Talking Points

Democrats have a race problem. It's not what they think.

Democrats are approaching panic. Frustrated by congressional wrangling and sagging presidential approval, the party is looking to reverse a trend that points toward heavy losses in 2022 and perhaps 2024, when former President Donald Trump seems likely to mount another bid for the White House.

Political analyst David Shor has an answer. Along with other "popularists," he argues Democrats should emphasize the best-polling parts of their agenda — like expanded healthcare benefits — and downplay culture war flashpoints.

These arguments have gotten a lot of attention in the media, where profiles of genius strategists are a popular genre. But they're viewed with suspicion by progressive activists, who see them as catering to mostly older, white, suburban swing constituencies at the expense of Democrats' core constituencies, including minorities and young voters.

As a matter of strategy, this objection makes little sense. Politics is about winning votes you don't already have, not just holding onto those you do. As Shor points out, that's particularly important to realize in the U.S. electoral system. Democrats run up huge majorities in the most densely settled areas but struggle in the less urbanized states they need for success in the Electoral College and Senate. That may not be fair according to strict majoritarian logic, but it's the reality. If Democrats want to win, there's little alternative to "pandering" to marginal voters.

But that doesn't mean abandoning minorities to the domination of rural whites. Contrary to the stereotypes popular on both right and left, minority voters hold relatively centrist views on culture war issues like immigration, police reform, and gender roles. That's part of the reason Democrats lost ground with these groups in the 2020 election. 

The real outliers on these issues are college-educated professionals, a group composed disproportionately of whites. In fact, fewer than half of Democratic voters describe their views as "liberal" or "very liberal," with the plurality calling themselves "moderate." President Biden was nominated because he appealed to these voters — especially African Americans — more than progressive favorites like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

If Biden wants to salvage his presidency, and Democrats want a strong strategy in 2022 and beyond, they should remember who their friends are.