If there was any doubt just how much of an outsize presence Donald Trump continues to be in the Republican Party, his appearance before cheering crowds at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Florida last week should have laid it to rest. Trump was back, as loud, as blond, as unapologetic as ever.
The subsequent presidential straw poll at CPAC that put him at the top of a list of presidential candidates was merely the shine on the golden statue. Trump and his vocal supporters are going nowhere, and the Republican Party, notwithstanding the Trump-lite act that Sen. Ted Cruz appears determined to tour, will have to deal with that. Sen. Mitt Romney was right when he said Trump is still the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Yet the second question of the CPAC straw poll is possibly more interesting. Asked whether the GOP should advance Trump’s agenda and policies – even without Trump himself – an astonishing 95% agreed. That means the direction of the Republican Party, especially its focus on white, rural voters, will continue.
Where does that leave Democrats? A white-first Republican agenda is dangerous for liberals because white voters broke almost exactly 60-40 for Trump in last year’s election. That’s a big percentage, given that white people make up more than three-quarters of America.
Will they seek to make up those voters among people of color? Or will they cast aside voters of color in their determination to appeal to the Trump base? Do they build a coalition of voters of color or abandon them in their search for white, working-class voters?
Such calibrations are part of the wider battle among Democrats for the soul of the party and which direction they will take over the next four years, particularly if, as expected, Joe Biden ends up becoming a one-term president. Will they seek to sweep the cities and pick up the votes of youths and people of color or emphasize the economic recovery of rural hinterlands, which attracts white, working-class voters?
These calculations will be influenced by the belief that dare not speak its name: With Republicans flirting with white nationalism for the foreseeable future, and with majorities in both the two major non-white groups voting for Biden, liberals could assume most voters of color simply have nowhere else to go. Without the Democrats, they would be politically homeless.
That would be a profoundly dangerous belief. Glance across the Atlantic: The experience of white, working-class communities in the United Kingdom with Brexit shows that even voting blocs that have endured for decades can be broken apart. It just takes the right issue.
The idea that voters of color could really desert the Democrats might seem extraordinary. The two major non-white groups in the United States, Black people and Hispanic/Latinos, overwhelmingly voted for Biden; in the case of Black people, 87%, in the case of Latinos, 65%. (“Hispanic” and “Latino” are contested terms, and polling companies often use them interchangeably.)
That the Republican Party could completely peel away such support is fanciful. Certainly, in the case of Black voters that would appear impossible: Would the Black community really turn its back on the party that gave the country the first Black president and may well field a Black female presidential candidate in four years?
But voting blocs can fragment. Peeling away an entire voting bloc may be difficult, but splintering one may be possible. Of course, individuals will often vote based on their personal circumstances, and successful Black doctors or Hispanic entrepreneurs may well hesitate over the Democrat box if it meant higher taxes on their wealth.
But wider voting blocs can also fragment, depending on which part of their identity the group ranks higher at a particular point or which aspect of the candidate’s record is highlighted. Black voters, for example, may well have been pleased to see Biden continue President Barack Obama’s legacy – but in a different political context, they might have focused more on Biden’s own legacy of supporting tough criminal justice legislation in the 1990s, which fell disproportionately on communities of color.
The fragmentation could also come over which political values are emphasized and whom the Democratic Party is perceived to be for because a lot of Black and Hispanic voters who vote Democratic don’t automatically see themselves as liberal.
An intriguing survey of Pew Research Center data published at the start of 2020, but based on surveys in 2019, found that more Black Democratic voters called themselves moderate (43%) or conservative (25%), than liberal (29%). It was similar among Hispanic Democratic voters: More described themselves as moderate (38%) or conservative (22%) than liberal (37%). (The ratio was flipped for white Democratic voters: There a majority (55%) called themselves liberal.)
What does that mean? Taken together, it means that the majority of Black and Hispanic voters who voted for the main liberal party don’t even see themselves as liberal. It means they are voting for the Democratic Party for reasons other than its perceived liberalism.
