Confessions of a Liberal Heretic
A funny thing happened on the way to the emerging Democratic majority. Twenty years on, the co-authors of a hugely influential work on the subject acknowledge that their party took a detour.
In 2002, the political scientist Ruy Teixeira and the journalist John B. Judis published a book that struck a chord among liberals despondent over the success of George W. Bush, a president who was then so popular that he gained seats in that year’s midterm election.
“The Emerging Democratic Majority” took note of the demographic change pulsing through the country, and boldly predicted that the Democratic Party was poised to dominate American politics for the foreseeable future.
“Over the next decade, this bloc of voters is expected to continue to increase and, extrapolating from recent trends, could make up nearly a quarter of the electorate,” Teixeira and Judis wrote. “If these voters remain solidly Democratic, they will constitute a formidable advantage for any Democratic candidate. Democrats could suffer from an embarrassment of political riches.”
Six years later, the American public elected Barack Obama, an African American president whose rainbow coalition seemed to vindicate the thesis. A Time magazine cover from May 2009 pictured an elephant below the headline “Endangered Species,” capturing the feeling that Republicans’ demographic reckoning had finally arrived.
But it unraveled quickly with the election of Donald Trump, who not only discovered pockets of white working-class voters that few knew existed, but also appealed to more voters of color than anyone had expected.
Now, as President Biden sinks in the polls, Teixeira finds himself fighting against what he says is a caricature of his famous book. His Substack newsletter, The Liberal Patriot, delivers “no-holds-barred, reality-based analysis,” unafraid to take on what he calls a “race-essentialist” dogma that is dominating the Democratic Party.
Teixeira is unsparing about the party strategists who he believes are leading Democrats astray — and unapologetic about offending many on his own side. His newsletter has become a kind of samizdat for like-minded liberals who aren’t as willing to speak their minds.
“There are some people who think I’ve completely lost it,” he told us in a wide-ranging interview about his book, his party and lessons not yet learned. “But I feel like we’re making some progress.”
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity:
There’s lots of nuance that gets lost in translation, but the narrative that a lot of people took from your book was that the Democratic Party would benefit from the inevitable growth of people of color, young people, this new cadre of voters who at the time seemed ready to join the party and put the Republican Party in the rearview mirror. And the narrative has been complicated since then, hasn’t it?
Well, it was even complicated back then. You fairly summarized what is a bowdlerized version of what we said. That was only part of what we were saying. Demographic change was inevitably shifting the political terrain. It did not make it inevitable that Democrats would benefit.
And even on this raw demographic basis, it’s not crazy that there’s a natural popular-vote Democratic majority in the country. However, that does not translate into political power. We very specifically said — and this is widely ignored — that for this majority to attain and exercise political power, you have to retain a significant fraction of the white working class. The country was changing, but it wasn’t changing that fast.
The second thing we didn’t anticipate was the eventual effect of professional-class hegemony in the Democratic Party — that it would tilt the Democrats so far to the left on sociocultural issues that it would actually make the Democratic Party significantly unattractive to working-class voters.
It’s a huge liability for the Democrats, because the people who staff the party, the people who staff the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the foundations, the staffers, they’re all singing from the same hymnal to some extent. They live in this liberal cultural bubble, particularly the younger members.
Can you give an example of that?
Sure. Go back to the 2020 Democratic primaries. It was remarkable the extent to which things that were alienating to the average voter, particularly your average working-class voter, were gaily promulgated, with no apparent second thoughts about how it might appear to people outside the bubble. Things like open borders; basically, let’s decriminalize the border. Anybody who knows anything about immigration and public opinion in the United States realizes that will not play well.
Arguably, Democrats would have been better off from the beginning saying, “Yeah, we believe in being humane to immigrants. We also believe in border security, and we’re going to enforce it.” You know, take a page out of the old Obama playbook. Obama got a lot of stuff right on some of these issues, which the party is now insisting on forgetting.
You had a lot of stuff about mass incarceration, but almost nothing about crime. Democrats now fit this profile of being relatively soft on crime, more interested in not putting people in jail than in putting them in jail when it’s appropriate. That’s really wound up hurting them.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, there was a distinct, almost inflection point in the intensity of this professional-class hegemony on race, to the point where it became completely routine for people in and around the party to talk about white supremacy, systemic racism, how America has always been a benighted country and still is, we haven’t made any progress, everybody who is white has work to do in terms of discarding their racism.
You write about something you call “the Fox News Fallacy,” which you say is “blinding Democrats to real problems.”
The basic idea is when one of these criticisms appears — like, Democrats are allowing the intrusion of race-essentialist ideology into curriculum and teacher training — the first reaction is to deny it and just to say it’s simply a racist dog whistle to constituencies who aren’t that happy about the way the country has changed.
The same thing goes for crime. I mean, who wants to be tough on crime? Well, no one could possibly want to be tough on crime except for people who want to put a lot of Black people in jail; whereas actually, this is a huge matter of concern for people across races, and particularly in poor Black and Hispanic communities. The idea that concern about crime and a desire to be tough on criminals is simply a reflection of a bigoted, reactionary type of politics is completely ridiculous.
The base of the Democratic Party in many ways is older Black voters who are quite conservative on a lot of issues. And those are the people who elected Joe Biden.
Right. And the extent to which this is completely ignored by the dominant liberal Democratic discourse, to me, is completely astonishing. Do they really believe that the Black voters who formed the base of the Democratic Party think like Ibram X. Kendi, or the leaders of BLM? Are they crazy? I mean, how can they not understand there’s enormous sort of diversity among the worldviews of people within the Black community? They vary by class, they vary by age, they vary in all kinds of ways. And the idea that they are sort of all on board with this crusade against the superficial aspects of so-called systemic racism, that that’s really what they care about, is fanciful, really.
What would you recommend the Democratic Party do?
Well, it won’t be easy. You try to be productive, you try to get the Electoral Count Act and associated reforms done. You try to get some sort of Build Back Better thing through Congress with Joe Manchin’s support, or you break it up into pieces that are popular and try to get them through. These are the kinds of things you have to do to convince people you’re effective, and you can govern.
The second thing is, whatever you haven’t done to try to get the country back to normal, do it. We’re fast approaching the end of this pandemic. A Democrat should be ready to reopen the country. You’ve just got to send the message that what you want is for people to be happy and for things to be back to normal.
A third thing here that’s related to any elections: They’ve got to try to lift the ceiling on their support levels, which I think will necessitate some drawing of lines within the party, where you say, “No, no, we believe in being tough on crime. We think it is an absolutely atrocious idea to defund the police.”
You’ve got to win, and when you win, you’ve got to do stuff for the people who elected you. It’s not much more complicated than that.
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It’s coming from inside the house
The recent erosion in President Biden’s approval rating is happening within his own party, the latest Pew Research Center survey suggests.
Over the last six months, Biden’s job approval has slipped by 20 percentage points among Democrats and independents who lean Democratic — from 88 to 68 percent. Just 29 percent of Democrats say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, a decline of 18 percentage points since March.
Biden has lost ground with one group in particular, Pew found: Only 60 percent of Black adults now approve of his job performance. That’s down from 67 percent in September.
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