The title of this post is also the title of the op-ed piece on New York Times by the Greenbergs today. It is not clear what exactly their answer to this question is, ironically, enough. Their tentativeness is captured by the weak concluding sentence of the piece:
We think voters were sending a clear message: They want more than a recovery. They want an economy and government that works for them, and that task is unfinished.
Personally, I think the problem with the Democrats is that they were bad for themselves. The political skills of Obama and his operatives and the resulting personal popularity that he enjoyed obscured how badly out of touch the Democrats have been.
With the triumph of Donald Trump, it became fashionable for the Thomas Franks of the world to claim “I told you so.” Yet, it is not in Kansas, literally or proverbially, that the electoral tide swung against the Democrats. Trump’s margin of victory in Kansas, and indeed, much of hte so-called Red States, was smaller than Romney’s (Romney captured nearly 60% of the votes in Kansas, while Trump only captured 56%, obscured by a large number of votes that went third party–more than 7%). The pattern is repeated in states like Georgia, Texas, or Utah. Trump gained, or at least, Democrats lost in the North. While the Democrats’ loss of votes in the Midwest received much attention, their loss of votes in the Northeastern states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, EVEN IF they won these states by large margins, deserves closer scrutiny.
I don’t think this is a new pattern, but a continuation of what has already been seen. Andrew Gelman has already documented that, in the North, especially in the states dominated by the Democrats, income is not a good predictor of a voter’s partisanship. The wealthy tend to be, relatively speaking, more Democratic, while the poorer tend to be more Republican, again relatively speaking. While, in no state, the wealthy are more Democratic than the poor, the idea of “wealthy, out of touch liberal” applies to the blue states, not Kansas, proverbial or literal. In what sense are the wealthy in the liberal states “out of touch” with the poorer (the choice of the word is deliberate–it is not the very poor, but those who are in the lower rungs of the middle class, those who could use some help but not poor enough to qualify for a lot of assistance that are most discontented)? My hunch is that the extent to which they are “out of touch” cannot be easily quantified or specified in precise policy terms. Rather, it is “cultural” in the sense that the wealthy elites, as per my previous post, ooh and ahh over the latest sensations that are utterly irrelevant to the poorer. (Hamilton might be another example. Here, I’m torn, since, even though I never did actually watch Hamilton–I don’t live in New York, after all–I actually love the idea. But I don’t run the country and I actually am convinced that people like me should not–thus my hostility to wonkism.) In a sense, it’s a class war: the poor are against the rich who have political power in their hands, and in the blue states, the rich with all the political power tend to be Democrats.
The problem is that the Democrats in the blue states do not actively care to seek support from the poorer. “Cultural liberalism,” broadly defined, is enough to win over the support from the many wealthier liberals found in these states anyways and their support is usually good enough to dominate the politics. The rich do find it easier to rule, like it or not, as wealth provides many tools useful for an effective political machinery–much the same reason Republicans will be difficult to eject from positions of power in the proverbial Kansas. It may not necessarily the case that the Democrats are actively against the poorer per se, but are engaged in a form of malign neglect. What the Democrats offer do not fit the needs of the poorer, even if they might extol themselves on how good they are for the poor(er)–again, the choice of the words here might be relevant. The Democrats may indeed be good for the poor, but are they good for the “poorer”? Marie Antoinette might have been sincere in offering her cake to the poor, but the poor don’t want her cake. They need help getting by the concerns that matter to them and they are not getting it from the cake eaters.
I think this is where Trump is significant. For all his money, Trump is, at least, electorally speaking, a representative of the Northeastern Republicans–the lower middle class who might be found in, say, Staten Island. All other Republican candidates represented the more typical Republicans of the proverbial Kansas. He was, whether deservingly or not, credible to the poorer Northeastern Republicans in a manner than no other Republican could have been–thus the geography of his electoral support. The Northeastern Republican is not necessarily a bigot, a small government fanatic, or a religious fundamentalist–even though he may have shades of all three, I doubt any of them is a make or break it issue like for more conventional Republicans. He is primarily interested in a government that works for them, and, I suspect, not even especially a “Republican.” This is the group for whom “get government out of my Medicare” actually makes an intuitive sense–they like government programs that work, but they are not trusting of the people who run government to do the right thing when they mess with them, and to the degree that they have dealt with their state governments dominated by the Democrats–since most programs are, after all, administered by states–Democrats are usually the target of their distrust.
This is also a group that received relatively little attention in politics so far, because of their lack of impact on national or even state politics. They are the out group in states that consistently elect Democrats. Most of the Republicans seen on the national politics come from the states where Republicans dominate–the proverbial Kansas–and they don’t exactly command trust of these voters, for they are as out of touch with them as the liberal Democrats. Lack of familiarity means that we do not know where to place them on our scale, which, after all, is built on, literally, the records by the politicians we have, not the hypothetical politicians we don’t have. The point raised by the Greenbergs at the end of their op ed is the obvious one and, also, the right one. But it is also far harder to accomplish than not. Trump won by heresthetics, by recognizing the contradictions of the semi-fictitious liberal-conservative dichotomy in U.S. national politics. No one will defeat him by going more “conservative” or “liberal” (except possibly, the Republicans in Congress, by forcing him to give up his heresthetics for conventional conservatism.) The Democrats, if they want to win, will have to start thinking different thoughts, other than liberalism and conservatism.