Fifteen years ago, on an unseasonably warm autumn night in Chicago, Barack Obama walked up to a podium in front of tens of thousands gathered in Grant Park to claim victory in the 2008 presidential election.
For his supporters that night, to use Obama’s words, “change has come to America.” Indeed, it seemed that it had. Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to have won more than 50.1 percent of the popular vote. He routed John McCain in the Electoral College, 365 to 173. In the Midwest, he took Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In the South, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia (which had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964) swung his way. Exit polls showed that the first-term senator not only won large majorities among racial minorities and the young but also broke the GOP’s long hold on white college-educated voters and more than halved the Democratic disadvantage with white working-class voters, only losing them by 13 points nationally. When the votes were counted, Democrats had 60 seats in the Senate, 256 in the House, and a majority of the country’s governorships.
History was made in even more obvious ways as Obama became the first African-American president in U.S. history. He won on a platform of hope, change, optimism, patriotism, and national unity. Echoing a key theme of this campaign, Obama said that his election made clear that “we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.” Obama’s election seemed to usher in a new era in which America was moving past its fierce partisan differences and identity politics and, electorally, past the Reagan-Bush realignment.
As the 2024 election looms, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira ask: What the hell happened? Or, as they title their latest book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?
Implicit in their title is the legendary Ronald Reagan quip, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me.” For Judis and Teixeira, the Democratic Party is its most authentic—and politically successful— when seeking “to represent the common man and woman against the rich and powerful, the people against the elite, and the plebians against the patricians.” From Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt, LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Obama, this is how Democrats won and governed. What’s critical to Judis and Teixeira is that Democrats not only enacted policies that benefited the “common man and woman” but also behaved in ways that reflected their values.
While noting the obvious differences between the 1930s and today, Judis and Teixeira argue that Democrats need “an approach to politics that is similar to that of the New Deal liberals,” who supported organized labor, passed social democratic reforms such as Social Security and Medicare, and at the same time, “extolled ‘the American way of life’”— embracing patriotism (FDR’s 1940 campaign song was “God Bless America”), creating unifying national moments such as a federal Thanksgiving, Veterans, and Columbus Day holidays, and the national Christmas tree lighting. “There wasn’t a hint of multiculturalism or tribalism,” Judis and Teixeira write.
To immediately think, “These guys may be canceled,” for even writing some of the above passages is to understand the authors’ point. If the Democratic Party of New Deal liberalism is what Judis and Teixeira seek, the party has left them, and as documented in stacks of political science studies and popular books since the late 1960s, has been leaving them for decades.
Yet, something happened between that heady night in Grant Park until today, a dizzying shift that has left the Democratic Party holding far fewer offices and further away from representing the “common man and woman”—if one defines them as the non-college educated working class—than it has been in recent memory. How this acceleration happened and why it matters is the focus of this book and an important contribution to the history of the Democratic Party.
The long unraveling of the New Deal liberalism that Judis and Teixeira pine for may be the most studied phenomenon in political science. Its general outlines are that the Democratic Party rose from the depths of the Great Depression because it effectively used the federal government to address wide economic problems. On foreign policy, Democrats not only led the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II but also in the early years of the Cold War. Even when the Democrats lost Presidential elections, such as to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, the New Deal public philosophy was dominant. No longer, for instance, would the GOP call for the eradication of Social Security. There were no polarizing social or cultural issues, and undergirding this all for the Democratic Party, politically, were strong labor unions, urban machines, and Southern Democratic parties that operated virtually unopposed across the old Confederacy.
When the Democratic Party decided to embrace civil rights, its hold on the electorate weakened. Racial resentment fueled the exit of Southern whites, and increasingly the white working class throughout the country, from the Democratic Party, at least at the national level. Add in the counterculture, antiwar movement, and an array of issue activists—from environmentalists to feminists and campaigners for gay rights—and the exodus only quickened. By 1972, a Republican, Richard Nixon, won a majority of the white union vote—the first time that ever happened.
To this familiar history, Judis and Teixeira argue that another critical dynamic is economics. Big business moved from co-existence with Big Labor in the 1950s and 1960s to opposition, busting unions, moving plants to non-union states or low-wage countries, and organizing politically against working-class policies, especially on trade. What infuriates the authors is that business found favor for these policies within the Democratic Party, too. From Jimmy Carter appointing Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who aggressively raised interest rates to battle inflation, to Bill Clinton signing NAFTA and other free trade agreements, and Obama pursuing deficit reduction, Judis and Teixeira see a betrayal of the working class that, in turn, fuels its abandonment of the Democratic Party. The party of the common man had become the party of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, both culturally and economically.
