The Democratic Base and Winning Elections

If you want to understand American politics, take a look at the House Districts that Democrats held continuously between 2011 and 2019. What you will find unites them is that in nearly all of them, the Democrats in those seats won with over 60%, and often over 80% of the vote. While Democrats won nearly half the vote for the U.S. House, and actually more in 2012, they won a minority of the seats in Congress. Some of this was a direct result of gerrymandering. Even if you unpack gerrymandering, the problem is that Democratic base voters largely live packed together in cities and inner suburbs. Highly educated white voters, single women, African-Americans, non-Christians, Latinos, Asians, and the LGBT community largely live in urban enclaves. The result of these voters becoming the backbone of the Democratic coalition is that Republicans are virtually non-competitive for any major city Mayoral race in America. The flip side of that coin is that Republicans have controlled the U.S. House for 20 of the last 26 years.

If you understand the geography of American politics, and the demographics, you understand everything. You understand why Bush and Trump could both win without majorities, and why Trump might win again. You understand why Democrats struggle to win majorities in the House and Senate, even when they win more votes. And of course, you understand the impending demographic hell awaiting Democrats in 20 years, when half the country lives in eight states. The big, diverse, broad coalition Democrats have built may in fact grow substantially bigger, but they probably are destined to be ruled by a not-so-diverse minority of regressive thinkers, as things stand.

The American Constitution was not written to support majority rule, but frankly to protect the rights of states, communities, and minorities of the population from doing things they didn’t want to do (to be read at that time as slavery, but later desegregation and other awful stuff). While many on the left have come around to realizing the system is rigged against them electorally, none of them have really come around to any sort of realistic changes. Abolish the electoral college? Abolish the Senate? These ideas require Constitutional Amendments, which require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress, or by ratification by two-thirds of the states (38), either in the legislatures there of or a constitutional convention. Good luck there. Some suggest packing the Supreme Court the next time Democrats get power, but remember, the Republicans will do the same the next time they’re in charge too. There’s no quick, easy fix to our system of government.

Now that I’ve laid out the demographic, electoral, and constitutional hell lying ahead of the American left, let me make you feel a little bit better. Democrats can win elections to change things for the better. There are three living former Democratic Presidents who managed to win fairly large electoral college majorities. Hillary Clinton would have won an electoral landslide in 2016 with just 500,000 more votes spread out correctly across Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. Democrats won the House in 2006, 2008, and 2018 under our current rules. Democrats controlled the Senate for part of 2001 and 2002, and again from 2007 to 2015. Unless you’re convinced Russia can hack voting machines and change votes, Democrats can actually win some elections and make change that way. It is possible, but maybe not the way you want to win.

One of the most common, and fair laments of progressives is “why do Republicans listen to their base, and Democrats don’t.” It’s a fair question, but one that takes us back to geography and demographics. The average Democratic Congressman wins by a larger margin than Republican ones, even in fairly drawn districts. This is a nice way of staying the obvious- Republican districts (their base) has more in common with competitive districts (the 40 that Democrats won in 2018) than Democratic districts (our base), demographically speaking. They’re whiter, more practice religion, more are married, and more own homes than rent- to name a few things. Democrats did well in 2018 by focusing their appeal to these voters on issues like health care and education, rather than proposing large scale wealth redistribution and social justice programs that polled well among the base. These are the types of voters who would support Bill Clinton’s abortion position of “safe, legal, and rare,” but might cringe at going further. There’s probably a sizable group in these districts that gave Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton negative approval, but also say they disapprove of “socialism.” To put it bluntly, they’re not big fans of “extremes.” Republicans have seen some erosion of their support in these communities in the era of Trump, but they didn’t buy into the full Democratic base vision either. Democrats have always needed to maintain some base of support beyond their base to win elections. Before it was “Blue Dogs” and with electoral realignment it is the upper middle-class suburbanite. They’re not out at marches and demonstrations, and they’re alarmed by extremism in both parties. They’re demographically more like Republicans, but socially lean left. They don’t want their taxes raised, but they want their government services functioning. When push came to shove in 2016, many of them voted demographics. In 2018, Democrats clawed them back.

What this means, both in Presidential and Congressional Elections, is that Democrats are prisoners to the middle more than Republicans, both because of geography and demographics. It also means that the voters most loyally supporting Democrats are quite a bit different than those last voters that Democrats need to win over. It creates a natural tension between social and economic progressives and the politics in the swing districts. This manifests itself on issues like impeachment, where the base is near unanimous in support, but the issue lacks majority support. The same snag can be hit on issues like immigration, where there is broad agreement that Trump’s position is bad, but more ambitious Democratic positions don’t poll well either. The base wants and needs different things than the voters who hold the key to majorities. In short, elections are a tough business.

I have real doubts about theAmerican future right now. On the one hand, we may just end up in a hellscape, where a regressive minority rules a progressive majority. We also may end up with an overly pragmatic, successful Democratic Party wins elections, but perpetually fails to satisfy or excite the passions of their most enthusiastic voters. The third option? I don’t know, but it’s probably pretty ugly.

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