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Two weeks ago, the Democrats lost an easily winnable race in Virginia, a highly educated, racially diverse commonwealth that voted for Biden by more than ten points. Why’d they lose? The Republicans made the election about education and schools teaching critical race theory, and the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, simply responded with a gaffe: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This election in Virginia is a microcosm for how Republicans are going to win in 2022 and why Democrats are their own worst enemy. Democrats have become more synonymous with social issues like critical race theory, vaccine mandates, and “Abolish The Police” than their broadly effective and popular economic agenda. Don’t get me wrong, I am sympathetic to all of these issues, but it’s clear these issues are costing elections.
It used to not be this way. Back in the 90s and 2000s, Democrats had no problem distancing themselves from the cultural left, which advocates for these unpopular movements. Now, that cultural left dominates social media and makes mainstream Democrats think Twitter is a prominent section of voters. In effect, some left-leaning politicians have danced around being against these far-left movements and have lost voters because of it. Why is it that in the 2020 election, when a Republican candidate told white supremacists to “stand back and stand by,” that same presidential candidate improved their popularity among African American and Latinx voters by 4% each. After a whole summer of “Black Lives Matter” and “Abolish the Police,” a good number of minority voters flipped from Clinton in 2016 to Trump in 2020.
Turns out “Abolish The Police” isn’t as digestible as youthful humanities majors would like to think. With Democrats losing minority voters but gaining young, socially liberal voters, are these voters even reliable? Nope. In Virginia, per exit polls, 18-29-year-olds represented only 10% of the Virginian electorate (a 10 point drop from 2020), and minority voters were even more Republican than in 2020. Because Democrats have become more socially liberal than fiscally liberal, they have replaced minority voters with unreliable voters, and (as Virginia shows us) these trends have progressed further.
Democrats don’t even have to explicitly endorse culturally left-wing positions to be labeled this way. In the 1988 election, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis didn’t run a campaign on social issues, but he offered terrible rebuttals and noncommital answers to questions pertaining to those issues. However, in 1992, Bill Clinton ran with a firm pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage tone, and constantly deflected questions aimed at his social positions, preferring to talk about his left-leaning fixes to the economy. Bill Clinton won 1992 in a landslide.
Here’s the wrinkle, though. Despite being anti-gay marriage, he put two justices on the Supreme Court that would eventually legalize gay marriage. Barack Obama did the same thing, running two presidential campaigns against gay marriage but being the first president to preside over marriage equality. Obama and Clinton could have tried to explain to a socially conservative country that gay marriage shows love just as powerful and legitimate as straight marriages. They would have been completely right, but they would have lost, preventing any progress or justice from being made in the first place.
Democrats should avoid talking about their socially liberal positions and talk about their broadly effective and popular economic agenda. If you do want social progress to happen, stick to the playbook that’s worked: slipping in social progress while running campaigns on great economic fixes. So, this Thanksgiving, before you tell your socially conservative uncle he needs to understand “Abolish The Police” isn’t literal or vaccine mandates are in everyone’s best interest, please ask yourself: are these really discussions worth having? Do you really want your uncle, who may be sympathetic to taxing the rich or providing healthcare to all citizens, to think this is the alternative to Republicans? Do you want to be right or do you want to win?