When Kamala Harris hit Joe Biden for supporting busing — the controversial practice of desegregating schools by forcing kids to attend campuses with different racial demographics — back in the 1970s, liberals, it seems, cheered. Harris got a bump in the polls, and now, at RealClearPolitics, sits at a narrow #2 slot over Bernie Sanders, the previous favorite.
But even Harris seems to have realized she went too far: she’s already backtracking on the attack, and trying to say she doesn’t support a blanket ban on busing.
That’s smart; while attacking Biden on racial issues pleases parts of the Democratic base, it also thrills Trump and his vanguard of Alt-Right culture warriors. For if there’s one way for the Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against an unpopular president, it’s by going hard left on cultural issues. Here’s why — and, moreover, why liberal should avoid pressing their presidential candidates to take unpopular cultural stances.
The Purple State Challenge
To regain the White House, the Democratic candidate of 2020 doesn’t need to to win the culturally left people — whom I term the Dogmatists — of the coasts. New York and California have weak Republican parties and commanding demographic leads. Instead, they need to either win the Midwest and/or flip a handful of purple states like Arizona, North Carolina, and, yes, even possibly Texas.
They can’t do that by running on a platform that’s Basket of Deplorables 2.0. That comment by Hillary Clinton, while it again thrilled the Dogmatists of the coasts, was toxic to her support in the Midwest. It was full of condescension and, more importantly, implied that the new cultural leadership of the United States would entirely ignore the peoples of middle America. They were deplorable; that was that. The message was received and the purple states went red.
By talking busing, Harris knew she was playing racial politics: racial politics that play well on the coasts (including California, where she’s from), but which, in the less diverse, older purple states, is pure poison. She’s stuck in a narrow path to the nomination: she must please the party base, including some of the Dogmatists, to gain the post over the favorite of Joe Biden. But in doing so, she could choke the purple states on rhetoric they cannot swallow.
Let’s break this down further, and look at the solid bases of both sides.
This map illustrates the reliably blue, culturally-left wing friendly states. It also measures out the “better dead than red” states: states that will not flip in large part because they are culturally loyal to President Trump. It illustrates the temptation that Harris and other Democrats have to go left-wing on cultural issues: they start with a huge advantage, 182 electoral votes to 115, by appealing to the safe, left-wing states, and where many of the party’s Dogmatists live and/or identify with culturally.
But Trump’s cultural argument has an advantage that’s not clear with a look at the map: he’s arguing for either the status quo or regression to a past people in the battleground states are familiar with. That inspires comfort. A left-wing cultural message is arguing for change to a future people don’t know — and therefore fear. People don’t vote for what they fear — and under a left-wing enough cultural message, the final map is more of a blowout.
This may not be exact, but leaning on a cultural message is likely to produce something like this, as blue voters who are motivated by economics (the Workers) and/or are more culturally centrist (the Spiritualists) stay home or switch sides.
So in the long term, it’s bad electoral math to go hard on the cultural left, even as it is tempting because of the initial advantage — and the proportion of Dogmatic activists in the party base and at the debates.
Why activists shouldn’t be pushing their candidate left anyway
But beyond the prospect of giving a second term to Trump, activists who want to push their candidates left should consider how futile the presidency really is when it comes to cultural change. Presidents enact cultural change only when that cultural change is popular.
Obama did not legalize gay marriage; shifting sentiment in the Supreme Court did. Lyndon Johnson did not pass the Civil Rights Act on his own; he needed Congressional allies, elected by groundswells of support, to do so. Activists who focus on flipping a president left are wasting their energies; a smart presidential candidate is the one who knows they can ignore unpopular activists and benefit from it, as they act as the cultural bulwark against radicalism for the moderate, popular center. This is what Biden is doing rather successfully, and a key reason why he’s the favorite to beat Trump.
Instead, activists must enact social change from the local landscape up, until the grassroots change is so potent that a president, whether right or left, cannot ignore it. That’s how Civil Rights activists got even conservatives to end up embracing the 1965 Civil Rights Act; that’s why Trump isn’t backtracking on gay marriage, much as many of his supporters would like him to. Once the grassroots support for an issue tips past 55% or so, even adversarial presidents often come along. And even if they do keep resisting, they have no allies to help them.
Harris seems to realize that: she’s said busing should be up to districts. But she’ll surely be tempted to go culturally left again. She would be wise to resist the temptation — and save if not herself, the party she hopes to see win 2020.