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Democrats’ Hidden Civil War

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran strongest in richer, whiter precincts (a katz/Shutterstock)

Now here is something really interesting, via Politico: there’s a growing cultural divide within Democratic ranks:

As the party’s attention turns to the presidential nominating season, one of its biggest challenges will be navigating this culture war in its own ranks. The energy at the moment is with the liberal wing, centered around cities and college towns and on the coasts, its members mostly white and college-educated and far to the left on social and cultural issues compared with the rest of the party. But its voting majority is still more blue-collar and diverse, many of whom favor an incremental approach on social issues and who are more interested in preserving the clout of longtime powers like Crowley and Capuano than in notching symbolic victories for the “resistance.”

In many of the cases outlined above, the policy differences between the candidates are microscopically small. Nearly all Democrats favor tackling income inequality, raising taxes on the wealthy and the minimum wage, and reforming the criminal justice system. There is some dispute over how fast to move and how far to go, but the broad outlines are the same. The differences, in one analysis, are stylistic, and so it is easy to imagine that they will be worked out over the next year as the party settles on another presidential nominee.

But there remains another possibility: that the split will prove to be more fundamental, that the party’s diverse base and its growing share of college-educated voters don’t have the same values or the same amount at stake—and that as Americans increasingly self-segregate, and even left-leaning elites close the gates of privilege behind them, that the party’s wings will drift too far apart to unite behind anyone.

What’s happening is that the energy in the Democratic Party now is coming from richer educated white liberals who are most motivated by issues that don’t resonate with the ethnic minorities who make up the Democratic base. For example, did you know that in the bellwether House race in which newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated veteran incumbent Joe Crowley, the challenger’s strongest precincts were the whiter, wealthier ones, while the incumbent ran strongest in the most heavily minority precincts? It turns out that minority voters tend to care about who can deliver for them on bread-and-butter issues more than making symbolic identity politics statements. Politico reports that this is causing a growing divide within Democratic ranks.


It can be hard to find Democrats who are willing to speak openly about these matters, cutting as they do among the fault lines of race and class. “For people on the left, the fact that black and Hispanic voters aren’t with them on everything is a huge source of embarrassment,” said one social scientist, who asked to not be named in order to wade freely into the fraught territory of race and class in America.

It is unclear whether the mainstream of the Democratic Party is really ready to get behind the redistributive polices of the most energized end of the Democratic left. It is one thing to come out in favor of a $15-per-hour minimum wage, or free public college, or even a federal jobs guarantee; for most people, this will not require a meaningful relinquishment of their privilege. But for the educated top of the Democratic hourglass—to say nothing of the donor class whose members get one-on-one meetings with aspiring party leaders—embracing massive taxes on upper incomes, or much higher inheritance taxes, or robust neighborhood and school desegregation plans, or even a “Medicare for all” proposal that means giving up your doctor is going to be a much harder sell.

One more excerpt, about “Democratic/Independent Liberal Elites”:

As a group, DILEs are younger, whiter, richer and better-educated than the rest of the country. Strikingly, it is the only cohort across the political spectrum not to rank jobs and the economy as a top priority, preferring the environment and climate change. Polls show that people like Winston’s DILEs are also far less religious and far more socially liberal than the rest of the Democratic Party on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. In evaluating candidates, these Democrats consider diversity, and hailing from outside the political establishment, hugely important.

Except that hailing from outside the establishment isn’t much of a selling point to people who actually need things from government, who rely on social services or federally enforced fairness-in-lending laws, or decent government jobs in their districts. For these voters, what matters is relationships, and an ability to deliver. And when they see a Crowley or a Capuano unseated by a fresh new challenger, they see decades of seniority vanishing for largely symbolic reasons.

Read the whole thing, especially the head-shaking ending.

What’s interesting to me is that on the GOP side, the outsider insurgents — Team Trump — captured the party, and forced the party establishment to go along. Now the Republican Party is firmly in the hands of Trump. Based on the Politico story, in the Democratic case, the outsider insurgents appear not to represent the base at all, but a highly energized portion of it. The more power they get, the more alienated the more socially conservative black and brown base may grow. What an interesting set of problems.

Never forget: in America, we do class warfare through culture war.

(Thanks to reader Patrick G. for sending that in. By the way, readers, I’ll be traveling for much of today, so please be patient with my approving comments.)

UPDATE: Reader Jonah R.:

This rift has been playing out in D.C., where the city wants to spread its emergency homeless shelters for families equally across the various wards rather than concentrate the poor and the needy in one place.

In Ward 3, the richest and whitest ward, dominated by professional Democrats, the city wants to build a 50-unit shelter literally right next to the police station. However, the rich white liberal locals are furious. They’ve cited what they see as arcane procedural and zoning violations, but they’ve also been vocal about the possibility of “overcrowded schools,” and they’ve condescendingly suggested that maybe the shelter residents would feel more comfortable in a neighborhood where mass transit was better and where there would be more black or Hispanic people.

These locals are people who have “All Are Welcome Here” signs in multiple languages and “No Hate” rainbow flag signs on their lawns. They’re gung-ho for LGBT rights. They want the name of the Redskins changed. They say all the proper things about immigrants, sexual assault victims, and African Americans who are mistreated by the police…but when asked to house 50 almost assuredly black or Hispanic families who need emergency shelter, they muster all of their legal and political might and express opinions that aren’t all that different from those of the MAGA-hat-wearing opponents they despise: “We don’t want those people here.”

There’s nothing unique about the hypocrisy of the richest, whitest Democrats, but it’s nice to see someone talking about it at other than the hyper-local level.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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