Those Darned Woke Democrats
Thomas Edsall's latest New York Times piece has gotten significant attention this week. He talks to a range of political scientists, finding pretty general agreement that Donald Trump and Republicans loyal to him are a significant threat to American democracy, but with substantial disagreement about the proper response by Democrats. In essence, the disagreement is whether Democrats should a) seek to harden democratic systems to protect them against ongoing authoritarian attacks, or b) seek to make themselves more likable to moderate voters and thus win more elections. This is where I want to jump in.
I was honestly struck by some of the concerns expressed in the piece in line with point B. For example:
"The Democratic Party over the past few decades has gotten into the position of appearing to oppose and scorn widely cherished institutions — conventional nuclear family, religion, patriotism, capitalism, wealth, norms of masculinity and femininity, then saying 'vote for me.'"
Democrats "must return to being a party of the people and not woke-chasing elites who don’t understand that canceling comedians does not help struggling Americans feed their children."
Democrats "are pushing moralistic identity-based causes or specific policies that do not have majority appeal, understanding, or support, and using often weird insider language (like 'Latinx') or dumb slogans ('Defund the police') to do it."
My main reaction to this is to wonder just which Democrats are saying these things. Are any Democratic Party leaders or nominees scorning the nuclear family or religion or patriotism? Which member of Congress proposed legislation or hearings to cancel Dave Chappelle or Louis C.K.? Is any of this in the party's platform? Didn't the Democrats have a very competitive 2020 presidential nomination contest in which the victor publicly proclaimed support for the police? Many of these criticisms are describing a Democratic Party that simply does not exist.
Now, do some people believe that Democrats are wild-eyed socialists conspiring with Hitler and the Legion of Doom to assassinate Jesus? Of course. Some have believed things like that for decades, and Fox News and other Republican-aligned media organizations have worked very hard to disseminate this view. Sometimes they do it by simply fabricating stories or just asserting that Democrats hate America. Sometimes they try to tie the Democratic Party and its candidates to the actions or rhetoric of little-known activists and protesters.
Democrats can win majorities of voters and still lose ground in the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. Being less ”woke” will not fix that.
The question then becomes, if you've decided the problem is not what the party stands for but what some voters believe the party stands for, what should Democrats be doing about it? If conservative media wrongly describe Democrats as advocating Critical Race Theory in public schools and seeking to defund the police, would it really help Democrats to deny that? Would conservative media report that denial accurately? Would Republicans praise the Democrats for their new policy stances, or simply move on to the next line of attack?
Another important question here is, what exactly are we criticizing when we attack Democrats for being too “woke”? The scholars in Edsall’s piece are hardly the only people voicing such concerns. Pundits, politicians, Bill Maher, James Carville, and others have plenty to say on this subject. But as I wrote here, this is simply the latest way to blame people of color and other underrepresented groups for past or upcoming Democratic losses. It’s notable that being ”woke” is usually seen as the antithesis of addressing the needs of “the people,” which is way of dismissing some concerns in favor of others. There’s a long history of these kinds of complaints within the party. But they mostly amount to a complaint that people of color are speaking too loudly and that the party will deal with their concerns at a more convenient hour.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that this is correct. What if, in fact, Democrats could win more votes by appealing to moderate working class whites and tamping down calls for justice by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. Okay, how effective do we expect this to be? Keep in mind the things that Donald Trump said and did in the 2016 election perceived to make him unelectable, whether that was dismissing John McCain’s heroism, calling Mexicans rapists, insulting a Gold Star family, bragging about sexual assault, promising to imprison his opponent, or anything else. Did those hurt his vote share? Probably, by a little. But not enough to cost him the election. A more politic Republican nominee might have done a point or two better in 2016 but not much more than that. And while I don’t find 2024 matchup polls all that meaningful right now, it’s not nothing that Trump is tied right now with Joe Biden, despite Trump having literally organized a violent coup to stay in power and vowing another one.
Given all this, just what kind of an effect should we expect Democratic moderation to have in 2022? Even a very strong statement against “wokeism” by many prominent party nominees and leaders would barely move the needle, while not-so-subtly telling substantial constituencies in their party that they are not a priority right now.
The historical fact here is that the president‘s party tends to do poorly in midterm elections, and that’s not because they somehow always choose bad messaging. Even if Biden’s popularity recovers a good deal, there’s still a decent chance Democrats will lose control of the House next year. Current representational biases in the Senate and the Electoral College mean that Democrats can win majorities of voters and still lose ground in the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. Being less ”woke” will not fix that.
There are a number of reforms Democrats can focus on at the state and national level to protect election systems — protect democracy — for times when they might not be in the majority. They might also work on ways to ensure that poorer people and people of color may freely vote, as those freedoms are under considerable attack right now. But to hope to pivot their way out of historical and institutional biases and ongoing attacks on democracy with clever messaging is a fool’s errand.