As Democrats contemplate their losses in November’s election, most have settled on a solution. They believe that the party needs more economically populist policies. But this misses an essential reality: Most people don’t vote on the basis of policies.
There is excellent research by political scientists and psychologists on why people vote. The conclusion is clear. As Gabriel Lenz writes in his landmark 2012 book, “Follow the Leader?”, “Voters don’t choose between politicians based on policy stances; rather, voters appear to adopt the policies that their favorite politicians prefer.”
And how do voters pick their favorite politicians? It is a gut decision that is more emotional than rational. Mostly it hinges on whether they identify with a politician in the social and psychological senses.
In an important recent book, “Democracy for Realists,” Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show that “group attachments” and “social identities” are key to understanding voting behavior. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt reinforces this view with mountains of research showing that people choose their political views based on their tribal attachments.
The problem for the Democratic Party is not that its policies aren’t progressive or populist enough. They are already progressive and are substantially more populist than the Republican Party’s on almost every dimension. And yet, over the past decade, Republicans have swept through statehouses, governors’ mansions, Congress and now the White House. Democrats need to understand not just the Trump victory but that broader wave.
The Republican Party has been able to profit electorally at so many levels because it has found a way to emotionally identify with working-class whites as they watch their country get transformed. Globalization, automation and immigration all generate enormous social change. Republicans signal that at a gut level, they are uncomfortable with this change and like America the way it was. That is why states with older, working-class white voters, such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, all have Republican governors and statehouses.
Partly this is a matter of policy (on guns, say), but mostly it is about identity and attachment, conveyed through symbols and signals. In a perceptive essay in the Harvard Business Review, Joan Williams explains that working-class people distrust and disdain professionals — and that the Democratic Party is now a party of professionals. These professionals, in this view, are overeducated urbanites with effete lifestyles (organic food, vegan diets, yoga) who have jobs that are about manipulating words and numbers.
On the other hand, Williams notes, working-class people love the rich. They love, for example, a real estate developer from Queens who actually builds stuff, flaunts his wealth and retains all his basic appetites. When Donald Trump posts a photograph of himself in his plane eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, he is saying to his base, “I’m just like you, only with lots of money.” And in fact, Trump in many ways is a working-class person’s fantasy of what his life would be like if he were rich, from the Vegas-style triplex to the gold-plated fixtures in his plane.
If this emotional attachment is the key to getting people to vote for you, what does this mean for the Democratic Party? It has advantages. It begins with a strong base of people who do identify with it: professionals, working women, minorities, millennials. But it needs to reclaim a larger share of working-class whites. To do this, the Democrats need to understand the politics of symbolism.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, should have been centered around one simple theme: that she grew up in a town outside Chicago and lived in Arkansas for two decades. The subliminal message to working-class whites would have been “I know you. I am you.” It was the theme of her husband’s speech introducing her at the Democratic convention, and Bill Clinton’s success has a lot to do with the fact that, brilliant as he is, he can always remind those voters that he knows them. Once reassured, they are then open to his policy ideas.
Barack Obama is a singularly charismatic politician. But he might have made Democrats forget that the three Democrats elected to the White House before his election came from the rural South. They knew that world; they were of it.
With these insights in mind, on the campaign trail, perhaps Clinton and the Democrats should have rallied not with Beyonce and Jay Z but rather with George Strait. And if you don’t know who he is, that’s part of the problem.