You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Wrong Questions

Democrats and the Distraction of Woke Politics

Has the social justice left really derailed the party’s electoral fortunes?

confetti on floor

In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira made a prediction. In their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, they famously argued that demographic changes in the American electorate would, over time, naturally deliver consistent majorities to a Democratic Party that dominated growing voting blocs like urban dwellers, people of color, and the educated professional class. The key caveat to their 2002 prediction was that Democrats would also need to retain a little under half, give or take, of the working-class vote—notably the white working class.

This run of expected victories did not materialize, and their new work, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, is a book-length dive into why the previous predictions fell short. As Democrats have struggled mightily to retain the kind of voter who was the cornerstone of the base during the New Deal era, the party has lost considerable power at the state level, and its decades-long congressional majorities are now a distant memory. White working-class voters seemed open to putting their faith in Barack Obama in 2008—he won Indiana that year—but have since become increasingly hostile to a party that once took their support as a given. At the same time, the demographic changes that formed the premise of The Emerging Democratic Majority have come to pass but have been offset, Teixeira and Judis assert here, by defections of working-class people repelled by liberal social-issue politicking.

Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes
by Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis
Henry Holt and Co., 336 pp., $28.99

This dire state of affairs has arisen, the authors propose, because the Democratic Party has been hijacked by a cadre of activists who have foisted unpopular positions on candidates and jettisoned their electability. The authors’ previous book was in fact correct, until its core predictions were waylaid by The Wokes. Yes, Democrats lost working-class voters when they embraced neoliberal economics and free trade, policies that decimated many communities that were once working-class party strongholds. But Democrats also alienate the working class, Judis and Teixeira argue, by opposing “measures that might reduce illegal immigration,” opposing “any restrictions” on abortion rights, supporting “strict gun control,” “insistence on eliminating fossil fuels,” and using “the courts and regulations to enforce their moral and cultural agenda,” among other radical moves.

It’s a puzzling thesis, not least because—from the vantage of 2024—the Democratic Party does not appear to be in crisis, at least not by these measures. As the recent midterm and off-year elections reinforced, in reality it is the Republican Party that is energetically shooting itself in the electoral foot with its extremist views and embrace of culture wars politics that appeal to only a loud minority. “Where did all the Democrats go?” is a transparently strange question to ask when the Democratic Party’s performance in recent elections has been stronger, notably in 2022, than many prognosticators predicted or, arguably, than Democrats’ tepid governing performance would merit. And yet a not insignificant portion of the commentariat, including the authors, appears to believe the opposite. This may be the most telling aspect of the book: It shows how a certain species of political observer has invented a version of the Democratic Party that does not exist, an inverted world in which people with no power call all the shots and people with real power are helpless bystanders.

The question is less where have all the Democrats gone? than where have these two Democrats gone? How did they come to believe this?

The story starts promisingly enough, with an argument reminiscent of Judis’s recent work on populism: Neoliberal economic policy has been a disaster for working-class America, and the weakening of institutions like organized labor that once tied working-class people closely to the Democrats has left the party scrambling to find ways to appeal to voters, when its more liberal views on cultural, social, gender, and racial politics have always been at odds with the worldview of a stereotypical Union Man in a hard hat. This analysis does not really square with the fact that a core tenet of the New Democrat movement (which gave us Bill Clinton, among much else) was that Democratic failures of the 1970s and 1980s were explicitly the result of the party’s close ties to unions, and only by aggressively slashing ties with organized labor could the party return to prominence. But the makings of a compelling argument are here: Whether the working class departed the Democratic coalition of its own accord or at the behest of free-market-oriented neoliberals, the loss has been a painful one for the party’s electoral fortunes.

This auspicious premise, however, is quickly dropped in favor of a kind of culture war on the authors’ part. The main antagonist of the book is what the authors call the Democrats’ “shadow party,” the origin and content of which they describe as follows: “Controversial views on social issues had begun to surface during Obama’s second term—not so much in Washington, but on college campuses and social media and in the foundations, publications, and groups that were aligned with the Democratic Party.”

