I’ve been haunted by a claim my KCRW colleague Rich Lowry made on our radio show a few weeks ago: Democrats keep coming up short in elections because they won’t give any ground on “cultural issues” to win back the working-class voters they’ve alienated over the past decades.
On one hand, it’s obviously true that Democrats suffer from a cultural disconnect from non-college-educated voters who have abandoned the party in droves. Democrats believe their economic agenda should appeal to people with lower incomes, yet income has become a poor predictor of partisan alignment; Democrats’ substantial inroads with upscale suburban voters have been more than offset by the loss of voters down the income spectrum, most of whom did not finish college.
Most of the discussion of this trend has focused on non-college-educated white voters, who have swung heavily toward Republicans; but Democrats should also be worried about their disconnect with non-college-educated nonwhite voters, whose turnout declined precipitously in 2016.
On the other hand, when you look at the polling on specific “cultural issues,” Democrats usually have the edge.
This combination of facts has me thinking a lot about what I call “the hamburger problem.” As I see it, Democrats’ problem isn’t that they’re on the wrong side of policy issues. It’s that they’re too ready to bother too many ordinary people about too many of their personal choices, all the way down to the hamburgers they eat.
They don’t always want to prohibit those choices. But they have become smug and condescending toward anyone who does not match the personal lifestyle choices of liberal elites. Why would the voters on the receiving end of that smug condescension trust such a movement to operate the government in their best interest?
The nice thing about the hamburger problem is that Democrats can fix it without moving substantially on policy. They just have to become less annoying.
Americans are socially liberal …
Most Americans favor legalizing marijuana and oppose requiring transgender people to use bathrooms that match their sex at birth. They have come to favor same-sex marriage by 30 points. Nondiscrimination laws to protect gay people are even more popular than gay marriage. And universal background checks to buy guns are even more popular than that.
Immigration is hard to poll – I don’t think poll questions tend to adequately capture the trade-offs involved in the issue – but Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of the issue by a very wide margin, suggesting that “nastier to Mexicans” was not the ethos they most wanted in a president.
The one major exception to the Democratic edge on cultural policy is abortion, a closely divided issue on which public opinion has barely shifted since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.
But the median voter’s position on abortion boils down to “It should be legal, but only early in pregnancy and only if you have a good reason.” If Democrats have a problem with their broad-access position on abortion being too extreme for the median voter, then so do Republicans who want to prohibit it.
… but they do not like being told to feel guilty about personal choices
That Democrats are on solid political ground with the biggest planks of their culture-related policy agenda does not mean Lowry is wrong about the culture gap. What it does mean, I think, is that “cultural politics” is barely about public policy at all.
And liberals have staked out a wide variety of fundamentally non-policy positions on the culture that annoy the crap out of people, to their electoral detriment.
Let’s discuss the hamburger example.
Suppose you’re a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. Suppose it’s a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game.
Conservatives will say, “Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday.” (In the Trump era, they’re not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day.
Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They’re concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They’re upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.
They think the name of your favorite football team is racist. Or even if you hate the Washington Redskins, they have a long list of other reasons that football is problematic.
The hamburger problem is about more than just hamburgers and football
Beyond what you’re doing this weekend, this movement has a long list of moral judgments about your ongoing personal behavior.
The SUV you bought because it was easier to install car seats in doesn’t get good enough gas mileage. Why don’t you have an electric car?
The gender-reveal party you held for your most recent child inaccurately conflated gender with biological sex. (“Cutting into a pink or blue cake seems innocent enough – but honestly, it’s not,” Marie Claire warned earlier this month.)
You don’t ride the subway because you have that gas-guzzling car, but if you did, the way you would sit on it would be sexist.
No item in your life is too big or too small for this variety of liberal busybodying. On the one hand, the viral video you found amusing was actually a manifestation of the patriarchy. On the other hand, you actually have an irresponsibly large number of carbon-emitting children.
