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What If Democrats’ Message Just Doesn’t Matter?

Florida voters backed a $15 minimum wage. So did Joe Biden—and he lost the state. There are important lessons here for the party.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. I know this because I follow political news for a living, but also because he said so, on television, in one of his two nationally televised debates with President Donald Trump. In fact, the two men argued about it, making it clear that one person on that stage wished to raise the minimum wage and the other didn’t.

In Florida, on Tuesday, 60 percent of voters overwhelmingly voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. And on the same day, in Florida, Joe Biden won around 48 percent of the vote and lost decisively to Donald Trump.

It was a long and often brutal slog to get Democrats on board with a $15 minimum wage—so long, in fact, that it should probably now be called the “Fight for $17.22”—but tireless organizing finally convinced Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, to support the proposal. It was not a centerpiece of his platform, but it was something he talked about and campaigned on. Joe Biden was the candidate of a $15 minimum wage. And it simply didn’t matter.

Now it is clearly true that people decide their votes based on many complicated, contradictory ideas, impulses, and biases. It is also probably true that even working-class voters most directly concerned with their own personal economic security may have been grateful to Trump for presiding over an economy that was humming at the start of the year, without assigning him blame for the pandemic that upended it.

But when a ballot measure that is ostensibly a central part of a candidate’s economic agenda runs 12 points ahead of the candidate, something is screwy in the electoral process.

Early Tuesday evening, left-of-center Twitter users began sharing images of polling results taken from Fox News, out of a sense of amusement at seeing this particular data on that particular channel. In the words of The Daily Dot, the polls “accidentally show Americans are liberal.” And indeed, the conclusion one would draw from these polls is not just that America is a liberal country but that it is a robustly left-of-center one.

Huge percentages of voters support government-sponsored health care, more state intervention in the economy, and more government support for clean energy. We have, of course, just learned some important lessons about the limitations of public opinion polling, but these majorities are too large to be completely dismissed as mere polling errors. That Democrats cannot translate robust support for their central policies into consistent electoral victories suggests that something is amiss in the democratic accountability feedback loop. It is of course true that on many of these issues, like health care, the Democratic Party firmly rejected the left’s popular proposals in favor of a confusing and diluted alternative. That is what Democrats nearly always do. Perhaps that is what the electorate punishes them for. But that same electorate also regularly elects Republicans, who are very vocally opposed to all of those fine, popular ideas.

This highlights the special challenge Democrats have faced in running against Donald Trump, who constantly backtracks and contradicts himself on policy, especially when he grasps that certain policies are broadly popular. (Trump has said in the past, in fact, that he supports a $15 minimum wage.) There is also the wider problem that many Americans (as Ryan Cooper has written) simply do not believe the Republican Party is as extreme as it is, based on the (logical!) belief that such a party would never win elections.

I doubt voters embrace Republicans because they believe the GOP is better than Democrats on economic fairness (as opposed to overall stewardship of “the economy”)—they simply can’t believe how reactionary Republicans actually are.

Faced with this dilemma, some commentators have insisted that Democrats just need to shut up about everything else in their great big platform and talk solely of dollars and cents. There is a liberal version of this argument, articulated by people like Mark Lilla: that Democrats should abandon their commitment to “identity” issues. And there is a left-wing version of this argument (caricatured by its opponents as “class reductionism”): that leftist politicians should focus on material concerns to the exclusion of all else.

But what if the argument itself is moot? What if it barely matters what Democrats “talk about” or “campaign on”? What if this is less a problem of political messaging or positioning than of political education, information access, and ubiquitous propaganda? In other words, if the Democrats actively try to abandon “identity issues,” will anyone in this political environment actually stop associating them with “identity issues”? If they ran a strictly class-focused campaign, how many marginal voters would hear their messaging and believe it?

It seems possible, in other words, that voters no longer believe that the Democratic Party represents a coalition that includes the working class, and that even if the party puts forward Democratic candidates who support pro-worker policy, it simply will not suffice to reach or convince voters.

This is not uncharted territory. Writing, in 1979, about the United Kingdom’s “swing to the Right,” the sociologist Stuart Hall argued that it could be explained (in part) by the fact that, once in power, social democratic parties became parties of the state, rather than parties of labor, as the state intervened to put the “national interest” above the “class struggle,” disciplining labor on behalf of the markets.

“In the absence of any fuller mobilization of democratic initiatives,” he wrote, “the state is increasingly encountered and experienced by ordinary working people as, indeed, not a beneficiary but a powerful, bureaucratic imposition. And this ‘experience’ is not misguided since, in its effective operations with respect to the popular classes, the state is less and less present as a welfare institution and more and more present as the state of ‘state monopoly capital.’”

The Democratic Party, unlike most of its left-of-center brethren in the developed world, has never been a true labor party, but it seems plausible that many voters view it as a party representing a state that never helps them, even as they, personally, practically beg for a large and powerful state that would step in to improve their lives.

The question Democrats now face is whether saying they will empower the state to improve people’s lives will actually work on anyone.

Hall’s thesis couldn’t account for the advances of communications technology and retreats in mass organizational politics and civil engagement that have taken place since the late 1970s. Workers have drifted away from the fraternal organizations, unions, and even churches that once bound individuals together and helped shape their political commitments. Simultaneously, many people either intentionally tune out political news or receive it filtered through social networks heavily biased in favor of right-wing perspectives. A blow to the argument that Democrats should fight for the support of the alienated and disengaged is that the alienated and disengaged may be unreachable—except by, in Hall’s words, fuller mobilization of democratic initiatives. It would take making the state work for people to convince the masses that the state can work for people.

At a time when great masses of voters support obvious contradictions like raising the minimum wage and viciously anti-worker state legislatures, or decriminalizing drugs and politicians who think of prison construction as the only legitimate form of local government stimulus, it’s hard to believe anyone, at least in the short term, has a compelling or even plausible strategy for consistently winning elections. The mission to build power for the left—or, much more modestly, to help an improved Democratic Party consolidate power—will not come down to simply announcing support for the right policies, while decrying or downplaying the wrong ones. It will, unfortunately, be much longer and harder work.