Instead of focusing on the choices made by people with actual power, we meet a cast of backbenchers, bit-player Beltway interest groups, and woke college kids who bear the responsibility, in this telling, for sending Bob Bricklayer, age 64, of Rust Bucket, Ohio, running toward the incipient fascism of the Donald Trump GOP. The chapter titles for the second half of the book tell you well in advance what you’re in for: “Race and Radicalism.” “Sexual Creationism.” “The War of Words.” If you are predisposed to believe that use of terms like “Latinx” or “communities of color” explains why the Democratic Party has fallen from its perch, this book could appeal to you (although you’ve already heard everything you’ll learn here, and repeatedly). If, instead, your understanding of politics focuses on the actual people and institutions who hold, wield, and contend for power, you’ll turn each page waiting for the real story to begin and ultimately end up disappointed. For example, when tweets supersede Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in the pecking order of things that drive the fortunes of the Democratic Party, the plot has been lost.

It’s a critique of power that would have you believe marginalized environmental activists and blue-haired nonbinary college sophomores run the Democratic Party, and the people actually in charge of the party barely rate a mention. Black Lives Matter appears 32 times in the text; “Bernie” 12 times. Chuck Schumer is mentioned only twice—to criticize him for saying climate change is a priority and for failing to properly consider an anti-immigration bill (such a reasonable one, we’re assured!) sponsored by the authoritarian-curious Tom Cotton. Nancy Pelosi’s main role here is to oppose climate activists and to warn Joe Biden to tone down his wokeness. Harry Reid never appears. The Sunrise Movement—the Sunrise Movement!—appears 10 times. “Defund the police,” 15 times.

Radical concerns, the authors argue, are responsible for a set of losses, from the recall of San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin to Eric Adams’s triumph over Maya Wiley in the Democratic primary for a New York City mayoral candidate to Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race. The authors offer little to establish that social justice issues were the main factors in these losses, and have even less to say about the campaigns themselves. The authors report, for instance, that “Youngkin was able to take advantage of the racial controversies over Thomas Jefferson High School and Loudoun County’s Equity Collaborative to tie his Democratic opponent to critical race theory,” but they do not note that pandemic-era school closures were a major issue in the race, and that Youngkin consistently did better in counties where schools took longer to reopen.

The Democrats’ disastrous, decades-long fumbling of the federal courts; the unwillingness or inability to match Republicans’ aggressive redistricting, which badly disadvantages Democrats who do just fine on a more level electoral playing field; or the endless rounds of “reaching across the aisle” by Democratic leaders that have accomplished nothing but to abet GOP obstructionism are insignificant storylines in this telling. Meanwhile, the authors trumpet the success of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who “strenuously opposed” “Democrats’ policies on sex and gender,” without acknowledging how poorly he has performed on a national level, amid a miserable run at the Republican nomination. Nor do they think it necessary to note that Florida Democrats effectively punted on opposing him in his reelection campaign, nominating ex-Republican Charlie Crist—precisely the kind of moderate the book’s thesis suggests should appeal to voters. It’s anyone’s guess why trying to appease working-class voters’ concerns that Democrats are too woke and liberal by literally nominating a Republican didn’t work.

Most puzzlingly, the authors punt on trying to explain how and why voters believe the “shadow party” represents the true Democratic Party instead of, more logically, the words, actions, and beliefs of the actual Democratic Party and its most powerful figures—Biden, Obama, the Clintons, congressional leaders, DNC chairs, and so on.

If this version of what the Democratic Party stands for sounds familiar, it’s because it is the preferred narrative of reactionary conservatives. Turn on Fox News, and this is the Democratic Party that exists in its universe, where Hillary Clinton is a radical Marxist, Obama was essentially Chairman Mao, and even Joe Biden is cackling madly as he mashes the accelerator and yanks the national steering wheel toward a giant hammer and sickle. This book’s assertions about what the Democratic Party stands for, what it represents, and what it attempts to do with power are ripped straight from your most embarrassing uncle’s Facebook posts. The Green New Deal is both an existential threat to our nation and the Democratic Party’s top priority. Redefining gender is a linchpin of the Democratic agenda, as are other forms of “sexual creationism.” Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s mainstream embrace of what was 30 years ago its extremist fringes apparently does not factor into the political calculus of voters chased away by Democratic liberalism. The extremism of liberal interest groups repels them, but Trump lackeys openly planning to do away with constitutional government doesn’t?