All this scolding – this messaging that you should feel guilty about aspects of your life that you didn’t think were anyone else’s business – leads to a weird outcome when you go to vote in November.
Democrats believe they have an economic agenda that would help you – for example, by relieving your substantial childcare costs. You’re not particularly religious, and you’re not thrilled about Republican complaints about gay marriage and marijuana. You don’t make enough money to benefit much from Republican tax-cut proposals.
But are you going to entrust the power of government to the side of the debate that’s been so annoyingly judgmental about your life choices? Do you trust those people to have your best interests at heart?
Liberals have supplanted conservatives as moralizing busybodies
In the past few years, conservatives have made a strategic retreat from telling people what to do in their personal lives. Except on abortion, where public opinion remains about evenly divided, conservatives have implicitly admitted that they have lost certain parts of the cultural war.
They have accordingly shifted from trying to impose their moral vision on the whole society to trying to carve out a space to live under that vision within a private sphere.
You can see this even in the nomination of Trump. Trump is full of gross judgments of people based on who they are, but he’s less inclined than past Republican candidates to judge people based on what they do – in part because Trump wants to preserve social space for his own gross behavior.
But liberals, realizing they have won major aspects of the culture war, have begun to overreach, deeming nearly every aspect of life to be subject to public judgment.
They don’t necessarily intend to impose policies to change your behavior, but they definitely intend to use cultural power to shame you for your nonconforming choices.
If everything is political, then culture will necessarily dominate politics
Liberals like to complain that working-class voters who back Republicans have voted “against their own self-interest,” by which they implicitly mean economic self-interest. This idea could benefit from a little introspection.
Do liberals go into the voting booth and choose a candidate based on a narrow conception of economic self-interest? Of course not. I live in Manhattan; I know lots of people who are horrified at the prospect of a Republican healthcare bill that cuts benefits they are unlikely to use personally and that until the most recent revisions would have given many of them a substantial tax cut.
Their aversion to Trump arises because, for them, government is about more than “What’s in it for me?” But more important than explicit public policy, they are horrified about what Trump’s rule means for the culture.
He is trampling on anti-racist and anti-sexist ideas that they value. He rejects norms of intellectualism and politeness that used to govern both conservative and liberal elites. He is vulgar and embarrassing. He withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord, which had few direct policy effects but was extremely important as a vehicle for moral signaling about climate change.
Cultural power is more motivating than public policy
Objectively, you would think the groups most substantively exposed to risk from the Trump presidency are low-income people who face benefit cuts and members of minority groups against whom he whips up and indulges negative sentiment.
Yet, as the Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini has pointed out in his analyses of turnout in House special elections, the “resistance” surge in Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout is occurring almost entirely among college-educated whites. That is, the people most alarmed by Trump seem to be the ones who stand to lose the most cultural power, not those who stand to lose the most materially.
Why wouldn’t this be true on the other side, too? If you wouldn’t hand power to your cultural opponents in exchange for a health-insurance subsidy, why would you expect others to do so? You should consider that some voters feel that having to listen to moralizing speeches about their diet is against their self-interest.
An air of self-dealing makes liberal moralizing worse
Liberals don’t moralize about everything they think is a problem. You’ll hear a lot more discussion of how people should fight climate change by eating less meat and living in dense, walkable communities than discussion of how they should fight it by flying less.
This is probably because people like to propose moral solutions that are in line with their preexisting lifestyle preferences.
Liberal moralizing tends to read as college-educated people in cities arguing that everyone should behave more like them. Usually, that’s the substance of the moralizing, too.
This can be fixed
The good news about the liberal cultural disconnect not really being about public policy is that Democrats don’t have to change any important cultural policy positions to fix the disconnect.
I have a few ideas about how Democratic politicians could signal to voters across the cultural spectrum a message along these lines: “I get you. I don’t have a problem with the way you live your life. I have some ideas about how government can work better for you, and I’ll otherwise get out of your way.”
