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Opinion | Trump Won’t Let America Go. Can Democrats Pry It Away?

The “true problem,” Westwood wrote,

is that both parties are willing to undermine democratic norms for short-term policy gains. This is not a behavior that came from nowhere — the American public is to blame. We reward politicians who attack election outcomes, who present the opposition as subhuman and who avoid meaningful compromise.

Westwood, however, does agree with Skocpol and Galston’s critique of the Democratic left:

If the Democratic Party wants to challenge Republicans they need to move to the center and attempt to peel away centrist Republicans. Endorsing divisive policies and elevating divisive leaders only serves to make the Democrats less appealing to the very voters they need to sway to win.

The Democrats, in Westwood’s view,

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. When it comes to financial policy Democrats are far better at protecting the poor, but this advantage is lost to unnecessary culture wars. Democrats need to stop wasting their time on cancel culture or they risk canceling themselves to those who live in the heart of this country.

ALG Research, one of the firms that polled for the 2020 Biden campaign, conducted postelection focus groups in Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond in an attempt to explore the success of Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who defeated Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race a month ago.

A report on the study of 2020 Biden voters who backed Youngkin or seriously considered doing so by Brian Stryker, an ALG partner, and Oren Savir, a senior associate, made the case that the election was “not about ‘critical race theory,’ as some analysts have suggested.” Instead, they continued, many swing voters knew that

C.R.T. wasn’t taught in Virginia schools. But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history; at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula.

ALG focus group participants

thought Democrats are only focused on equality and fairness and not on helping people. None of these Biden voters associated our party with helping working people, the middle class, or people like them. They thought we were more focused on breaking down social barriers facing marginalized groups. They were all for helping marginalized groups, but the fact that they couldn’t point to anything we are doing to help them was deeply concerning.

In a parallel argument, Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the pro-Democratic Center for American Progress, wrote in an essay, “Democrats, Not Republicans, Need to Defuse the Culture Wars”:

Democrats are not on strong ground when they have to defend views that appear wobbly on rising violent crime, surging immigration at the border and non-meritocratic, race-essentialist approaches to education. They would be on much stronger ground if they became identified with an inclusive nationalism that emphasizes what Americans have in common and their right not just to economic prosperity but to public safety, secure borders and a world-class but nonideological education for their children.

Looking at the dangers facing American democracy from a different vantage point, Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard and a co-author of the book “How Democracies Die,” rejected the argument that Democrats need to constrain the party’s liberal wing.

“The Democrats have been amazingly successful in national elections over the last 20 years,” Levitsky wrote in an email.

They have won the popular vote in 7 out of 8 presidential elections — that’s almost unthinkable. They have also won the popular vote in the Senate in every six-year cycle since 2000. You cannot look at a party in a democracy that has won the popular vote almost without fail for two decades and say, gee, that party really has to get it together and address its “liabilities.”

Instead, he argued,

the liabilities lie in undemocratic electoral institutions such as the Electoral College, the structure of the Senate (where underpopulated states have an obscene amount of power that should be unacceptable in any democracy), gerrymandered state and federal legislative districts in many states, and recent political demographic trends — the concentration of Democratic votes in cities — that favor Republicans.

“Until our parties are competing on a level playing field,” Levitsky added, “I am going to insist that our institutions are a bigger problem for democracy than liberal elitism and ‘wokeness.’”

Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale, takes a similar position, writing by email:

There are powerful economic and social forces at work here, and they’re particularly powerful in the United States, given that it has a deep history of racial inequality and division and it is on the leading edge of the transformation toward a knowledge economy in which educated citizens are concentrated in urban metros. The question, then, is how much Democrat elites’ strategic choices matter relative to these powerful forces. I lean toward thinking they’re less important than we typically assume.

Instead, Hacker argued, the Republican Party has become

particularly dangerous because it rests on an increasing commitment to and reliance on what we called “countermajoritarianism” — the exploitation of the anti-urban and status quo biases of the American political system, which allow an intense minority party with a rural base and mostly negative policy agenda to gain and wield outsized power.

The conservative strategy, which Hacker calls “minoritarianism,” means that “Republicans can avoid decisive defeats even in the most unfavorable circumstances. There is very little electoral incentive for the party to moderate.”

The result? “Neither electoral forces nor organized interests are much of a guardrail against a G.O.P. increasingly veering off the nation’s once-established democratic path.”

Julie Wronski, a professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, described the systemic constraints on the Democratic Party in an email:

In the current two-party system, the Democratic Party isn’t just the crucial institutional advocate of democracy. It is the only political entity that can address the federal and state-level institutions that undermine full and equal democratic representation in the United States. Decisive victories should be enough to send a message that Americans do not support anti-democratic behavior.

The problem for Democrats, Wronski continued, is that

decisive victories are unlikely to occur at the national level because of the two-party system and partisan gerrymanders. Winning elections (while necessary) is not enough, especially if core constituencies of Democratic voters are explicitly targeted through state-level voting restrictions and gerrymanders.

Those who would seek to restore respect for democratic norms in Trump’s Republican Party face another set of problems, according to Wronski. At the moment, she writes, a fundamental raison d’être of the Republican Party is to prevent the political consignment “to minority status” of “whites, and in particular white Christians, whose share of the population, electorate, and federal-level office holders is diminishing.” This commitment effectively precludes the adoption of a more inclusive strategy of “appealing to racial, ethnic, and religious minority voters,” because such an appeal would amount to the abandonment of the Republican Party’s implicit (and often quite explicit) promise to prevent “the threat of minority status that demographic change poses to white Christians.”

Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard, anticipates, at least in the short term, a worsening of the political environment:

Trump has the support of nearly half of American voters and is very likely to run for president in 2024. Given electoral trends, there is a high likelihood that he will win. Moreover, even if he doesn’t win legitimately, there is little doubt that he will once again try to subvert the election outcome. At that point, his party is likely to control both houses of Congress and he may be successful in his efforts.

Enos argued in an email that “the liabilities of the Democratic Party can be overstated” when there is

a more fundamental problem in that the working-class base, across racial groups, of the Democratic Party has eroded and is further eroding. That Democrats may not have yet hit rock bottom with working-class voters is terrifying for the future of the party. As much as people want to point to cultural issues as the primary reason for this decline in support, the wheels on the decline were put in motion by macroeconomic trends and policies that made the economic and social standing of working-class people in the United States extremely tenuous.

Those trends worked to the advantage of Democrats as recently as the election of Barack Obama, Enos continued, when many working-class voters “looking for change, even voted for a Black man with a foreign-sounding name in 2008.” But, Enos continued, “when the Republican Party stumbled into a populist message of anti-elitism, protectionism, cultural chauvinism, and anti-immigration, it was almost inevitable that it would accelerate the pull of working-class voters toward Republicans.”

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