Doing Popular Things Won’t Save the Democratic Party

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is taking a political battering, thanks to his support of Barack Obama, so he’s uniquely qualified to offer counsel on what many think is the president’s central political problem—his failure to connect with white working-class voters.

His advice: Go to where they live and work. Listen. And don’t talk down to them.

“If I were him, I’d start going to the places where people don’t like you that much,” said Manchin, who is locked in a close race to replace Robert Byrd in the Senate and struggling mightily to shrug off his opponents’ description of him as Obama’s “rubber stamp.”

“You can’t win if you only go where you are comfortable,” added Manchin, who was speaking to POLITICO a day before Obama appeared in a place that was very much in his comfort zone, before a crowd of 35,000 admirers at Ohio State University.

While Obama really had made gains with the white working class in 2008, those gains happened to coincide with an economic crisis that came at the end of an already deeply unpopular Republican president’s second term. Despite his populist rhetoric, Obama lost ground with them in his reelection campaign, and the Democratic Party as a whole took a severe beating over the course of his presidency, losing 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, 12 governorships, and well over 900 state legislative seats.

The Obama years only look like a relative success for the party from a post-2016 vantage point:⁠ Educational polarization deepened even more significantly once Trump entered the picture, and 2012 became a natural statistical benchmark. If Hillary Clinton had maintained the same ratio of college-to-non-college-educated voters as Obama’s campaign had, Shor has said, for instance, she would have won. Even so, it doesn’t at all follow that simply emulating Obama will actually reproduce the party’s 2012 margins now: If anything, Biden is, again, already having more success positioning himself as a moderate than Obama was at this point in his presidency with seemingly little effect on his standing in the polls. The problem for Biden and the party as a whole is that the electorate has fundamentally changed. And it will take much more than savvy messaging to change it back. “The last ten years have had a huge effect on the partisan allegiance of millions of white working-class voters who used to vote for Democrats,” Nate Cohn wrote earlier this month. “The old bonds of party loyalty are gone. They don’t default to Democrats anymore. Many are now just Republicans.”

White racial anxiety is often given pride of place in explanations of how that shift happened. But while race is undoubtedly central, it should be understood that the Democratic Party’s cultural problems are even larger than those diagnoses suggest—the pandemic and the furor over masks and mandates have demonstrated how easily a polarized and nationalized media environment can spin new material for the culture wars out of virtually nothing. A few decades ago, voters could turn to local media for news on the impact decisions made by their representatives in Washington were having on local affairs; ticket-splitting flourished in an era when bringing home the goods mattered much more than the letter at the end of a candidate’s name and whatever national narratives were being advanced about the two parties. But that’s an era long goneas Ezra Klein noted in his piece on Shor, about half of the senators who served between 1960 and 1990 were of a different party than their state’s choice for president, while only six are today.

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Written by Politixia

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