While this blog normally tries to avoid national politics, it is something I spent a fair amount of time thinking about, and as we draw closer to November, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. I confess I check 538 polling averages daily now. But, rather than wallow in poll numbers, I figured I might as well try to offer somewhat original commentary now and then. Here is my first take in that vein.
This past weekend, I stumbled upon an article in Jacobin on the successes and failures of Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency that took me back to my undergraduate days of writing theses about coalition politics. True to its name, Jacobin rather gleefully lobs bombs at people who do not share its ideology, as author Matt Karp calls wealthier newcomers to the Democratic Party “Halliburton Democrats,” among other such indecorous ordnance. His thesis, in brief, is that these so-called Halliburton Democrats joined the party in droves from 2016 to 2020 as they fled the Republican Party, and therefore played a decisive role in Sanders’ defeat in this spring’s primary. Joe Biden won, Karp claims, because he enjoyed the support of well-off people, many of them in areas that were right-leaning until very recently.
The Democratic Divide, Applied
I could raise any number of quibbles with the analysis, but I was curious to see how well it applied to my hometown of Duluth, especially since Karp twice mentions my city as an exemplar of Bernie Sanders’ wave of the future. Sanders did indeed win Duluth in the 2020 Minnesota primary election, though it was hardly an overwhelming margin; he edged out Biden by 289 votes, or 1.7 percent. So, here is a map that shows who won each precinct in the city (plus some surrounding areas). I included only the four major candidates who were still in the race at this point in the analysis, throwing out votes for drop-outs like Amy Klobuchar and hangers-on like Tulsi Gabbard.
The answer, it seems, is pretty obvious. Income is a straightforward, clear predictor of who won each precinct. Biden largely cruised up in the relatively well-off areas on the east side and over the hill, while Sanders dominated the Hillsides, Downtown, and Lincoln Park. Few of those areas were closely contested, and those precincts that were straddle neighborhood lines; see, for example, precincts 9 and 13, which encompass parts of both high-income Congdon and low-income Endion. The more working-class west side, which mostly falls between the central and eastern and hilltop parts of the city on the income scale, was, on the other hand, pretty closely contested. The tables below show the results by different areas of the city, and I did it twice to show how flipping two pro-Sanders precincts on the border between the east and the center of the city affected things.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth campus is also an obvious outlier. Sanders won there by over 400 votes; throw out that precinct, and it’s more than enough to swing the overall result in the city. Presumably the somewhat close vote totals in Kenwood and Hunters Park, which are otherwise relatively affluent Biden territories, are also attributable to college student voters. Duluth’s status as a college town, at the end of the day, is probably the main reason why it got a positive mention in a leftist magazine. Duluth’s relative lack of Black voters may also tip it more toward the Sanders column than might otherwise be obvious, though this could be offset by Sanders’ strong margins among Hispanics, who are also few and far between in the Zenith City.
Duluth Gets Bluer
While I’m amused by the notion of Lakeside bungalow-dwellers as “Halliburton Democrats,” it does seem Karp is on to something. (More so than Rolling Stone was, anyway.) Duluth has been a Democratic stronghold since the demise of the Hoover administration, but one doesn’t have to go too far back in history to find a much more heterodox local political scene. As several people have noted to me, it wasn’t that long ago that east side council districts would elect relative conservatives like Todd Fedora to the city council. Now, that prospect seems remote. Perhaps equally as significant a shift is the leftward drift in places like Duluth Heights and Piedmont. While these quasi-suburban areas are still the most conservative parts of Duluth, a city council district that was electing straight-up conservatives like Garry Krause a decade ago now has a labor-endorsed Native American woman, Renee Van Nett, as its council representative. The data is a bit scattershot—sadly, Minnesota used a caucus system until this most recent election cycle, making apples-to-apples primary comparisons impossible—but it seems consistent.
Relatively well-off urbanites are more and more firmly in the column in the Democratic Party, and while Bernie Sanders and his ilk may not be their first choice, they will generally follow the party lead. There’s little reason to suspect there will be much of any defection from a dyed-in-the-wool progressive like Jen McEwen when she goes up against Republican Donna Bergstrom in the Senate District 7 race this fall. Her primary election destruction of incumbent Erik Simonson, a man in the mold of many previous Duluth DFL elected officials, makes that abundantly clear.
That said, the national picture is obviously not all roses for the Democrats, and wins among higher-income people have been somewhat offset elsewhere. The sorts of people the Democratic Party has lost—rural white people—are almost by definition a small demographic in Duluth, which is why Duluth’s politics now seem more firmly left of center than they did twenty or thirty years ago, when Gary Doty (recently visible on a stage with Mike Pence) was winning mayoral elections. I included Duluth’s relatively well-off exurban surroundings in the map as well to show that this trend extends beyond the core city, too. Lands further afield, such as the Iron Range, are a rather different story.
