AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
In the aftermath of their defeat in Virginia, a few, mostly older liberal commentators have begun warning about the Democratic Party’s leftward drift on cultural issues. Some have criticized Democrat candidate Terry McAuliffe for his failure to distance himself from the far left on CRT or the transgender bathroom and sports issues that had inflamed parents in Virginia schools.
It is easy to condemn McAuliffe for this choice, but the way he chose to navigate the race highlights a much larger problem for the party than many have understood. The challenge is that given the dynamics he faced within the Democratic electorate, it is unclear what other choice McAuliffe had. In all likelihood, McAuliffe did not decide to adopt his losing strategy thinking it was good. He probably deduced, correctly, that was simply the least bad option. And the alarming fact for Democrats nationwide is that if their least bad option was not good enough to win in a Biden+10 state earlier this month, there are a lot of other places it will not be good enough either.
McAuliffe’s choice on the cultural issues was both simple and impossible. If he spoke out against the radicalism of the left, he would be on the wrong side of a majority of Democrats, and potentially enrage 30% who would think him a bigot or at least pandering to bigots. If he supported their policies, he would offend the nearly quarter of Democrats who think the “woke” turn of Democrat politics is total nonsense, and potentially a danger to their kids – not to mention alienating a majority of independent voters McAuliffe desperately needed to win. So, facing this choice, McAuliffe did nothing, hoping he could hold the coalition together. Nothing may indeed have been his best option—but as we saw, it could not get him across the finish line.
McAuliffe’s conundrum shows why, for all the newfound recognition among some Democrats that radical social policies are liabilities, it is unlikely Democrats will be able to successfully execute the pivot they would need recover from their dalliance with the radical left. Despite the glee MSNBC and other liberal media outlets have shown since 2009 regarding the supposed extremism of the GOP base, it is increasingly Democrats who are out of touch culturally with American voters, and who are being held hostage by the extremism of their own base.
Take for instance the issue of transgender rights and gender policy. A recent survey from the liberal Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) demonstrates the enigma facing thoughtful Democrats on these issues. The PPRI survey indicated that Americans of all parties support not discriminating against LGBTQ individuals. This would seem to be an encouraging fact for Democrats. And yet, Democrats have not limited themselves to advocating for non-discrimination—rather, in many cases, they have abandoned that position in favor of stances where they are almost diametrically opposed to mainstream public opinion.
For example, 62% of Americans do not think those born biologically male should be able to play women’s sports. Yet 61% of Democrats think they should be able to do so. Opinion within the Democratic Party on the issue is therefore a mirror-image of that of Americans as a whole, and anyone opposing this would be advocating against a policy favored by a majority of Democrats. Thus, in order to be able to win a primary, a Democrat candidate would have to win the votes of people who support allowing trans individuals to play sports of the opposite gender, while winning a general election would likely require securing the votes of people who oppose such a policy. And to do that, the candidate would need to be able to explain to the public why they oppose transgender athletics on the merits. Instead, the default position of Democrats who have tried to take the majoritarian stance has been merely to explain that the Democrat Party’s position is “unpopular” in the nation at large. This does not really work in a general election, as it implies you still think the 62% of Americans are wrong or even bigots. This underscores the problem with even Democratic moderates. They tend to couch their moderation in tactical considerations, in effect insulting the morality of those whose votes they are supposedly trying to appeal to, while intimating that in their hearts, they aren’t really moderate at all.
Yet even this cynical political positioning to enable Democrat candidates to win over mainstream Americans may be a bridge too far for many Democrat voters. An increasing portion of the Democrat base is intolerant of anyone with a political profile capable of winning national elections.
Take for example Democrat voters’ views on a basic question, or rather, what a majority of Americans regard as a simple factual statement: the notion that there are only two genders.
Overall, 60% of Americans believe there are two genders, and 40% believe there are more or a range. However, not only do 61% of Democrats disagree with that statement, but a plurality actually feel their disagreement is important enough to be a voting issue.
Once more, opinion among Democrats is the exact inverse of that of the American people. Worse for Democrats, however, are the numbers of those who feel strongly. 42% overall feel strongly there are only two genders, compared with only 17% who feel strongly there are more. But among Democrats, those numbers are 23% and 30%. In other words, a fringe view, backed by around one sixth of the electorate, has a near plurality among Democrats. Worse, Democrats, unlike Republicans, have divisions. Among Republicans, 87% think there are two genders, while only 4% feel strongly that there are more. Democrats are much more evenly split. While 61% think there are more than two genders, a full 23% feel strongly that there are only 2 genders, making serious and bitter infighting among Democrats much more likely.
The gender issue is one of many that follow this pattern. It is not Republican primary voters who are out of touch with Americans. It is Democrats. And this is a key reason why Democrats are so despondent and Republicans so optimistic about 2022.
The more rational members of the party know they need to pivot, they know how to do it, but they nonetheless cannot do so because of the rigid ideological orthodoxy demanded by their base, an extremism that in many cases they themselves have sown. And that is why so many Democratic incumbents are headed for the exits rather than running for reelection. It is not that the situation is bad now and they don’t know how to fix it. It is that it is bad and they know they cannot do the things needed to fix it.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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