3 Questions: Democrats must return to the working class, author argues

A liberal writer says Democrats have moved away from working people on economics and culture

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking during a news conference, with some people in the background holding signs calling for Medicare for All.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, speaks during a news conference to announce the reintroduction of the Medicare for All Act of 2023, outside the U.S. Capitol on May 17 in Washington, DC. Sanders has been an outlier in the Democratic Party, trying to pull it back to policies that favor the working class. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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One of the fiercest debates among Democrats in recent years has been about whether the best way to win elections is to become more progressive or less so.

Some Democrats argue that the more liberal the party becomes, the more it will energize younger voters and non-white voters. Others say that if the party goes too far left — on race, sexuality and climate, for example — it alienates key portions of the electorate that tend to be working class and white.

The theory that Democrats could win more elections as the country became more racially diverse grew, to some degree, out of a book that was published in 2002 called The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The election of President Obama in 2008, and his reelection in 2012, accelerated that view.

But the shift from Obama to former President Trump in 2016 also shifted a focus to the white working class. And for years now, Judis and Teixeira have claimed that their book was oversimplified by many Democrats, overlooking the need to retain support from working class voters in the Rust Belt and other industrial and heartland states.

Barack Obama speaks during a rally for his first presidential campaign with a sign in front: Change We Need.

In the last few elections, Teixeira and Judis’s thesis has gained steam. Working class voters of numerous racial backgrounds — white, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have trended toward Republicans. Democrats still get majorities of most non-white voting blocs, but their numbers are slipping, especially among Hispanics and Asians. And those lower margins can often mean defeat at the ballot box.

Now, Judis and Teixeira have released a new book, out next week, called Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes. They contend that Democrats have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to build a dominant political majority in the age of Trump, but their policies on economics, and on hot-button social issues, have left the working person behind.

Fighting for the working class made the Democrats dominant after President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it is that mantle that they call on Democrats to reclaim.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking from behind a large number of radio microphones with letters such as CBS and NBC on them.

Teixeira spoke with Yahoo News. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: Most people won’t be familiar with the backstory of your first book. Can you tell that backstory?

Ruy Teixeira: John Judas and I wrote this book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, which came out in late 2002. We argued that the sort of tectonic plates of American politics were shifting in such a way the Democrats could potentially dominate for a considerable period of time if they played their cards right.

The thing everyone picked up on was the demographic shifts that were taking place in America, in terms of the rise of the non-white population. We also looked at the rise of professionals as a group that was now swung heavily to the Democratic Party. We looked at the shifts among women voters.

We put all that together and suggested Democrats were more in sync with these changes than the Republicans. And since they were more in sync with these changes, they had a potential to form a majority that might have some staying power.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrating her election victory with supporters.

We had a fairly complicated analysis in the book. We also had very important things to keep in mind for Democrats, like, for example, the role of the white working class, which we talked about very specifically in the book. But that whole part about the white working class got forgotten and so did a lot of the other stuff we wrote. In a way, it all came down to: Demographics Are Destiny. This became received wisdom in a lot of sectors of the party.

You say that the radical side of the GOP has propensities for violence and contempt for democracy that far outweigh the foibles of the Democrats’ cultural radicals. Basically, you’re saying that your hopes for democracy and American prosperity and vibrancy rests with the Democrats and with the working class?

Yes, absolutely. That’s the correct way of understanding it. We don’t rule out that the Republicans could right the ship, and there are very interesting intellectual currents in and around the Republican Party. That could bear fruit over the medium to long term.

But right now, realistically, looking at our political landscape, we still see the Democrats as being the best bet — if they sort of return to the roots as a party of the people — as a party of the common man and woman, if they shuck off some of this cultural radicalism for more of a centrist approach.

Donald J. Trump, the Republican Presidential nominee at the time, holds a rally, with a sign in front: Trump Pence.

What is your sense of whether Democrats are listening? Did you guys think about how to make it palatable to the audience youre trying to persuade?

Well, yeah. I mean we did, and I think we tried to make it, as they say, fair and balanced as best we could. And the first part of the book, for example, is not slamming the Democrats for their cultural radicalism, but the historical evolution in the late 20th century of the Democrats’ economic labor commitments away from its historic roots, and its identification with sort of a soft neoliberalism, and a general sense of alienation that developed among the working class on economic terms and the decline of the role of labor union.

President Bill Clinton speaks to reporters.

People don’t understand this history as well as they should. It’s not something Democrats have the right to be forever: the party of working people. They think they do. They think with our history, how awful the Republicans are, well of course we’re the party of working people, but actually this is something that has been eroding for decades. It was never a gimme, and now it’s almost fading out of reach.

We’re trying to make people understand how even though the Democrats are plausibly the best alternative at this point — the sort of the Trumpist Republicans are not a great look — here’s why they can’t seem to beat the other side more decisively. And here’s what they might need to be, to be the party we need to have in America.