the postwar era ?— here and in Britain and Germany ?— the center left has done pretty well with less educated voters, with working class voters, and did poorly with more educated or higher income voters.

That has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. If you look at a chart of voting patterns, you see that in the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats won white voters without a high school diploma by 28 percent and lost voters with at least a bachelor’s degree by 10 points. In 2018, that was reversed, with Republicans winning those without a high school diploma by nine points and those with a bachelor’s by just one point.

What’s interesting is that even though we can focus on what happened in 2016 — 2016 was a big transformation in voting patterns — it’s part of a long-term trend; it’s been happening for the last 70 years, here and in other countries. So I think that there is this natural question of, why is this happening? The data you mentioned from this postmortem just explains what happened the past four years.

The story I like to tell is that immediately after the postwar era, only five percent of the electorate had a college degree. Now, 40 percent do. That’s a really massive shift in the electorate. It masks a different story, which is that the electorate has just gotten a lot more educated. In the 1980s, white voters without a college degree were 25 percent of the electorate. But back in the 1940s, 80 percent of people did not even have a high school degree. Now, less than five percent don’t have a high school degree.

Despite that, even though college educated voters were only five percent of the population in the 1940s, all the politicians, all the elites, were still college educated. So this led to this really interesting phenomenon where it was impossible to run on cosmopolitan values that the politicians would naturally want to, because you would just lose. George McGovern tried it in 1972 and he was annihilated.

Because of that, center left parties really focused on economic issues and avoided cultural ones. But now that there’s been this massive increase in educated voters, it is now possible to run on these cultural or cosmopolitan issues and win.

What that caused is that people who run on these cultural issues — now that they don’t have to have the same kind of restraint — are increasingly defined as being center left and progressive in terms of issues they care about, as opposed to issues that working class people care about.

So if you look at the last four years, you see how as college educated people have become a larger share of the Democratic Party, they have increasingly remade the party in their own image. That is a problem, because culturally, working-class white voters and working-class non-white voters have a lot in common and agree with each other on cultural issues, but they disagree with each other on economic issues. African American working-class voters are more likely to support income redistribution than white ones.

What’s really interesting is ideology. By just asking people, “Do you identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative?”, we’ve seen that roughly the same proportion of white people, black people, and Hispanic voters identify as belonging to these three ideological groups. It’s roughly 20 percent liberal, 40 percent moderate and 40 percent conservative. This has been true basically for decades; it has been very stable.

What I think is interesting about that is that the reason why Democrats get around 75 percent of non-white voters, including 40 percent of non-white conservatives, is that among white people, ideology and partisanship are correlated. Over 90 percent of white liberals vote for Democrats and about 80 percent of white conservatives vote for Republicans. But among non-white voters, that wasn’t true. Democrats have historically won non-white conservatives by large numbers.

If you look at Hispanic voters, one of the things you see is that Democrats in 2012 won Hispanic conservatives by 10 points, and in 2020 lost Hispanic conservatives by 40 points. That is the whole game. That is what happened to Hispanic voters. …

Yated: One of the things this postmortem points out is that Republican attempts to paint Democrats as radical worked. Given those headwinds, what do you think allowed Democrats to win? Was it that they had a bogeyman in Trump that allowed them to coalesce against, or was it that they put forth a vanilla candidate who was moderate enough for everyone to rally around? In other words, were people voting against Trump or for Biden? This is important for Democrats to think about after Trump is not around anymore.

David Shor: It’s hard to say things about the future. But the scary thing for me is that Donald Trump was the most unpopular politician to ever run for office. He happened to have a good strategy, which was to dial up cultural resentment and try to appeal to cultural values, but he happened to be personally unlikable for a lot of reasons. We ran the most popular person in our party — Joe Biden has the highest personal ratings of any Democrat — against the most unpopular person in the Republican Party, and we only barely won, by 0.3 percent.

The danger is that even after Trump, the lessons of how to win — go complain about immigration, dial up a culture war, dial up authoritarianism — probably still works. So there will be another, better Trump, but it’s not clear to me that we are going to have another, younger Biden. That’s a scary thing.

There is a significant group of voters who have voted Democratic whether or not they agree with us on healthcare, whether or not they agree with us on immigration. There is this large group of voters who are disproportionately working-class white voters from the Midwest, who disagree with us on health care and disagree with us on immigration.

That group — it’s fairly large, it’s about 15 percent of the electorate — Barack Obama got about 60 percent of those people, and Hillary Clinton got 41 percent. That is the story of that election. That is what I find scary. There is this real ideological niche for a candidate who is moderate on economic issues and right wing on cultural issues and authoritarian issues. There are parties in other countries who fill that niche, whether it’s the AFD in Germany, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, or Le Pen in France.

I don’t think that Trump was this unique individual — he simply found the strategy that no other Republican wanted to do because they would have lost some friends. But now that they know it works, I think other people are going to do it.

Democrats must counter that strategy by moving toward the center and decreasing the salience of these cultural issues. The danger is that they are primed to do the opposite, the way AOC and her friends want. Democrats are going in the wrong direction — they are letting Republicans have this large chunk of voters to themselves and then it will be hard for us to win elections, particularly the way our electoral system is set up.


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