All of this came to a head in 2016.
Hillary Clinton, in the words of one of her campaign aides, ran against Donald Trump on “identity politics.” Despite the Republican nominee being a billionaire businessman with a record of treating workers and others poorly, voters heard almost nothing about his policy positions. Indeed, Judis and Teixeira cite a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, which found that one-quarter of Clinton’s ads were on policy and scant few on economics despite her having toiled in public policy for decades. Even though he knew nothing about how government worked, more than 70 percent of Trump’s ads were on policy. The case Clinton decided to make for her presidency was that Trump was a racist, sexist boor. This is, and was, true. But “by focusing on Trump’s character, Clinton had opened wide a Pandora’s box of cultural strife,” write Judis and Teixeira, “Trump was able to appeal to both the economic and cultural grievances that Americans on one side of the Great Divide held against the other.” The mogul, famous for a gold-plated toilet in his Fifth Avenue penthouse, was able to paint Clinton as on the side of the rich and culturally out of touch, effectively running to her left on economics and to the center on cultural issues. As a result, Clinton lost to the most unqualified and most unpopular presidential candidate in modern-day polling and, along the way, lost the white working class by 31 points (six points worse than Obama in 2012), and in key states, the shift was even more drastic—a 23.2 percent shift in Iowa and 15.5 percent in Ohio.
In 2020, Joe Biden ran back toward the middle on cultural issues, emphasized his middle-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots, and had the good fortune to run against Trump’s mismanagement of a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic. Still, Biden lost the white working-class vote by 26 points (three points better than Hillary Clinton). Ominously, he did even worse than she did among Latinos and African Americans, a phenomenon Judis and Teixeira say was powered by a falloff in working-class defections within these sub-groups. They estimate the Democratic advantage among non-white working-class voters dropped 33 points from 2012 to 2022. If Democrats are in danger of losing African Americans and Latinos, then the party is in deep danger.
This is where Where Have All the Democrats Gone? really begins to sing. In a series of chapters, Judis and Teixeira unpack the rapid metamorphosis of the Democratic Party and the center-left around critical social issues. They explore how it went from the post-racialism of Obama to one whose dogma is that the U.S. was founded on uncurable “systemic racism” and from “equality of opportunity” to “equity.” How did we go from the “all of the above” energy policy of Obama, including fracking and nuclear power, to the Green New Deal? How did we go from “love is love,” and no one should be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation to redefining the categories of “men” and “women?” How did it go from Obama deporting illegal immigrants who committed crimes to major Democratic presidential candidates calling to “abolish ICE” (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement)?
Judis and Teixeira describe the intellectual foundations of these views and how, at pivotal moments over the last decade, activists enshrined them in the Democratic canon.
Central to their argument is that radicals took over the “shadow party”—the foundations, advocacy groups, and publications—that fund and influence the Democratic Party. Rooted in the high-income, highly educated parts of the country, they are more sensitive to what is coming out of elite universities than what’s being discussed in the break room off the factory floor. Thus, articles in The Atlantic, The Nation, and Vox calling for “open borders,” or the 1619 Project by The New York Times making the case that the U.S. is an irredeemably racist country or the influence of the Arcus Foundation on funding transgender ideology have an outsize impact. At one point, Judis and Teixeira argue that organized labor could be a moderating force. Yet, while they do not concede the improbability of it, they leave clues as to why this is both unlikely and unrealistic.
Organized labor today has more female and minority members and more service workers and government employees than it did in the mid-century heyday, for which Judis and Teixeira pine. So, when the AFL-CIO was led by John Sweeney, the head of SEIU, in the early aughts, he did not press the party on trade. In 2000, realizing that illegal immigrants were a large part of their potential membership, SEIU, the United Farmworkers, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees pressured the AFL-CIO to change its stance on immigration to support amnesty for illegal immigrants and oppose sanctions on employers for hiring them. This position ran counter to the wishes of manufacturing and construction unions. Judis and Teixeira also cite American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as an example of those who deny that critical race theory is taught in schools despite evidence of its influence.
The declining influence of labor and the rise of activist groups is not a new phenomenon. Few may remember that in 1969, the AFL-CIO pulled its lone member on the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which created the modern presidential nominating process because New Politics groups dominated the panel. The constellation of interest groups and influential publications was not significantly different in 2016, when Hillary was the nominee, than eight or four years earlier, when Obama was the party’s standard bearer. What changed?