If we instead look at the Democratic Party that actually exists, the picture falls apart rather quickly. In reality, Democrats support the most basic, unradical, commonsense gun control measures—things that even Republican survey respondents overwhelmingly support, like criminal background checks. These measures are by any meaningful definition timid and insufficient to solve the nation’s gun violence problem. Yet in this book they become “Democrats’ support for strict gun control,” full stop. Five decades of tacking the Hyde Amendment onto spending bills and bending over backward to flatter and accommodate anti-abortion Democrats in Congress are here “opposition to any restrictions” on abortion rights—a sentence the authors may well have been working on while the entire leadership structure of the national Democratic Party was being airlifted into rural Texas to save anti-choice Representative Henry Cuellar. We’re also apparently ignoring the reality that the Democratic Party’s broadly, if incompletely, supportive views on abortion are arguably its strongest electoral asset right now.

Decades of Democrats, including Obama and Biden, aping right-wing “tough on immigration” policies in a vain effort to appease right-wing voters are here transmogrified into Democrats’ “opposition to measures that might reduce illegal immigration.” Which ones? How many of Trump’s immigration policies has Biden’s White House failed to adopt or even expand? To top it off, we are reminded of “Democrats’ insistence on eliminating fossil fuels.” Here in the real world, Biden seems motivated to overtake Obama in a race over which administration can approve more oil drilling. Finally, we’re told that voters are repelled by the Democrats’ “use of the courts to enforce their moral and cultural agenda,” which is literally the last several decades of conservative political strategy in the United States. If that were a deal-breaker for any voter, working-class or otherwise, Republican vote shares would be in the single digits.

The authors quickly allow that “Not all Democrats are in line with these actions or beliefs,” a statement that rather undersells the reality that almost every single Democrat in a real position of power—not slogan-chanting Oberlin sophomores, not powerless environmental activists the party pays lip service to when it wants their help or money—is not in line with said actions and beliefs. To hand-wave even this caveat away, though, the next sentence assures us that “overall, they came to characterize the party, as Robert Price would tell you.” Robert Price is a fiftysomething ex-autoworker we met on the first page, whose status as an ex-Democrat turned Trump supporter makes him an authority for the purposes of this book.

The basic premise of the book’s title is wrong. Democrats haven’t all gone anywhere; the party has done better than expected in three straight congressional elections, including making a one-termer of an incumbent Republican president and achieving the historical rarity of bucking the Midterm Loss phenomenon in 2022. The party has also rebounded in states such as Michigan and Minnesota where it has been moribund for some time.

This book is part of a thriving genre of “what’s wrong with the Democrats” books. If the market can bear several such volumes annually for decades, that strongly suggests a party experiencing a long-term identity crisis. Books of the genre generally fall into one of three categories. There are critics from the left who lambaste the Democrats’ relentless drift toward the center or even the right. There are mainstream Democrats who blame most of the party’s struggles on feckless voters who let it down and focus their critiques more on how extreme and unreasonable the Republicans have become. Finally, there are conservatives who write red meat screeds about a straw man of the Democratic Party that exists only in their own fervid prose.

Here, Judis and Teixeira have written something that doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. While that could be a strength—a new, fresh paradigm for understanding Democratic politics—it is instead a puzzling “view from nowhere.” Dual authorship is a clear problem here, especially for a pair of authors on very different trajectories since their influential 2002 book. Judis has since written, generally cogently, about populism and the Democratic Party. Teixeira, conversely, has tacked so conservative that he is now employed by the American Enterprise Institute on what might best be described as the full-time Whining About Wokeness beat. In 2002, when perhaps the authors were more in ideological sync, their shared work was coherent and—to many readers—persuasive. Here the voice is muddled, half Obama-era liberal blogger and half enraged reactionary. These disparate voices mix approximately as well as gummy bears and foie gras. The resulting text is less an analysis of the Democratic Party as it is or was, and more a book-length version of the thrice-weekly opinion pieces we see in established media outlets positing that the biggest crisis facing the country at present is “campus free speech” or some similarly moral-panicky canard.

What could have been an exercise in evaluating a previous, influential prediction with the benefit of hindsight—a truly interesting premise—instead chooses a villain and proceeds to lash out at it in language you’ve already read many times, and at interminable length. It probably felt wonderfully cathartic to write, but therein lies a problem with so much nonfiction writing on politics these days: The authors benefit far more from writing it than any reader could from reading it.