AMAC Exclusive- By Daniel Roman
Now falls the winter of Democrats’ discontent. Supply chains are broken. If the empty shelves as Christmas approaches don’t ruin the holidays, fear over the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 might do the trick – at least in Democratic states where the usual suspects are already calling for renewed restrictions. At least another COVID-induced economic slowdown might halt the inexorable rise of gas prices. For Democrats who believed that losing Virginia and almost losing New Jersey on November 3 was rock bottom, the last four weeks must have raised the question, “How much worse can it get?” The answer is worse. Much worse.
The Democrats and the American Left are fighting something more powerful than merely issues, events, or a resurgent Republican Party. The trouble is something more general; two things, in fact.
First, Democrats are fighting a widespread feeling of exhaustion among Americans. Not merely with COVID, but with the political and cultural warfare of the past decade. Those conflicts predated Donald Trump. From the left, there has been a concerted effort to make everything political, from media and education to workplaces, sports, and even language.
Backlash against this effort helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, just as desire for a break from this conflict hurt Donald Trump in 2020. Some voters thought if they just took away the target of the left’s aggression, the fighting would end. But the culture wars didn’t end. They got worse.
And here lies the true “feeling” Democrats are fighting against—the second big problem for the Democrats. Americans of all stripes increasingly blame a specific demographic for the divisions in American society: college-educated, liberal “woke” whites. This is the cultural clique of elite liberal arts college graduates that takes pride in showing how little they care about the practical challenges facing everyday Americans. And unfortunately for Democrats, Americans correctly associate this group with the Democratic Party.
The Democrat association with college-educated white voters has been a long time coming. Some Democrats celebrated the trend of these voters moving toward Democrats as early as Obama’s first run in 2008. Democrats trumpeted their gains with white college grads among Romney-Clinton-Biden voters in 2018 and 2020. The 2020 results, however, also showed exactly how bad the “trade” was for Democrats when they abandoned working-class and rural voters in the electoral college in exchange for college educated whites. But ultimately the real problem for Democrats is that, in allowing college educated whites to dominate the party, they have created an intellectual climate that is out of touch with everyone else—way out of touch.
The unifying cultural feature of the American elite since the 1980s has been a pride in seeing themselves as able to look beyond such petty concerns as employment, roads, and public safety in favor of “big picture issues.” The very concept of Liberal Arts education, where you study a bit of everything rather than specializing in any one field, is to create the impression (and given the state of today’s higher education, it is only an impression) that one has well-informed views on everything. Universities are money-making entities and one way they have justified their increasingly absurd fees is by embracing this idea. Hence, universities want students to care about climate change, Palestine, colonialism, racial inequality, and the very concept of gender itself, because caring about those issues demonstrates that they can afford to not care about housing, or food, or work, or crime. (If you doubt this, ask any student at an elite university what kind of career counseling they are getting. The answer is none.) Caring about these “meta-causes” instead of practical concerns became a class signifier core to the identity of a generation. And that carried over into politics.
During the 1990s and 2000s, this manifested in different ways in both parties. The Democratic elite would obsess over climate change, or global inequality, or same-sex marriage. These issues might not have broad appeal, but they were opposed by a Republican elite which concluded that it was their divine duty to act as the world’s policeman. The Neoconservatism of the Bush/McCain GOP saw concerns about which politicians governed Iraq or Afghanistan or Lebanon, and tiny border disputes in the Caucuses, as more important than the loss of U.S. jobs to China or mass illegal immigration. This elite culture was nearly as toxic as the left’s. Neither party’s establishment figures spoke to what voters were concerned with. That is why Donald Trump won in 2016.
Donald Trump’s victory largely unified both sides of the American elite—Republican and Democrat—in opposition to him. While Democrats reveled in their newfound support among wealthy suburbanites and former Republican elites like Jennifer Rubin and the Lincoln Project founders, the actual impact on the intellectual health of the Democrat Party and elite culture was poisonous. The unification of the American college-educated elite under the auspices of the Democrat Party was conducted in a manner which merged the obsession of both neoconservatives and woke liberals into a set of conspiracy theories. Russiagate allowed neoconservatives to continue their obsession with foreign enemies everywhere and their belief that ending any wars could only be motivated by treason. For liberals, the obsession with January 6th allowed them to believe their domestic culture war against those who weren’t like them was a struggle to defend democracy itself, and more important than concerns about jobs, the economy, or bread-and-butter issues. The commonality between both camps of elites was that, just as they learned in college, both took pride in caring about their “big issues” and not about the lesser bread-and-butter concerns of the average American voter.
On COVID restrictions, they fell easily into this trap. Wearing masks was an easy sacrifice for them, as was remote education. Just as being able to care about climate change at college rather than paychecks was a point of class pride, so too was being able to show that they could afford to care more about “science” than livelihoods.
For everyone else, however, such elitism reinforces an impression that the dominant group within the Democratic Party is one that does not care about real issues, and perhaps even reality itself. They do not care about whether schools are open, whether kids get a good education, or whether crime rates skyrocket. All that matters is their progressive social agenda. The virtue signaling is nothing but class status-signaling. Their niche political opinions are like luxury personal accessories. They can have them because they can afford to have them.
When it comes to culture, white, woke, college educated elites are the ones pushing left-wing social policy. One of the major controversies in the entertainment industry recently was the effort to cancel Dave Chappelle, a black comic, after he suggested that trans women were in many cases former white men who managed to leapfrog over black men (and women) because of a hierarchy of oppression defined by white liberal elites. This was not a new charge. It had been made by British feminists for years who argued that efforts to put transgender individuals into sports and women’s spaces were actually power-plays by predominantly male, predominantly white elites. The backlash to Chappelle’s comedy routine seemed to prove him right. The elite networks in the media mobilized to condemn him, corporate HR and tech “diversity networks” moved to try and organize boycotts, and demands were made for apologies. In almost all these cases, those attacking Chappelle were white, college-educated, and from what the left – if it was true to its own critical theory – would have called “privileged backgrounds.” That the African American community, and a large portion of the public rallied to defend Chappelle demonstrated how isolated the white woke left is.
Americans of all backgrounds do not believe the Democratic Party does or can care about their issues because they do not believe the demographic that dominates it cares. And unless and until the party stands up to the woke left-wing elite and puts them in their place, that lack of trust will drive virtually everyone else away.
In 1992, Bill Clinton, then running for President, condemned Sister Soujah, a black rapper, in an effort to show he would stand up to what was seen as his party’s extreme left wing. It was an effort to prove Clinton could be trusted by wealthy, college-educated, white suburbanites. In 2024, or likely later, the next Democrat to win will need to do the same in reverse. They will need to confront the representatives of their college-educated “elitist” woke base – on crime, on COVID restrictions, on CRT, on gender, and most importantly, tell them to shut up about their conspiracy theories about the end of democracy and the world. Only by doing so can they hope to appeal to anyone else.
That may be a long time in the future. Biden can whine about forces beyond his control. Buttigieg and Harris can fight for the right to lose in 2024. But Democrats have once again become associated with an out of touch elite class that disdains, and is disdained by, ordinary Americans. And until they address that problem, it will continue to cost them at the ballot box.
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.