Among Democrats who remain committed to regaining support from white working-class and small-town, red-state voters, there are two main competing strategies—the same ones that have been continually debated for the last five decades without any resolution.
While the centrist, “New Democrat” approach of the 1990’s and early 2000’s is clearly in retreat, a significant group in the Democratic leadership and party apparatus continues to believe that, in general, Democratic candidates should offer carefully moderated platforms and programs. Progressives respond to this cautious view with the argument that timid, “Republican-lite” platforms offer little that can actually appeal to ordinary Americans while a robust progressive platform can provide an authentic and compelling Democratic alternative.
The very powerful continuing influence of this debate is vividly evident this year in the discussion—both in the media and within the Democratic coalition—about the primary and special election results that have occurred since the 2016 election. Despite the fact that these elections have occurred across profoundly different districts, each result has been immediately categorized as a victory for either the progressive or moderate side of the debate.
But there is a compelling argument that both the progressive and moderate-centrist views are based on an inadequate conception of how voters in many districts across the country are actually making their political choices today. In many white working-class and red-state districts, Democratic policies and proposals, regardless of whether they are “progressive” or “moderate,” never get seriously debated or even considered. In these districts, neither strategy can be relied on to elect Democrats.
In relatively urban or diverse districts with a substantial number or a majority of Democratic and independent voters, issues and platforms do indeed play an important role in a contest between a Democrat and a Republican. In these places, there’s a compelling case for progressive arguments that arouse the enthusiasm of “base” Democratic voters.
But in the vast number of Republican, red state districts, many of them in small towns and the urban fringe of large cities where many voters have less than a college education, there is reason to believe that a profound political change has occurred—one that has rendered debates over issues and programs largely irrelevant unless Democratic candidates can first establish a basic level of trust with these voters.
The role of ideological centrism in Clinton’s wins was overrated, but by the same token offering MAOR SOCIALISM to red state voters who aren’t predisposed to liking Democrats is unlikely to be effective either. Getting beyond the rise of negative partisanship will be difficult.