Tim Ryan; Chuck Schumer; Pramila Jayapal (Getty/Mark Wilson/Win McNamee/Jason Redmond)

Gerrymandering isn't the only reason Democrats aren't winning in rural areas

More populism just might be the key for Democratic victory in rural America


Matthew Sheffield
July 27, 2017 9:00AM (UTC)

Democrats have a problem. Most Americans agree with their economic stances, but they have been unable to translate this fact into policy and electoral outcomes.

As an example, for almost two decades, respondents to Gallup polls have said that providing health coverage to everyone was a “responsibility” of the federal government. Similar majorities have long existed for increasing taxes on the wealthy, regulating businesses and financial markets more tightly and pretty much every other domestic policy issue favored by the party's left wing.

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Some on the left have blamed Democrats' electoral dysfunction on ever more sophisticated forms of gerrymandering, and indeed Republican-led redistricting in several states after the 2010 census has helped lock in a GOP House majority. But that does not explain why Republicans have won a majority of U.S. Senate elections since the mid-1990s, or the fact that they consistently do much better in the state-by-state vote in presidential elections than in the national popular vote.

In 2016, Donald Trump carried 30 states while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.5 million. In 2012, despite losing the popular vote by almost four percentage points, Mitt Romney actually won 24 of the 50 states. In 2008, John McCain managed to carry 22 states, even though he lost the popular vote by a landslide, finishing nearly 10 million votes behind Barack Obama. In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush narrowly won the national popular vote -- the only time a Republican has done that since 1988 -- but he won 31 states in the Electoral College.

Democrats’ current fortunes in this regard are a striking reversal of the party's situation during the 1970s and '80s. In those decades, the party had great difficulty winning the presidency but tended to dominate congressional races.

One way of understanding this turnabout for both Republicans and Democrats at the presidential and congressional levels is by considering the changing issue climate facing the parties over those decades. During the latter years of the Cold War, Americans often trusted Republican presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to check the power of the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society meant that many people trusted Democrats to handle domestic issues in Congress.

With the end of the Cold War and George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, Republicans lost their advantage on foreign policy. But instead of becoming the majority party at every level -- as they were in the middle of the 20th century -- Democrats have been continually stymied in state and local elections, reportedly losing more than 1,000 legislative seats in non-coastal states during the Obama years. This is partly due to the ongoing segmentation of the country — what many demographers call The Great Sort — into urban areas that are culturally liberal and vote Democratic and rural and exurban areas that are attracted to Republicans’ cultural conservatism.

This divide isn’t anything new; people who live in cities have historically been more liberal. What’s changed is that both parties have become more ideologically homogeneous on cultural issues. In the past, the Democratic Party was a broad coalition that housed labor-union socialists and civil rights activists alongside Southern segregationists and ardent anti-communists. Republicans were also split on cultural matters.

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As part of Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," however, the GOP reoriented itself toward an interventionist foreign policy, and social and economic views. By taking hard and fast stances in the first two areas through cultural populism, Republicans have been able to get elected in areas where voters disagreed with their anti-government economic stances.

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- which reordered the global map and drove socialism to the ideological margins, at least temporarily -- Democrats reoriented themselves on economics, largely at the instigation of “New Democrats” like former President Bill Clinton.

This strategy worked for the party at the presidential level. As noted above, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. But it has been a dismal failure at the state and local level, for a simple but subtle reason: There are more people in total who hold liberal or progressive views on issues like LGBT rights, race relations, abortion and immigration -- but that majority is clustered into relatively compact areas, largely in the Northeast Corridor and on the Pacific Coast.

To break that down a little, in 2012, according to demographer Richard Florida, Mitt Romney won a total of 214 metropolitan areas. Barack Obama carried a significantly smaller number of metro areas, just 150 -- but the ones he carried were far more populous. The average Obama area was home to more than 1 million people, while the average Romney area was home to just over 400,000.

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In short: more people agree with Democrats, but Republicans are more efficiently distributed, at least from a purely political standpoint.

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Democratic officials at the national level seem to have been presented with at least some of these data points. During a Monday news conference unveiling a new party initiative called "A Better Deal," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer flat-out stated that he believed it was time to refocus the party’s agenda.

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“The focus starts on economic issues,” Schumer said. “There is not that divide on economic issues.”

He continued: “That’s where the American people are hurting. That’s what we most felt was missing in the past in the last several elections.”

While Republicans (and some leftists) have mocked the idea, comparing it to a Papa John’s Pizza slogan, Democratic officials say the agenda was formulated after months of polling and electoral analysis.

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 In an interview with Politico, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that party leaders had reached an “overwhelming consensus” on the agenda items of creating more better-paying jobs, lowering health care costs and pushing back against businesses through fighting mergers and fees. According to Schumer, even Sen. Bernie Sanders — the Vermont independent who has been a persistent thorn in the side of Democratic officials he sees as too cautious and too conservative — was consulted extensively.

