The Left Should Commandeer Red State Democratic Parties

by Benjamin Studebaker

For decades now, the Democratic Party has been in the hands of people who don’t really care very much about ordinary people. More and more wealth and income has been transferred to the rich, regardless of which party has been in power.

Percentage Point Change in Top 1% Income Share US Presidents

Increasingly, the Democrats have attempted to win elections relying exclusively on the McGovern coalition–students, young urban professionals, and people of colour. They privilege issues of status discrimination, ignoring economic exploitation entirely. The American worker was abandoned by the Democratic Party. Without the Democratic Party, American politics stopped being an arena for ensuring that our economic needs are met. Instead, the entire political debate became about the culture war, about social conservatism’s battle with social liberalism. The Republican Party pledged to protect the traditions and beliefs of those living in rural and suburban areas, and came to dominate them. The Democratic Party settled for the college towns and big cities. What we now call the “red states” are those states where the rural and suburban areas have more sway than the liberal cities. The Democratic Party in these states is a rotting corpse. It is ready and waiting to be transformed by a new generation of left-wing Americans.

It’s remarkably difficult to do left-wing politics in cities. The economic growth we’ve seen over the previous several decades has largely been concentrated in them. They contain less economic restlessness than the rural periphery. The cities are ethnically and religiously diverse and contain many communities which are interested in acquiring more equal status. The Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton has been winning consistently in cities for decades with few signs of letting up. It is deeply entrenched in them and contains large numbers of professionals who know what they’re doing. In blue states, these professional politicians quickly filter up from the cities and college towns to the state houses, and these people work hard to outfox younger, more inexperienced, more left-wing political actors. Those wishing to move the Democratic Party to the left face an uphill battle in blue states, and because of this they have resorted to cribbing from the strategy book of the Clintonites.

This cribbing is mainly about mobilising people of colour in the cities to vote for left-wing candidates by emphasising social issues. The urban left takes liberal positions on these social issues, but then attempts to outflank the Clintonites by making them more radical. So instead of reforming the police, or reforming our immigration system, the urban left propose to abolish the police and abolish ICE. When we ask these people what they mean by abolish, it often turns out that they actually mean “reform”. But this part of the left believes that it can win the votes of people of colour in cities by radicalising the language and presentation of these liberal policies. I like to call this “radical liberalism”–it’s bog-standard liberal Democrat stuff, but it’s aesthetically presented in a progressive or democratic socialist lacquer.

The thing is, people of colour aren’t actually that responsive to this sort of thing. When you ask African-Americans if they have confidence in the police or if they support various reforms, you’ll find lots of support for reform:

police accountability by race

But if you radicalise the proposal and start talking about diminishing the police presence, the response changes completely:

preferences about police presence

Radical liberalism doesn’t actually work. When the urban left wins Democratic primaries, it is winning in spite of this stuff rather than because of it. But the urban left’s desperation to win the votes of people of colour is understandable–Bernie Sanders struggled with the demographic in 2016. African-Americans were largely excluded from the immediate material benefits of the New Deal. They are less likely to have nostalgia for the post-war era, a time when they faced worse discrimination than they presently face. There is less confidence within African-American communities that the universal economic programs which dominate progressive and democratic socialist agendas will deliver the goods, and more fear that if they nominate candidates who are radical that Republican candidates will win and expose them to explicitly discriminatory policies. This fear and mistrust is perfectly understandable and stems from a long history of neglect and abuse. There are also many African-American politicians in cities who have become rich contributing to the Democratic machine and who will happily use their influence within African-American communities to damage left-wing factions which challenge their position. Remember John Lewis?

When the left goes after the Clintonites in blue cities, it is going after them in the places where they are strongest. The story is different in the red states. In the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders won 22 states. The bulk of these are very white, very red, and have small urban populations. In many of them, the Democrats have a negligible presence in statehouses:

I’ve also thrown New York and California in for comparison–unlike most of the Bernie states, these two are highly urban states with smaller white populations. Clintonite Democrats are well-established in these states and compete for control of the state senates in them. Barriers to entry in Democratic Party primaries are likely to be much higher in states with well-established Democratic patronage networks.

By contrast, if you go into a primary in a state where the Democratic Party has a negligible presence and where the demographics already favour Sanders-style campaigns, the chance of successful entry is much higher. Clintonite Democratic opponents in these primaries are likely to be less professional. They will be less politically skilled, less well-connected, and possess inferior resources. These are the places where the left can easily begin to displace Clintonites from the Democratic Party ballot line.

If we look at the Bernie states’ Democratic Party strength (measured in terms of state senate percentage) and the percent of the population in large cities together, we can identify the states where the Democrats are most ready for transformation:

The best states are in the lower left corner, and include those with less than 40% Democratic presence in the state senate and less than 25% heavy urbanisation: Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, a couple of these states have a more significant Democratic presence in their state’s lower house–Michigan’s assembly is 46% Democratic and Montana’s is 41%. If we eliminate them, we are left with six especially ripe states–Idaho, Indiana, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In these states, Republicans run unopposed for piles of offices. Often, no one even bothers to take the Democratic nomination, much less do anything useful with it. Young talent doesn’t dare tread in these places, and when it does it confines itself to urban and collegiate enclaves. Democratic parties in these states are desperate to find people to run for things. Sometimes, you can walk in and have the Democratic nomination if you want it, without arduous primary contests. There’s no one left to keep you out. The Clintonites abandoned these places and these people long ago. The citizens of these great states badly need politicians that actually care about their material needs. They have been waiting for left wing economic populism–without the social issue riffraff–for a long, long time. Why don’t we actually try to give it to them?

The red state Democratic Parties cannot be ignored, because the left needs to compete in the red states to stand any chance of one day taking the senate and implementing bold policies at the national level. The more we focus on competing against Clintonites in their urban strongholds, the more the left will be tempted to embrace radical liberalism, and radical liberalism will make the left every bit as unelectable in the red states as the Clintonites are today. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aside, the future of the left is not in Brooklyn or Berkeley–it’s in places whose names you wouldn’t recognise if I stuck them in front of you.