A Realistic Left-Wing Strategy for Red States

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent years, the left has been excited about electoral breakthroughs in college towns and big cities. But these regions aren’t enough. To pass signature legislation like Medicare-For-All, the left must establish a Senate majority. This means that somehow, rural red states have to elect senators who are willing to get behind these proposals.

The left hates thinking about this problem, because it requires acknowledging the limitations of its existing approach. The strategy that seems to work well in New York and California has no traction at all in Middle America. Proponents of the coastal strategy love to daydream about circumventing the problem. They indulge in idle fantasies of abolishing the Senate and electoral college, they delude themselves about demographic shifts, and they mock red state voters for choosing their cultural values over their economic interests. Of course, they never consider making cultural concessions to red state voters because they themselves care more about progressive cultural commitments than securing economic rights. They have the same priorities they mock.

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Capturing the Democratic Party doesn’t accomplish much in red states. The state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. The Democrats who win usually do so by running as quasi-Republicans. They don’t do left-wing stuff. Even if they want to do left-wing stuff, they don’t control committees and often can’t get their legislation on the agenda.

There’s also a problem with the red state Democratic base. Democratic voters in red states tend to resent the people who live around them. They don’t share the values of their neighbors, and they resent having to put up with them. Many red state Democrats would like to move to a blue city or college town, but can’t afford it. They are living in red states against their will, and they’re bitter about it. It’s understandable–you’d be bitter too if you had to live among people you despised because you didn’t have the capital to leave.

The trouble is that these red state Democrats bring this bitterness into their political action. They show up to political events angry and looking to pick fights. They judge the people around them. They’re condescending. They’re rude. Red state citizens aren’t going to vote for Democrats who don’t like them, don’t share their values, and would leave if they could.

The left media encourages this. It celebrates incivility and rage, because the people who pay for left-wing content are angry and want to feel validated. It’s a psychologically comforting product, but it doesn’t help politically. It feeds the narrative in red states that the left doesn’t actually like the voters.

And all the while, the coastal left dominates the national media. If you try to run as a Democrat in a red state, you have to answer for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has a grim favorability rating. Democrats don’t even have a good financial network. In my home state of Indiana, the Democratic candidate for governor, Woody Myers, had less than $15,000 at the start of the year. His Republican rival still had 100 times more cash on hand as of the mid-year report:

Associating with the Democrats just doesn’t help in red states. There’s another possible approach, though–leftists could run as Republicans.

Many red state voters are suspicious of Democrats, because they think Democrats hate their way of life. But they are more willing to listen to Republicans. A Republican who speaks to their economic needs without threatening their values would be more compelling than the establishment Republicans.

We know that Republican voters hate their party establishment. They voted for Donald Trump because they don’t like the Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney types. Most Democratic voters still like Barack Obama, and many of them still like Hillary Clinton. They aren’t interested in voting for outsiders. They want to bring the insiders out to the red states. Red state Democrats get so excited when beltway insiders from the coasts visit the provinces. They like the liberal technocrats and view them as celebrity icons. They think Pete Buttigieg is cool because he speaks a bunch of languages and went to Harvard. Left-wing candidates need to win the voters who are mad at the elite. There are more of those voters in the Republican Party than there are in the Democratic Party.

Of course, this strategy requires left-wing candidates to be tolerant and understanding of conservative and Christian cultural perspectives. For many even the idea of this is a deal-breaker. But there’s nothing inherently hateful or bigoted about liking small towns and traditional families. And the traditional family is threatened by the economic policies of establishment Republicans. People in red states want to get married, buy a house, and have kids, and these things cost money, and the Republican establishment is making it harder and harder for them to get this stuff. It’s okay to be straight and monogamous. It’s okay to like church weddings. It’s no big deal. It’s okay to have these preferences and to want to live in a traditional way. In America we shouldn’t stop good citizens from doing things their own way.

If it’s more important to you to look down on these people, how badly do you want Medicare-For-All? Because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be bi-partisan. There are going to have to be left-wing Democrats and left-wing Republicans.

Otherwise, we’ll never get the senators. Even if we get the senators to pass Medicare-For-All, the Republicans will probably win an election before we’ve finished making the transition to single payer, and they’ll make a mess out of the system and blame us for that mess.

In blue states, leftists should run as Democrats. In red states, they should run as Republicans. If we do that, we can bring back bi-partisanship, create crucial new economic rights, and restore confidence in our country’s institutions.