Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes, by Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis (Henry Holt and Co., 336 pp., $28.99)
If nature abhors a vacuum, then American politics rebuffs linear extrapolations. History is littered with trends that promised to give one party absolute dominance—until internal contradictions tore them apart.
In 2002, journalist John B. Judis and think-tanker Ruy Teixeira penned The Emerging Democratic Majority, which projected that the tectonic trends of American life would soon give Democrats a durable political majority. This new majority would rely on a combination of Democrats’ traditional working-class base, women, a swelling number of college-educated and ethnic-minority voters, and the growth of urban metropolises. Judis and Teixeira’s argument informed the thinking of a generation of progressive policy thinkers and political strategists. With Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, the golden fields of Democratic dominance seemed at last in sight, and it even had a name: “the coalition of the ascendant.”
Then reality hit. Republicans benefited from wave midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. Then, Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory rode a surge of working-class voters shifting to the Republican Party. So Judis and Teixeira have reconsidered their old argument in Where Have All the Democrats Gone? In their new book, the two veteran observers argue that Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal economic policies (characterized by financialization, globalization, and a market-oriented approach to public policy) and a divisive politics of identity have imperiled their standing with the working class. Two interrelated topics drive the narrative: the changing shape of the Democratic coalition, and the bigger transformation of American life during the neoliberal and, arguably, post-neoliberal periods.
The first two-thirds of the book survey the political history of the past 50 years, as Democrats left the New Deal coalition behind. In Judis and Teixeira’s telling, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal represented a politics of “the people” focused on working-class economics and cultural moderation. Jimmy Carter’s support for deregulation and appointment of inflation hawk Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve anticipated a broader Democratic turn toward pro-business politics. Meantime, progressive activists helped drag the party leftward on many cultural issues.
This transformation solidified during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton championed NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the integration of the People’s Republic of China into a global trading order. He supported deregulation and forged alliances in the business world. At first, Clinton governed from the left on many cultural issues; after the 1994 midterm elections routed Democrats, he pivoted to the center on issues such as welfare reform and policing.
As the authors see it, Barack Obama’s presidency represented a “lost opportunity” to regain credibility with the working class and to address the disruptions caused by the neoliberal policy agenda. Obama’s stimulus bill, they contend, was too small, he didn’t support enough relief for homeowners after the 2008 financial crisis, and his party paid the price in the 2010 midterms. Obama made a half-hearted populist turn to reboot his 2012 reelection campaign, but in 2016, Hillary Clinton leaned hard into a progressive politics of identity and proved indifferent to the economic disruption that had shocked the Rust Belt and other industrial areas. Hence, President Trump.
Biden’s victory in 2020 relied on a veneer of cultural moderation and Trump’s failures to deliver on his populist promises from the 2016 campaign. Judis and Teixeira portray Biden as standing at a political crossroads. They note that he has broken with the neoliberal economic regime in multiple respects. His White House has embraced industrial policy and big-ticket spending; in many ways, he has extended Trump’s policies on trade with the People’s Republic of China. They also wonder whether Biden will fully embrace a “new New Deal”—and whether cultural radicalism will counteract the electoral gains from progressive blue-collar economics.
The final third of the book focuses on four cultural themes that could threaten Democratic standing with the working class: a radical account of race, a hostility to limits on immigration, novel theories of gender identity, and climate apocalypticism. These cultural issues intersect with one another as well as with economic issues. For instance, proponents of a racial “reckoning” also argue that efforts to enforce immigration law are driven by racial animus; an influx of illegal labor, in turn, can undercut the wages of blue-collar workers (including recent legal immigrants). Judis and Texeira accentuate the political and policy stakes of radical approaches to climate policy. They argue that an ambitious “net zero” agenda would mean a collapse in living standards that would be “resisted vigorously in the West, particularly by the working classes.”
Using a combination of statistics and reporting, Judis and Teixeira demonstrate how Democrats have slipped with working-class voters. While these losses have been particularly concentrated among voters who identify as white, they are not confined to them. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate in a century to win Texas’s Zapata County (located on the Mexican border). Compared with the 2018 midterms, Republicans improved their margins with nonwhite voters in 2022. Ron DeSantis won voters who identify as Hispanic by 13 points in his landslide reelection victory. Moreover, the trends that Judis and Teixeira document long predate Trump’s appearance on the political scene. Between the 1992 presidential election and the 1994 midterms, Democratic congressional candidates lost ground with voters who lacked a college degree, even as college-graduate support for them remained level. This offers an early portent of our present-day political realignment, as college-educated voters cluster in the Democratic Party, while non-college voters trend Republican.
