How Democrats Lost Their Base -- And How They Can Get It Back

These days, to be a Democrat is to smack your forehead.

Health care reform? Rejected by people who need it most. SMACK!

Foreclosures? Many of Wall Street’s victims want more deregulation. SMACK!

Union-busting? Plenty of working stiffs cheer it on. SMACK!

What the heck is WRONG with these people?

Alas, Democrat, the problem is not with these people. The problem is that you no longer understand a big chunk of what should be your political base.

How could that happen? It’s a question of Ideas, Interests and Identity.

Time was, back in the mid 20th Century, that it was pretty simple: Democrats stood for the interests of working people, and working people voted Democratic. Since there were many more working people than any other kind, Democrats tended to win. This was interest-based politics. It’s still the stock in trade of classical Democrats.

But, largely because of the success of those Democrats, from the 1930’s on, their children grew up more prosperous and better educated. These were less concerned with just getting by. They pursued a new kind of politics: the politics of Ideas. Believers in the power of reason, they wanted social change based on high ideals and expert knowledge.

And so, thanks to its very success, the Democratic identity began to split. By the 1960’s, the rift was gaping. As Rick Perlstein notes in his essential history Nixonland:

Gus Tyler of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union said [young Democrats] were changing the whole point of liberal politics—”away from economics to ethics and aesthetics, to morality and culture”—and thus would throw America’s poor “to the Republican wolves”.

We still see this split today, for example when construction workers butt heads with environmentalists over a new housing development.

It’s made worse by status anxiety and resentment. People who have escaped the working class tend to want to distance themselves from it — they suffer status anxiety. So many “idea Democrats” obsess about status markers such as hip designers and slow drip coffee, and are quick to mock “rednecks”, “gun nuts” and other caricatures of their working class roots. The counterpart of this is resentment: many of those still in the working class resent those whose lives look so much softer than theirs.

Furthermore, the split between ideas and interests wasn’t the end of it. There were fractures within the interest politics contingent. The classic interest-based Democrat was a white working man. But after unions won a string of victories for that man, other groups followed the union lead and fought for their own interests, which were often divergent: women, African-Americans, farm workers, gays, and more.

So, with the split between interest Democrats and idea Democrats, and the splits among the interest Democrats, we came to the present situation: most Democrats have trouble stating clearly what they stand for, and Democratic gatherings have become famous for their circular firing squads. There is no longer a unified Democratic identity.

That’s a very big problem, because it turns out that identity trumps both interests and ideas.

Interest and ideas are important, but identity is primal: it’s your sense of yourself, your tribe, your culture, your religion (if you have one) and in sum, the meaning of everything.

Identity answers Thomas Frank’s famous question, What’s The Matter With Kansas? Yes, people will vote against their own interests — as when working people support union-busting or tax breaks for the rich. And they will adopt ideas that don’t make sense — like trickle-down economics or climate change denial.

They’ll do it because of identity.

Many working Americans have come to believe that the Republican Party, whatever its faults, represents deeply held American values like self-reliance, hard work, strong families and moral behaviour. Meanwhile (in their eyes) Democrats seem at least to question American values and may be outright hostile to them.

Democrats hear this kind of thing all the time, of course. But their typical reaction is some version of “That’s crazy!” or “That’s a lie!” Both responses show that they’re not getting the message.

Rationally, it’s obviously untrue that Democrats are un-American. But Republicans have been able to make it feel like it could be emotionally true — and Democrats have helped them do it.

Next time, I’ll talk about how that happened, and what Democrats need to do about it.

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