Don’t tell people they should feel guilty. As I discussed at the top of this piece, Americans are broadly open to liberal positions on cultural policy issues. Over the last few decades, they have increasingly internalized the idea that the government should let people be free to do what they want in their lives. So embrace that ethos by emphasizing how liberal policy positions would let members of all sorts of groups live their best lives, protected from discrimination and harm. Don’t tell people they should feel bad about living their own lives as they want. Say when you think the liberal commentariat has gone overboard. While former President Barack Obama has urged people to eat less meat, usually the leading voices of the new liberal moralism are not politicians. Less-smug liberal commentators will usually protest that these voices are marginal, especially the college students who get so much attention on Fox News for protesting culturally insensitive sushi in the dining hall. If these voices are so marginal, it should be easy enough for Democratic politicians to distance themselves by saying, for example, that some college students have gotten a little nuts and should focus on their studies instead of the latest politically correct cause. Showing that you also think liberal cultural politics has gotten a little exhausting is a good way to relate to a lot of voters. Offer an agenda that provides benefits people can see as mattering in their daily lives. If you want voters to refocus away from petty cultural fights and toward public policy, it’s not enough to turn down the temperature on culture; you need a policy agenda they can relate to. I wrote in December about some ideas to do this – though of course, you could also make such an agenda in farther-left flavors. Don’t get distracted by shiny objects. If the government can’t do anything about the problem you’re discussing – if it’s purely a matter of the cultural discourse – should you spend your time on it and risk alienating people on the opposite side of the issue? Probably not.
Turning down the temperature on culture is not admitting defeat
I should mention the important role that white racial resentment played in Trump’s rise – though as a practical political matter, when Democratic politicians talk about it, they should be careful not to sound like they’re telling white voters they should feel guilty about their choices. That worked poorly for Hillary Clinton.
Certainly, there were ugly preferences among many voters, nearly all of them white, that animated Trump’s rise. Trump’s vilification of Mexicans and Muslims, his portrayal of black neighborhoods as hellish, his sexist attitude toward women – these appealed to an uncomfortably large number of white people. For a substantial number of voters, a vote for Trump was a vote to restore white cultural power.
Some liberals have looked at this and thrown their hands up: Clinton was right about Trump’s voters being deplorable, and there’s no way to meet them halfway on “culture” because that will ultimately mean indulging bigotry.
I think it makes more sense to think of Trump’s voters as being like any heterodox coalition, which you seek to defeat by splitting it. Offer what you can to win some of them over without conceding on what you hold dearest.
When Trump complains about “political correctness,” he means the norms that stop people from expressing overt bigotries and sexually harassing women. But when voters complain about it, they mean an immense variety of things.
It’s possible to stake out the ground that, for example, characterizing Mexican immigrants as a mass of criminals and rapists is wrong, but what you wear at Halloween isn’t really a concern so long as you’re not in blackface. It’s possible to push for the policies you think are important on climate change without making people feel guilty about their hamburgers.
Liberals overreached, but Trump is overreaching, too
When I say voters are sick of being told to feel guilty, I don’t mean that I think they want no standards of social behavior at all – or that they should be entitled to that.
Social norms against overt expressions of racism have been an important driver of improved social relations in the past 60 years. Sometimes it’s a fine political and moral strategy to make people feel guilty – if what they’re doing is bad enough, and if there’s a strong enough consensus that it is bad.
The problem with the liberal busybodying is not that it passes any judgments on individual behavior, but that the judgments have become too numerous, too specific, and too frequently changing. Following all the rules has become exhausting.
But the people most bothered by the rules are the ones who wish to violate them the most flagrantly – the Ann Coulters and Richard Spencers of the world. These people love Trump because he would vitiate all the standards of behavior. This is also why Trump horrifies the small number of intellectually consistent social conservatives, such as Russell Moore.
Liberals don’t have to outbid Trump on license to win back the voters they alienated with their cultural impositions. They just have to become somewhat less annoying. I think this is feasible.