David Michael Miller
Like a lot of liberals, I once had faith in the big blue glacier. I believed that the growing number of Hispanics and the increasing voter participation among millennials, combined with continued strong showings among women and African Americans, would assure a Democratic century.
But the November disaster has forced me to revisit that idea. Now, I’m not so sure that the glacier isn’t melting before our eyes. It looks to me as if Democrats and liberals cannot regain power until they fix the problem they have with men in general and white men in particular.
Those who disagree with that assessment make a common mistake. They almost always say that the party doesn’t need to try to win over conservative white men. I agree, but that’s not the issue. Conservatives of either gender or any color are more likely to vote Republican, and that’s as it should be since the GOP is the conservative party. I am not talking about ideological conservatives nor am I talking about Breitbart News-reading-alt right types.
I’m talking about regular guys. There are lots of men out there who might think of themselves as moderate, independent or blue collar — guys who voted for Barack Obama at least once but then went for Trump this time — who are still reachable if only the party made some attempt to listen and speak to them. But a party that embraces “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy” either is actually trying to lose male votes or really needs to step up its marketing effort.
The best case I have seen for the give-up-on-white guys point of view appeared on The New York Times editorial page recently, and it came from a writer named Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. It’s worth reading to get that side of the argument, but for me it just doesn’t hold up.
The biggest flaw in Phillips’ argument is that it dealt only with the presidential level, where it's true that the big demographic wave should have saved the Democrats — but of course it didn't last year.
Phillips didn't mention the problem the Democrats have at the state legislative level where running up big numbers in the cities — which might still soon usher in an era of Democratic presidents — doesn't help. The GOP controls more state legislative seats than at any time since the 1920s in part because of gerrymandering but also largely because their voters are more evenly distributed across the landscape and more consistent about showing up in every election.
Worse for us, Phillips just dismisses the "Rust Belt" as he calls it (revealing a certain bias). Again, because he focuses only on the top of the ticket, he is content to imply that the Democratic presidential candidate might win Arizona and Texas in the future and just give up on the upper Midwest altogether. Basically he's saying that coastal elites can just keep flying over us and that liberals here should settle in for more of Scott Walker and his ilk. He's pretty clear that he just doesn't care about places like Wisconsin because we're not likely to have enough black and Hispanic voters any time soon. And if you’re giving up on white guys, then you are pretty much giving up on Wisconsin.
Then there is the problem of the margins. There are two on opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first margin problem is that analysts like Phillips just assume that the Democrats will keep racking up massive victories among blacks and, most importantly, Latinos. But the Democrats have essentially maxed out with those groups, and the trend is in the wrong direction.
Clinton polled 40,000 fewer votes out of Milwaukee County than Obama did in 2012. That shouldn't have been a surprise, though a strategic visit by the president or Michelle Obama could have made a difference. Any Democratic candidate, even one as popular with African Americans as a Clinton, can't expect to re-create the enthusiasm that black voters had for the first black president.
But Hispanic voters should be even more of a concern. Bill Clinton won that demographic by 51 points, Obama by 44 and Clinton by 36.
Let me stop and emphasize that.
Donald Trump started his campaign by insulting Hispanics and kept it up for almost two years. Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that had identity politics at its very center, and yet Clinton lost eight points to the previous candidate of her party!
I have to think that wasn't so much about Clinton as it was about the Democratic brand. As Hispanics become more numerous and more affluent, they also become more diverse politically. In addition, they are heavily Roman Catholic, and the views of the party and the Church don't necessarily line up especially well on reproductive rights issues. As Hispanics start to become more comfortable economically, they can turn their attention to other issues where the Republicans have a shot at winning their loyalties. The bottom line is that no matter who the Democratic candidate is next time, I don't see them winning by a margin of 36 points among Latinos.
The second margin issue is among men, and white men in particular. Clinton lost men by 12 points and she lost white guys by 32 points. (Incredibly, Trump even got 12 percent of the votes of black men.) White men make up a third of the vote. You just can't lose a demographic that big by those margins and expect to win many elections.
Or maybe you could if you were winning white women by the same margins. But Clinton actually lost them by six points. And if the first major party woman candidate for president can’t even beat the most openly misogynist candidate in modern history, what hope does any other Democrat have of doing better?
The whole election was lost by a total of 77,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It’s true that it should never have even been that close, but if Clinton had just done a tick or two better with men she would be the first woman president.
So, Democrats don't have to win white guys or even get close. They just need to do better. In the 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race, Democrat Mary Burke lost white guys by 25 points. Had she lost them by a still whopping 11 points she would be Gov. Mary Burke today.
The Democrats can do better. I would argue that the party doesn’t need to change its policies, just its emphasis and language. Knowing my brothers as I do, to win them back I would favor discussion of economic over social issues, talk about fairness rather than diversity, emphasize personal responsibility as much as rights, and present a tone of bootstraps optimism over encouraging people to think of themselves as victims.
To a large extent these are just different sides of each coin, but they give each one more currency. Fairness, responsibility and confidence in your own ability to overcome obstacles are not exclusively male traits, but together they constitute narratives and messages that I believe would resonate better with male voters while (I hope) not losing anybody else.
Again, I don’t believe it’s about changing what liberals believe in so much as it’s about changing which things they emphasize and how they talk about them. The same song can be played in a major or minor key to get a completely different feeling.
In truth, I was never comfortable with the demographic glacier theory even when it seemed inevitable because it always left so many people behind. Even going into Nov. 8, I thought that the first thing President-elect Hillary Clinton would have to do was reach out to disaffected blue-collar voters.
Now it appears that to regain the power to do anything for all of the other groups in Clinton’s identity politics coalition, the Democrats need to find their footing with men. An economic message that emphasizes fairness, responsibility and overcoming setbacks would be a good place to start.