“What we’ve tried to do here is choose things that just about every Democrat can support but that really resonates with the American people,” Schumer said at the Monday press conference. “And a lot of them are things Bernie Sanders campaigned on.”

While liberals have faulted the party’s new agenda for being too small-bore, Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and other Democratic leaders say they plan to add more items to the “Better Deal” agenda. In a Sunday interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Schumer said that expanding government health care programs is under consideration as well.

“Many things are on the table. Medicare for people above 55 is on the table. A buy-in to Medicare is on the table. A buy-in to Medicaid is on the table,” Schumer said.

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“Week after week, month after month, we’re going to roll out specific pieces here, that are quite different than the Democratic Party you heard in the past. We were too cautious. We were too namby-pamby,” Schumer added.

The new agenda earned plaudits from Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who represents the blue-collar area surrounding Youngstown, which Trump visited Tuesday evening to try and rally his supporters.

“I think it’s a good step in the right direction, focusing on the economy, jobs and wages,” Ryan said in an interview with Salon. “In addition, we need to talk about some of the values that are behind these policies -- that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead in a democratic country.”

That praise is notable because Ryan is one of several Democratic members of Congress who have sought to depose Nancy Pelosi from her longtime post as party leader in the House of Representatives.

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According to Ryan, in last year's presidential campaign Trump managed to steal Democrats’ thunder by copying their rhetoric on protecting jobs and keeping a level playing field for people who follow society’s rules.

“What’s an America 2.0 going to look like; what’s a Democratic Party 2.0 going to look like?” Ryan asked. “We need to start organizing around that in a big way -- in contrast to Trump who’s trying to take us back to coal mines and steel mills that he said he was going to reopen. He can’t do any of that, but we have to present our own plan.”

Refocusing the Democratic Party onto economic issues has also been a big concern for Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a congresswoman from Washington state who has become a rising star on the party’s leftward side.

“I think part of the problem is that we have narrowed the voting base more and more,” Jayapal told Salon. “In doing that, we’ve been kind of catering to a smaller set of voters each time, while also simultaneously making the differences between the two parties even smaller as well.”

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According to Jayapal, progressives have placed too much emphasis on a larger sense of political identity, instead of on political issues themselves.

“A lot of voters are not inspired. They don’t feel like they’re voting for someone who represents their values,” she said. “Even though I’m a progressive and I talk about progressives across the country, I think a lot of the issues that we’re fighting for are not ‘progressive,’ they’re just right for working people.” She cited higher minimum wages, domestic-oriented trade policies and free college tuition as examples of policies that anyone could support, regardless of where they think they fall on the political spectrum.

The way forward for Democrats, Jayapal says, is for the party to focus not just on getting loyal Democrats to vote but also to encourage Americans who feel isolated from political elites. Beyond emphasizing more populist economics, she argues that Democrats also need to abandon a one-size-fits-all approach to political rhetoric.

“I’ve never liked the false choice between ‘identity politics’ and economics because I think that race, class and gender are deeply intertwined," she said. "But I think different groups of people respond to those issues in different ways, so there’s no single way to talk to everybody. What you do, though, is that once you’ve won their trust on one piece, you can draw the dots to the other two.”

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Time will tell just how committed Democrats are to this rebranding campaign. But they appear open to the idea that while President Trump himself is deplorable, many of the people who voted for him aren’t, an idea Sanders emphasized in a speech this past April.

“Some people think the people who voted for Trump are racists, sexists and homophobes, just deplorable folks,” he said at the time. “I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.”

The way to solve the problem, Sanders told a Boston crowd, is to restructure the Democratic Party to orient itself away from the billionaires, celebrities and Wall Street types who have dominated its donor class and driven its issue positions in recent decades.

“We need a Democratic Party which is not the party of the liberal elite but a party of the working class of this country," Sanders said. "We need a party that is a grassroots party, a party where candidates are talking to working people.”

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Some social-justice progressives will undoubtedly raise concerns about the party's apparent shift toward a more economically-oriented message. One response to this is the argument that while the religious right keeps on fighting the culture war, in terms of overall public opinion that conflict ended some time ago. Poll after poll has demonstrated that most Americans want to keep abortion legal, support marriage equality and oppose discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

Those issues may still be able to motivate the GOP's base of aging voters, but they are a declining regional minority within the American population, including among young Republicans.

In 2014, before the Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case, a Pew Research Center survey found that over 60 percent of self-identified Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29 supported same-sex marriage. On immigration, a survey conducted by PRRI released this month found that 62 percent of young Republicans support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Even on the much newer issue of transgender rights, multiple congressional Republicans just yesterday publicly broke with the president's ban on transgender military service.


Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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