To confront these political challenges, Judis and Teixeira argue that Democrats should return to the “economic liberalism” of FDR, while rejecting “today’s post-sixties version of social liberalism.” They don’t want Democrats to cease to engage on cultural issues but rather to reimagine how they address them. For instance, they argue that Democrats, instead of focusing on language-policing, should return to arguments made by William Julius Wilson (not exactly a right-winger) and others suggesting that structural economic factors have led to racial inequality.
At the center of these political changes is what Judis and Teixeira call the “Great Divide.” It’s partly about economic geography. On one side are techno-financial hubs such as New York and the Bay Area. Dominated by college-educated professionals and globalization’s financial winners, these areas have become Democratic bastions. “Small towns and midsize cities that have depended on manufacturing, mining, and farming” stand on the other side. The divide is also about class and education. College-educated voters tend to cluster in the hubs. While town-and-country divides are nothing new in American life, these two sides have polarized during the neoliberal period.
The same trends that seemed to expand the Democratic majority in 2002 may now threaten it from within. The 1960s cultural revolution helped birth what Judis and Teixeira term the “New Politics” of identity. Unmarried women were a key component of the “emerging Democratic majority,” and the growth of this demographic bloc can be traced to the sexual revolution, which both discouraged marriage and encouraged divorce. For many college-educated Americans, a progressive politics of identity has become an essential cultural marker. The clustering of college-educated voters (especially from prestigious institutions) in urban hubs has reinforced the salience of progressive cultural politics for this group, while deepening its alienation from working-class voters lacking an elite pedigree. The New Politics helped draw one set of voters into the Democratic coalition, but, over time, it has repelled others.
Judis and Teixeira suggest that the collapse of mediating institutions, evisceration of industrial infrastructure, and withering of inherited traditions have produced two polarized reactions: Prometheanism and despair. In postindustrial urban hubs, that Promethean impulse can be seen in the frantic race to create new secular “identities and lifestyles.” On the other side of the Great Divide, many Americans respond to this disruption with a sense of mourning or resentment. The local factory has closed, the neighborhood church has been shuttered, and the children of these communities face uncertain futures. Yet even the Promethean quest to create ever-more boutique identities may itself reveal deeper anxieties.
Judis and Teixeira’s diagnosis of Democratic struggles also highlights another divide—between the “governing coalition” that sets the policy parameters for a political party and the “electoral coalition” that puts that party in office. They argue that the Democratic governing coalition—with its “shadow government” of activists, academics, and other stakeholders—fundamentally misunderstands the incentives of the party’s electoral coalition. This formulation might have a lesson for Republicans, too. Some have argued that the governing coalition of the pre-Trump GOP projected a certain ideological rigor onto Republican voters (regarding trade or entitlements, for instance). That mismatch left the old party establishment unprepared for Trump’s populist insurgency. A similar question hovers over the current Republican primary: whether the “shadow government” of a more Trump-aligned GOP infrastructure is optimized to build a winning electoral coalition.
Judis and Teixeira offer a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges that the Democratic Party faces and offer a plausible route for the party to win broader majorities: focus on delivering for working-class Americans while offering a more inclusive message on culture. They note, for instance, the popularity of increases to the minimum wage and expansions of Medicaid subsidies even among Republican electorates.
The disruptions that the authors explore point to further complications. If Republicans and Democrats find themselves in a new political paradigm, what exactly constitutes a “right” or “left” approach to economics remains unsettled. For instance, while many Americans support efforts to reinforce the safety net, they also prize economic growth. How to synthesize those two imperatives is something for both political parties to work out. The Biden White House now projects annual budget deficits of around 5 percent of GDP indefinitely. The precise balance of growth, budgetary reforms, and tax policies to bring the deficit down to earth will put pressures on both political coalitions.
The Great Divide has many causes, ranging from deeper cultural trends to the Internet’s disintermediation of media and commerce. But policymakers have also contributed to these divisions, and they may have a role in remedying them. Renewing the economic middle and strengthening local communities could help rebuild a civic center. A party that shows itself up to that task could reap significant political rewards—at least until the next election.
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