Judis and Teixeira, unsurprisingly, see economics as central. The college-educated who thrive in the global economy find meaning in being part of the larger international community. They have a set of new cultural norms around race, sex, religion, and politics in which they find solidarity with others worldwide who share them. On the other side of the divide is the working class in deindustrialized small towns and cities across America. With jobs gone along with pillars of the community, members of the working class “have been thrown back on the most basic elements of their identities: nation, family, faith, the cars they drive, or the guns they own, which protect home and family.”
This is not to say that all is well with the college-educated. A lack of expected economic opportunity following the Great Recession of 2009 “had created among the college-educated young a search for identity, lifestyle, and salvation that had led some into moralistic radical politics.” And those radical ideas—on race, sex, and the environment—were blossoming on campus.
At the same time, due to Washington gridlock, many of these advocacy groups focus on what they can control, such as language, attitudes, and the like. “The result,” write Judis and Teixeira, “is an aura of moral censoriousness—of neo-Puritan religiosity—that surrounds much of the Democrats’ shadow party groups.” In such a world, the working class who back Trump can easily be called “deplorables,” a respected reporter can be drummed out of the New York Times for using a racial slur as an example of a racial slur, and a U.S. Senator can be attacked for suggesting that women are those who give birth to children.
The combination of Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged this all. Extremism begat extremism. And with lives at stake, Judis and Teixeira write, it “also encouraged a moral absolutism, a division of the country into good and evil.”
Another factor, according to Judis and Teixeira, was “the ubiquity of social media.” Unfortunately, this is the only mention of social media’s role in the acceleration of the cultural radicalism of the Democratic Party, even though it is the most salient difference in American life between 2008 and today and probably the most likely catalyst for the rapid change in the Democratic Party. That Judis and Teixeira spend almost no time exploring this is an unfortunate blind spot in this otherwise excellent, cogent, and persuasive book.
As political historians, Judis and Teixeira surely know that new media, from radio in the 1930s to television in the 1960s, are technological breakthroughs that profoundly affect politics. In the 21st century, algorithmic outlets—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—that tailor content to users create near impervious echo chambers that distort the user’s view of reality, especially the acceptance of those beliefs. (If I only read my Twitter feed, I’d be convinced everyone was a Phillies fan, Democrat, and Bruce Springsteen devotee). Additionally, the algorithms thrive on conflict, bombast, and urgency—all traits hard to find in the cultural moderation Judis and Teixeira seek.
Moreover, available data about who is online and what they think supports the authors’ central thesis and help explain the sudden shift from Obama. Democrats who are massively online are to the left, not just of the electorate but also of other Democrats. An eye-opening 2019 study of self-identified Democrats on Twitter found that they were more concerned with social issues such as abolishing ICE (64 percent support versus 29 percent of all Democratic primary voters) than with kitchen-table issues such as reducing the cost of health care (24 percent support to 43 percent).
Judis and Teixeira end their important study by noting that a Democratic Party that is liberal on economics and “moderate and conciliatory” on cultural issues would be broadly successful. They are not advocating an abandonment of liberal values or a split-the-difference moderation but a return to commonsense views held by the party as recently as a decade ago. To demonstrate the appeal of such politics, Judis and Teixeira report the results of a poll they commissioned of Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin, the bellwether state, in 2022. To name just a few of the positions that polled well:
“‘America benefits from the presence of immigrants, and no immigrant–even if illegal–should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.’ 74 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans agreed.”
“‘Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong, and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. More and better policing is needed for public safety, and that cannot be provided by ‘defunding the police.’ 69 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans agreed.’”
“’There are underlying differences between men and women, but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.’ 90 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans agreed.”
One has to think that the Biden campaign and other Democrats conduct similar polling and see similar findings. Yet there is no indication that the broad consensus Judis and Teixeira described is changing.
Indeed, it is brave of Judis and Teixeira to put out a book countering the dominant center-left thinking on hot-button issues. Their iconoclasm has already taken a toll. Teixeira, for instance, felt he had to leave the Center for American Progress, the preeminent Democratic think tank and advocacy organization for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It is hard to think that a young analyst would take such a risk if he or she desired a career in the Democratic intelligentsia, which is to say that Judis and Teixeira’s book may not be read or even considered seriously by those who most need to read it. And unfortunately, history shows that that time may only come until and if Democrats suffer a catastrophic defeat at the polls.
Kenneth Baer, an Obama administration official and author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, is the founder of Crosscut Strategies.