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The party of presumption

George Yancey | Democrats believe their political dominance is inevitable—and that belief is crippling them

President Joe Biden signs an executive order to expand abortion access on July 8. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

The party of presumption
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About 15 years ago John Judis and Ruy Teixeria published a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. It encapsulated their thinking about the emerging power of the Democratic Party. The argument posited that the sectors of our society that were most dynamic, such as college-educated professionals, and growing, such as people of color, were trending towards the Democrats. In time these groups would displace the older, traditionalist cultures inhabited by the Republican Party. In essence, demographics would be destiny and Democrats would eventually be the ongoing majority party in the United States. Armed with such analysis, many social and political observers began to interpret events by their understanding that eventually the Democratic Party would take control and never have to relinquish it.

But ironically now, when the Democrats have the presidency and both houses, Democrats need to reconsider this assumption. Because this very presumption has led to an arrogance that is killing them at the ballot box. In 2020, the Democratic nominee won the White House, but voters also rejected the idea of Democrats being able to implement all of their progressive desires. Voters do not trust, and likely even fear, Democrats having complete power. And the attitude that Democrats are destined to be the lasting power brokers is part of what has led to this mistrust and fear.

For example, Democrats keep saying that they have to defeat Republicans to save democracy. If you truly fear having a certain party in office, then maybe you do whatever you can to get the votes you need. You do not become (too) extremist in your policy demands—simply because that would drive away moderates. You do not force your candidate to back public funding of abortions. You do not threaten to pack the courts and upend the current political process if you gain political power

Have Democrats acted like a party that needed to dial back and get rid of Trump to save democracy or have they acted like victory was inevitable? With the exception of nominating Biden, who had been pushed far enough left to be acceptable, the Democrats did little to really try to “save our democracy.” Instead, they made it a good deal harder for moderates to support them in the future. They were so confident in their inevitable power that their actions clearly did not match their moderate rhetoric.

It is tempting to think that this is just a bump in the road. But trends indicate that this is not merely a slight detour on the way to permanent Democratic power. While still receiving a minority of the popular vote in 2020, former President Trump received a higher percentage of the vote of women, and people of color, than he did in 2016. This increasing support of Republicans by people of color is not tied to Trump but instead is part of a longer trend. If the Republicans nominate the right candidate in 2024, then the Democrats will definitely have to work to retain their large advantage in those communities.

Beyond the relative loss of racial advantage, it is no longer clear that the Democrats are the party of the working class. Data indicate a shift in the voting preferences of the working class towards the Republicans. Some of this may be a Trump effect, but I am not certain that the working class will flow back to the Democrats in a post-Trump world. The trend goes back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

At some point, confident that they would eventually receive permanent power, leaders in the Democratic Party stopped trying to convince others about the rightness of their ideas. Labeling opponents as bigots and seeking to cancel voices they did not like may have seemed to be good ideas to those who were guaranteed political power. But that power is not guaranteed when such tactics turn people off—the very people you are going to need to gain and maintain that power.

I am not a Democrat. But if I were, I would be begging my party to get hungry for new voters and to get serious about reclaiming voters who left the party. Stop assuming that you are entitled to political power. Get out there and hustle to persuade others that you are on the right path. Learn how to convince through moral suasion rather than shaming. Even as a non-Democrat I implore Democrats to head in such a direction. Because our society will be better off with two healthy major political parties.

George Yancey

George Yancey is a professor at the Institute for Studies of Religion (Baylor University) and the author of Beyond Racial Division.


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