Why you should care
Because this shift could have a major impact on the 2016 election.
When we first wrote about the fissures within the Democratic Party in November, they were mere tremors. But as many farm-and-factory liberals prepare to vote in Oregon and Kentucky on Tuesday, those fault lines have widened into the revolutions fueling the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are both railing against unfair trade deals that keep American workers down. Here, we look back at the early warning signs that showed just how much the blue-collar vote would play a crucial role in this presidential race.
As the Democratic presidential candidates took potshots at capitalism and pushed pet progressive causes in their first debate, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader looked on unhappily from a thousand miles away, in his favorite chair at his Oregon farm. While many liberals lauded the give-and-take, this rural Democrat saw a missed opportunity. “We need to appeal to those folks who don’t have the urban liberal theology,” Schrader says. “Stay out of the bedroom and the gun range, and show people how we can make the economy better for them.”
Maybe Schrader will get his wish. But candidates going beyond that will belie recent history. While Republicans move further right, the party that launched Southern Democrats like Bill Clinton is trending more socially liberal and secular, according to the Pew Research Center. The result: Progressives gain sway and farm and factory liberals from the New Deal era are feeling disenfranchised. White working- and middle-class voters jumped ship from 2006 to 2014: Support for Dems slid from 44 to 34 percent among the former, and from 50 to 44 percent among the latter. Urban intellectuals and minorities can swing elections, but Democrats still need almost two-fifths of the white middle-class vote to win the presidency.
As both parties stake out intractable positions, they create an environment where partisans live in different Americas — urban, minority intellectuals on the left, rural and suburban white workers on the right.
That would mean finding common ground with their blue-collar brethren on the issues that matter to them, from the economy to guns and faith — a task that would be easier if so-called Blue Dog Democrats like Schrader weren’t nearly extinct. That congressional caucus, known for its fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, has dropped from more than 50 members before 2010 to just 15 today.
“Working-class voters once believed that Democratic-inspired intervention into the economy protected their interests,” writes Stanford historian Victor Davis Hanson, but he told OZY that the party’s progressive turn has sidelined its message of economic patronage. The advent of Obamacare, in particular, shifted the financial burden for health care onto small-business owners in a way that made the program and its namesake deeply unpopular. Vice President Joe Biden tried to invoke those displaced liberals when he told steelworkers in September that “a level playing field” no longer exists. “That bargain has been broken,” Biden said. But what can a throwback Dem like Biden do when Sen. Bernie Sanders is questioning capitalism’s core and Hillary Clinton wags her finger at Wall Street during nationally televised debates?
In the party’s crosshairs instead? Legislation to tighten access to guns, another cause that dismisses many Democrats in conservative states. “Gun rights are a prism by which many people in Middle America evaluate a politician,” says Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s auditor, a moderate Democrat who narrowly lost re-election this month. “That’s totally foreign to people on the coasts,” he says, illuminating another reality: As both parties stake out intractable positions, their partisans live in different Americas — urban, minority intellectuals on the left, rural and suburban white workers on the right.
Perhaps the biggest chasm: religion. Democratic stances on abortion and gay marriage make the party an uncomfortable fit for many Christian voters. It doesn’t help that among Democrats, the largest stated religious affiliation is “none,” according to a recent Pew study. Liberals in faith-filled states wish that candidates didn’t fear bringing the Bible into political discourse. “Our faith is going to inform our values,” says Christina Forrester of Arizona, founder of Christian Democrats of America. “We have to break the Republican hold on the narrative of Christianity.”
Of course, Forrester is quick to say she’s optimistic her party will right the ship on religion, and points to her group’s 40,000 social media followers as proof of a groundswell for liberal candidates who prove scripturally literate. Unsurprisingly, most Democrats contacted for this story told OZY that whatever fault the party might have for polarizing politics, their Republican opponents were just as bad. (The Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.) Congressman Schrader puts it in a pox-on-both-houses sort of way: “The Tea Party has destroyed the Republican Party,” he says, “and people aren’t flocking to the Democratic Party because we scared the hell out of them in 2008.”
Democrats have a burgeoning advantage in presidential races thanks to an upward tick in minority voters. But to see where the party’s weakness lies, look to the Bluegrass State. Recently, David Miller, a state Democratic spokesman, was asked why Kentucky’s working-class, white conservatives continued to vote for moderate Democrats in statewide elections. His response: “My favorite Mark Twain line is, ‘I’d like to go to Kentucky when the world ends, because they are 20 years behind on everything.’ ” His state, Miller said, had managed to transcend this era of extreme partisanship.
Or maybe not. We spoke just before November’s election. Republicans took back the governor’s mansion and swept a host of other statewide positions, making Kentucky just the latest purple state to fade to red.