About the Books “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” and “Rust Belt Union Blues”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Barton Swaim headlined “Politics: ‘Where Have All the Democrats Gone?’ and ‘Party of the People'”:

In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a book whose thesis seemed calculated to tempt liberals into thinking they’d discovered electoral fairy dust. “The Emerging Democratic Majority” argued that four demographic groups were trending strongly toward the center-left: professionals, women, minorities and blue-collar workers.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to confirm their thesis, and soon young Democratic strategists and pundits had reduced Messrs. Judis and Teixeira’s nuanced and complex argument to the formulation “demography is destiny.” In other words: We win, no matter what!

Subsequent elections, especially the midterm years of 2010 and 2014, in which the GOP made large gains in Congress, suggested that things weren’t going to be so simple. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, in which the white working class abandoned the Democrats in droves, exploded the thesis entirely.

In “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?”, Judis and Teixeira freely confess that they failed to foresee the working-class defection, but they’re right to note that the rest of their argument held. Professionals, women and minorities have grown and largely hewed Democratic. The newer book purports to describe why and how the Democratic Party lost its core constituency—the average working man—and fell under the sway of knowledge-class progressives and radical activists.

Judis and Teixeira—the former a journalist long associated with the New Republic and other liberal publications, the latter a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—are men of the center-left, and their contentions accept liberal premises. This is particularly true of the first part of their argument (there are two). To oversimplify: Beginning in the 1970s with Jimmy Carter, and then in the ’90s with Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, Democrats abandoned unions, embraced free trade and loose immigration policies, and staffed their administrations with Wall Street executives who championed relatively tight-money policies and financial deregulation. American manufacturing collapsed, Democrats became the party of the wealthy and educated, and an impoverished working class was left abandoned by its party and vulnerable to the appeals of cultural reaction.

There’s some truth in that interpretation, but some of it reads like a conclusion in search of evidence. The idea that trade barriers could have preserved American manufacturing from Europe’s resurgence and the rise of East Asia is fanciful. If Democrats had wanted to keep manufacturing at home, they should have kept taxes low and regulation minimal. They did the opposite. Bye-bye, Maytag.

In the book’s second half, Messrs. Judis and Teixeira explain how a “shadow party” has moved the Democrats to the left. “Shadow party” is their term for the activist organizations, think tanks, foundations, publications, donor networks, commentators and academics who shape the formal party’s positions and outlook. “The labor movement used to play a dominant role in the Democrats’ shadow party and kept it rooted in working-class concerns,” they write.

During the Clinton and Obama years, unions took a back seat to “Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street, together with various environmental, civil rights, and feminist groups.” In the 2020s, they observe, the party is dominated by a host of left-progressive organizations and companies that cater to hypereducated urban progressives: the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, MSNBC, Vox, the New York Times, the Ford Foundation and the Center for American Progress, among many others.

Judis and Teixeira think unions were done in by an alliance between “business Republicans” and Clintonian Democrats. In my view they did themselves in by making demands that made sense in 1950 but amounted to economic suicide a half-century later. Their contention, however, that the left’s media, nonprofits and foundations have made the Democratic Party odious to the average non-college-educated voter seems unassailably true.

Today’s media-driven conventional wisdom holds that the GOP has moved dramatically to the right. This is to confuse the admittedly absurd tactics of congressional Republicans over the past decade with political extremism. Substantive extremism exists almost totally on the Democratic side. The last four chapters of Messrs. Judis and Teixeira’s book chronicle the Democratic Party’s embrace of “anti-racism,” open-borders anarchy, trans ideology and climate policies that would—and still may—destroy the American economy.

Where have the Democrats gone? Mad, that’s where.

“Party of the People,” by the Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini, addresses the same phenomenon—working-class voters’ defection—but from the other party’s viewpoint. Mr. Ruffini, too, begins his book with a confession. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, an assemblage of Republican strategists produced a report—the press called it an “autopsy”—in which they concluded that the GOP lost because it took a hard line on immigration and failed to appeal to Hispanic voters. Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign seemed perversely to reject the report’s counsel. Beltway Republicans like Mr. Ruffini were sure he would lose.

Reflecting on his mistake soon afterward, he writes: “I began to realize that my background and life experiences themselves were the problem. They had blinded me to an accurate understanding of the American electorate. . . . I only saw the swing voters that might be repulsed by Trump, not those drawn to him. And it was all because of a fatal, reality-blinding flaw I shared with almost everyone in politics and the media: I graduated from college.”

Most American adults do not, in fact, hold college degrees. “Party of the People” is full of granular discussions of demographic trends, bar graphs and dot charts, slopes and intercepts. Some of the analysis—as long as we’re airing confessions here—I had to take on faith. But Mr. Ruffini is a competent and engaging writer, and his overarching point is an excellent one: The growth of this or that demographic group—think of professionals, women and minorities in that supposedly emerging Democratic majority—is less important than partisan shifts within the group, whether or not it’s growing.

And the non-college-educated demographic, growing or not, is rapidly switching its allegiance. “The politics of America is the politics of the rank-and-file worker and the non-graduate,” Mr. Ruffini writes. “This doesn’t just mean a blue-collar construction worker who voted for Obama and then Trump, but the supermajority of workers across white-collar, blue-collar, and service industries who hold positions where a college diploma is not a requirement, didn’t work from home during the pandemic, and aren’t agitating for their employer to take a stand politically.”

Mr. Ruffini cautiously offers evidence that, as Republicans shed their image as cardigan-wearing members of the country club and Chamber of Commerce, black Americans are slowly moving toward the GOP. That sort of shift is already happening among Latinos, as Ron DeSantis’s Florida gubernatorial reelection in 2022 strongly suggests. For all the talk of the “white” working class, the actual working class is as racially diverse as any university classroom.

Mr. Ruffini insists he is a pollster, not a think tanker, and doesn’t get exercised about the right’s internecine arguments over philosophy and policy. “The current working-class realignment is happening under the umbrella of a pro-capitalist, moderate-to-conservative politics of aspiration,” he writes. His buoyancy may be justified. A less buoyant observer might reasonably worry that a working-class Republican electorate, detached from the eggheads whose job it is to formulate conservative principles, will find demagoguery more interesting than principle.

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