Perhaps the starkest example of these shifting demographics was the change in the Latino vote for Trump. Yes, Biden took the majority of that vote – but almost exactly a third, 32% according to the New York Times’ exit poll, went to Trump. The numbers fall differently depending on the pollsters, but the overall conclusion is stark: Not only did a third of Latinos vote for Donald Trump – but more Latinos, after four years of his presidency, voted for him in 2020 than in 2016.
In seeking to explain this, Geraldo L. Cadava, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote in The Atlantic after the election that “Trump understood what motivated his Latino supporters – economic individualism, religious liberty, and law and order – and he made sure they knew he did.”
On many significant topics, the Republicans speak the language of voters of color better than the Democrats.
This is what Democrats should be most afraid of. Far from voters of color having no home in the Republican Party, in fact on many significant topics, the Republicans speak the language of voters of color better than the Democrats: on family, faith, and law and order; on individual responsibility; on small government.
These are political topics that Republicans are currently associated with – and they are topics that matter a great deal to many communities of color, especially immigrant communities.
There are many millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians who immigrated to America for whom family is at the core of their identity; many Christians and Muslims from immigrant backgrounds would consider their faith an essential identity.
Individual responsibility – that most unalluring of political subjects – matters a great deal to those who left their own countries behind, came with very little, and worked hard to get an education and a career or a business. These issues should not be underestimated, and Democrats should be wary of leaving the field clear to Republicans – even if, as seems likely for the foreseeable future, the opposition party appears mainly focused on arguing among itself.
Even terms such as socialism can be weaponized, appealing to one demographic but repulsing another. For many young, white liberals in the U.S., socialism is not associated with the authoritarianism of the Cold War era but with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, giving workers a greater stake in their companies, fighting for a Green New Deal, and creating a fairer society.
But for people who have lived in socialist countries, socialism means something different. There were actual socialist governments in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Arab world. Many of those who fled those governments came to the United States. They remember the sharp end of socialism: the queues and bureaucracy, the confiscation of their businesses, having the schools of their children decided for them. Most of them have no wish to return to socialism, however agreeable the messenger, however embellished and adorned the policies.
Liberals who don’t believe such a political pole reversal could happen among voters of color need only glance across the Atlantic to the experience of socially conservative, white, working-class voters in the U.K., especially in England. This is a political bloc that for decades voted staunchly in favor of one political party – until they didn’t.
In 2019, the Conservative government won a resounding victory, in large part by taking seats from Labour across its “red wall.” (The color of the Labour Party’s logo is red.) These were solidly Labour-voting seats in the Midlands and the north of England, mainly, though not exclusively, working-class communities that had rarely or never in their history voted for a Conservative government. And yet they flipped – and flipped so comprehensively that just a year later a study by the Labour Party into those seats it lost concluded they may have been “lost for good.”
What changed? Inevitably, many things. But while there was a “long retreat” over many years in those seats from the Labour Party, the final straw was an issue that came out of the blue: Brexit, the departure of the U.K. from the European Union. That was one specific issue, but for voters in these seats it crystallized many of their concerns and fears over many years.
In northern seats, there was a sense that the Labour Party was too London-centric, too concerned with the issues of the metropolis in the south, too little connected to the values of family, patriotism, and aspiration – issues that these northern voters cared about and which coalesced around the topic of Brexit. Suddenly, a vote for that party, long thought inevitable, became impossible.
Can the Democrats hope a similar issue won’t appear? That a similar “long retreat” from communities of color might not one day – suddenly – become apparent? That the issues on which left-wing Democrats are most vulnerable – faith, the military, and a sense that some in the party value questions of identity over hard questions of the economy – might not one day crystallize, and the party’s own “red wall” made up of communities of color might not crumble? That the Republicans – whisper it – won’t one day stop talking about race?
Such hope would be profoundly dangerous. The Republicans are now locked into a narrow conversation. But one day, the party will no longer be a mere vehicle for Donald Trump. It could reemerge as a dynamic, modern party that speaks to young people and communities of color. On that day, the political consensus might be overturned, as it was in the U.K. by Brexit, and a Republican wave might punch holes in the Democrats’ own “red wall.”