A National Trend
In some ways this is hardly a radical change. It’s been true for decades now that central cities are the furthest left, while rural areas (with some, increasingly rare) exceptions were the furthest right. The suburbs used to be the middle ground, but the line of contestation has now pushed further out into the metropolitan periphery; these Democratic suburban gains have been offset somewhat by rural losses. This shift among well-off urbanites reflects their comfort with the party that now favors merit-driven expertise and wonky policy solutions, plus the surge of a college-educated class seeking to spread its more cosmopolitan cultural values.
Nor has their arrival dramatically changed the ideological composition of the party. Despite what Karp says, Biden is no less progressive than every other recent Democratic nominee, and in some ways is more so. This comes as little comfort to the leftward wing of the party, which of course wants more immediate change and someone who isn’t tied into the party’s establishment over the past 50 years, but it wouldn’t be right to suggest Biden primary voters have somehow stolen the party away from its roots. The loss of rural, somewhat more populist centrists has been offset by suburban, more technocratic centrists. Or, perhaps more than offset: given the Democratic Party’s performance nationally in the 70s and 80s and the simple reality of demographic trends, this seems like a trade-off with more pluses than minuses if one’s only goal is to win more elections.
I’m doing my best not to make any normative assumptions here and just describe things as they are. It’s not nearly as clean as this narrative would suggest, as 2016 showed; reactions can be swift and powerful, and it’s not hard to call out hubris or naivete in the so-called coalition of the ascendant. Thinking only in terms of voting blocs can be narrow-minded, and there are real consequences to leaving behind any sort of rhetoric appealing to a group that had previously been part of the coalition. (In Minnesota, just ask the Iron Range.) For now, we’ll settle for the conclusion that there are indeed at least two pretty distinct types of Democrat, one which does well in higher-income areas and one that does well in lower-income areas. The interplay between these camps will continue to define the Democratic Party even as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fade away.
The Realities of Coalition Politics
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has observed that, in a European country, she and Joe Biden would be in different parties. She’s probably right, and while they too have their drawbacks, I would generally endorse proportional and parliamentary systems as more effective than the lumbering hulk the U.S. uses. But that’s not the system we have. We have a two-party, winner-take-all system that features some additional, bizarre, anti-democratic bugs like the Electoral College that privilege the votes of people in a handful of vital demographics in swing states. This system creates odd zombie coalitions in our two zombie parties. For a long time, segregationist southerners aligned with working-class northerners and a few intellectual backers to create a Democratic majority; later, the religious right fused with chamber of commerce-minded fiscal conservatives to create an era of Republican dominance. So long as it maintains its current institutional form, American politics will create some very strange bedfellows. Hence we have the coalition of comfortable suburbanites with an expansive version of their American Dream and a generally diverse and younger bloc that considers American capitalism fundamentally alienating, and it doesn’t even seem that unnatural, as they are united in negative partisanship against Donald Trump.
And so, though faced with serious institutional roadblocks such as the Electoral College and over-concentration in urban congressional districts, the Democrats seem to have a passably stable majority. No matter what happens in the Electoral College, Biden will almost certainly be the seventh Democratic candidate in the past eight presidential elections to win the popular vote, and the generic congressional ballot seems similarly aligned. The new Democratic fusion won’t be a permanent or tension-free alignment, but these groups have enough in common right now that they vote together regularly. Their opposition has, at least temporarily, become a vehicle for a single person’s whims, the traditional fiscal conservatism thrown out the door and the morals of the religious right mortgaged in a bargain for a few judges.
The power of a single personality can certainly win an election or two and define a brief era in politics. But winning with any consistency in a democracy requires large, often unwieldy coalitions. Even if the U.S. had a parliamentary system and Ocasio-Cortez and Biden were in different parties, they would still probably end up in a coalition government together, unless Biden’s party were to instead form a coalition government with a center-right party, which I doubt AOC and friends would find an optimal outcome. Alternatively, we have seen a few European attempts at far right and far left coalition governments that leave out the supposedly discredited and decadent center, but that’s nearly impossible to imagine in the United States given the racial dynamics at play.
Karp is confident that, given Sanders’ strong support among younger voters, it’s only a matter of time before his camp takes over the Democratic Party. I don’t doubt that this group has reason to feel optimistic about its future in the party, and another four years of Donald Trump could well be the accelerant that prompts a revolution sooner rather than later. (An old JFK line, written of Third World nations, comes to mind in an increasingly stratified society: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) But coalitions can be fickle things, and groups can realign in strange ways: just ask any current Republican who, eight years ago, thought his or her party was a bastion of fiscal conservatism or free trade or an interventionist foreign policy. The U.S. election system is also designed to revert to a mean, with no permanent majority lasting forever. But for the time being, Biden Democrats and Sanders Democrats are wedded to one another, and have to find ways to coexist if they would like to win anything.
One thought on “Democratic Coalition Politics”
Great analysis. Thanks for writing this.