We’ve been hearing for about a generation now about “Reagan Democrats” — white, working-class voters who voted Republican in the 1980s, and who pundits believe Democrats have to get back if they hope to be competitive on the national level again. (That the Democratic candidate has won more votes than the Republican candidate in three of the last four presidential campaign does not seem to affect this analysis.)
With this in mind, Ezra Klein had a great item the other day about the myth of Reagan Democrats, and the futility of chasing ghosts.
Recent political history often seems startlingly immediate, its effects rippling easily into the present (as evidence, I’m spending the week reading a history of Nixon’s election.) But it’s worth remembering that Reagan was elected almost three decades ago. He won California, New York, Massachusetts, and even Vermont. Reagan Democrats were hardly the problem. It was Reagan Country. The sort of vote he put together was unique to that moment, that candidate, and those circumstances.
The electorate, its composition and universe of possible winning coalitions, is quite different now. Many, many Democratic pundits and strategists connect their party’s decline to Reagan’s win, so a tremendous amount of mental energy is expended theorizing how they can take back what he wrested from them, and which candidates can win back “the Reagan Democrats.”
But the battle isn’t to reconstruct the coalition that was dominant in the 1980s. It’s to envision and form the majority that will endure for the next ten years.
I’ve long hoped astute observations like this one are obvious to the party and the chattering class, but recent discussions lead me to think everyone needs to take Ezra’s reminder very seriously.
Digby, adding to Ezra’s piece, offered a real gem:
People who drifted to Reagan in 1980 were driven by nationalism and animus toward social change. While they may have been sympathetic to equal rights in the abstract, things started to get dicey when their own lives were impacted by busing and housing integration and women’s rights. They made themselves heard by voting with the guy who ran as the one who would “make the country proud again,” which they interpreted to mean he would make the country like it used to be.
After the smoke had cleared a few of them drifted back when a less charismatic Republican took office and a few more when the Democrats offered up Bill Clinton in 1992. But those who’ve stayed until now have stayed because they found they felt extremely comfortable in modern Republican tribal culture and they aren’t likely to leave short of a cataclysmic 1932-style realignment
Up until quite recently, it was understood that a new Democratic majority was going to be built upon the base of African Americans, unions and liberals, then capturing the hugely important growing Latino bloc while getting out the liberal youth vote (particularly young, single women.) Of course the Democratic party (the party of unions, fergawdsake) cares about the working class voter and need to get some slice of that demographic to win, but the focus would be on working class women who have been far more willing to swing Democratic than the majority of (white, non-union) working class men have been in recent years — and have proven so in this primary campaign.
The modern winning coalition for Democrats isn’t put together by getting the Reagan Democrats back. They’re long gone. But every damned election we have to obsess over getting the votes of a bunch of true blue Republican men like they’re the holy grail. They’re welcome to come over, of course, but after 30 years of pandering there’s no reason to believe they’re ever going to do it.