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Josh Kurtz: A sobering analysis for Democrats helps illuminate some of the party’s internal strife in Md.

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Josh Kurtz: A sobering analysis for Democrats helps illuminate some of the party’s internal strife in Md.

Nov 29, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Josh Kurtz
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Josh Kurtz: A sobering analysis for Democrats helps illuminate some of the party’s internal strife in Md.
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Democrats' "demographics as destiny" credo may have worked when Barack Obama was a candidate for Senate and president, but seems less salient today. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

One of the great things about working at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, was the constant stream of candidates for U.S. House and Senate who would come by for interviews.

When I was there, from 2002 to 2010, Roll Call shared offices with The Rothenberg Political Report. Getting grilled by our reporters and the Rothenberg folks became part of the ritual for congressional contenders on their visits to Washington, D.C., along with meetings with party leaders, campaign strategists, interest groups, lobbyists, and donors.

In the fall of 2002, a skinny state senator from the Midwest who was running for the U.S. Senate came in — unusually early, because his primary was almost a year and a half off. Instead of the traditional dark suit, he wore a plaid shirt and no tie.

Although his opponents in the primary included a statewide elected official who was the party establishment choice and a businessman who was planning to spend millions of dollars of his own money, the candidate sketched out a path to victory. He would, he told my colleagues, build a coalition of young voters, people of color, organized labor, environmentalists, progressives, suburban liberals, and women.

His name was Barack Obama.

In the 2004 race, and during his 2008 and 2012 White House elections, Obama’s winning coalition looked more or less the way he said it would.

Obama appeared to be following a playbook laid out in a compelling 2002 book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” Written by political scientist Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis, a lefty journalist of some renown, the book laid out how political and demographic trends would aid Democrats in upcoming national elections. The authors cited the growing number of voters of color, the suburbs that were emerging hotbeds of liberalism, and the ever-growing political punch of college-educated professionals in “knowledge-based” fields. A Republican Party that was increasingly dependent on rural, white voters couldn’t possibly compete, they argued.

Informally, this analysis was referred to as “demographics as destiny,” and Democrats have clung to it ever since, even when it’s not working. Democrats suffered grievous defeats in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014, but they shrugged those off knowing that the midterm electorate had for years been older, whiter and more conservative than in presidential years.

The shock of the 2016 election was something different, however. Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to win, and white working-class voters weren’t supposed to have so much influence over the outcome. It’s true that Democrats have been buoyed in more recent elections by Trump’s unpopularity and, in the past two years by the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion rights. Yet they seem to have lost white working-class voters for the foreseeable future, even if they still win most union endorsements.

But as President Biden looks increasingly vulnerable in 2024, and with the stakes of that election so high, are demographics still destiny? Can abortion, plus an anti-Trump message, carry the day for Democrats? Our very democracy may hinge on the answers to these questions.

To this debate, Teixeira and Judis are back with a new book called “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” In this book, the authors lay out what they think party leaders have done wrong over the past few decades and why that enduring Democratic coalition they once envisioned proved to be ephemeral. The book will resonate with people who have followed some of the recent ideological fissures in the Maryland Democratic Party.

One of their arguments is hard to dispute: That Obama and Bill Clinton became too tight with capitalist titans on Wall Street and in the Silicon Valley, whose priorities couldn’t have been more different from organized labor and working-class people. Under Clinton, the U.S. entered into free trade agreements that organized labor abhorred and eroded the struggling American manufacturing economy and U.S. workers’ wages. Under Obama, the financial industry leaders who wrecked the U.S. economy in the late aughts suffered no consequences — and while his administration attempted to set up a regulatory framework to provide greater reins on the financial industry, those efforts were largely denuded by congressional Republicans.

(A countervailing argument is that by ingratiating themselves to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, Democrats helped to blunt the fundraising advantages that Republicans enjoyed for several election cycles, which is true — but that didn’t make the Democrats more palatable to working class voters.)

The authors’ second explanation for Democratic decline has some kernels of truth but is certain to be more controversial. They argue that the Democrats have, fairly or not, become defined in recent years by what Teixeira and Judis call “the shadow party” — the nonprofits, advocacy groups, think tanks and media outlets that are dragging the party to the left, practicing identity politics, and emphasizing cultural issues and using rhetoric (think “defund the police”) that turn off everyday voters who are struggling to make ends meet and are worried about public safety, border security and the like.

Despite the muscle and prominence of these organizations, Teixeira and Judis have said in recent public appearances that far-left progressives only represent 6% of the electorate, but that their message, unsurprisingly, is being amplified by social media.

They add that Democrats have unfairly labeled their opponents as uniformly racist and xenophobic. And they warn that an anti-Trump message — “orange man bad”  — will only take the Democrats so far in 2024.

There’s some salience to these arguments, and they, along with Democratic leaders’ affinity with Wall Street and Silicon Valley, help explain why working-class white voters are less likely to support Democrats even when their unions endorse them. They may also explain why a greater number of Latino and Black voters seem at least open now to supporting Trump and Republicans.

But Judis and Teixeira are 82 and 71 respectively, so they may simply be old guys who haven’t quite adjusted to the prevailing winds in the Democratic Party (though Judis voted for Bernie Sanders). Sure, Democrats ought to be doing better with working-class voters of all races, especially when Republicans, even with the GOP’s anti-elite rhetoric, are still crafting economic policies that mainly benefit the rich. But can the modern Democratic Party really thrive in elections without the energy of progressive activists, many of whom are people of color and/or younger, who are pushing party leaders to do more and do better?

Internecine warfare in Md.

This conundrum seems especially timely to discuss in Maryland. Now that we’ve got an all-Democratic state government again, with Democratic supermajorities in the General Assembly, now that our biggest counties have become super blue, Democratic leaders and their grass-roots supporters seem to be fighting more with each other than they are with Republicans.

The recent controversy engulfing CASA, the immigrants’ rights group, illustrates this. Forget, for a minute, CASA’s ill-advised public statements about the war in Gaza — which critics labeled as antisemitic. Those remarks compounded the criticism the group has received from mainstream Democratic leaders over their recent rhetoric on a variety of campaigns, whether it’s civil disobedience in and around the State House to push a health care bill, or noisy demonstrations in the Montgomery County Council chamber when lawmakers were debating rent control. Several elected officials told me privately that CASA’s tweets on the Middle East were “the last straw” — as if they get to determine what the immigration group’s priorities and behavior ought to be.

Yet it isn’t just CASA. The ACLU of Maryland angered lawmakers a few years ago by staging protests in front of the homes of the chair and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to pressure them on police reform. Progressive Maryland and associated groups held public demonstrations during the pandemic urging the General Assembly’s presiding officers to schedule a special session to address the multiple crises caused by COVID.

Just a few weeks ago, a small number of dissident Democratic central committee members accused Ken Ulman, Gov. Wes Moore’s choice to head the state party, of being too cozy with big donors, developers and the police. And progressive groups cause agita whenever they endorse primary challengers to Democratic incumbents who under most circumstances would be seen as genuine liberals. The war in Gaza has caused new and ugly divisions in the Democratic coalition.

You can debate the wisdom of these progressive groups’ tactics and even the substance and efficacy of their agendas. But it seems as if there’s been an awful lot of pearl clutching lately among mainstream Maryland Democrats who recoil at having progressive activists in their faces, literally and figuratively.

Democrats, as Judis and Teixeira demonstrate, clearly need to do a better job of expanding their electoral coalition. Turning away their most aggressive, progressive allies may not be the optimal solution.

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