The Democratic Party finds itself in a highly precarious electoral position. Although the party performed historically well in 2022, its central weaknesses – those which threaten its ability to govern both nationally and especially at the state level – were still very much in evidence. Even in “good” election cycles, Democrats struggle to translate their typically impressive aggregate vote totals across the country and within states into seats in government. Core to the party’s struggles are its weaknesses with rural and working-class voters. If left unaddressed, the party will not only become irrelevant throughout most states in the country, but it will also continue to face difficulty – and maybe increasing difficulty – in winning the presidency and congressional majorities.
To effectively address these problems, like-minded activists, donors, and others in the broader Democratic ecosystem must come together to form and institutionalize a proper faction within the party that has a platform and brand that differs from that of the big city- and college campus-dominated national party establishment. This new faction needs to be capable of recruiting, financing, and otherwise supporting candidates to run on a platform and brand more appealing to the rural and working-class voters that the party has been hemorrhaging in recent decades. While this new faction will emphasize different issues than the national party, it need not alienate most voters within the current Democratic base. From a policy standpoint, we advocate strategic moderation on social issues paired with progressive economic populism and a strategic championing, on a district-by-district basis, of local issues that are not amenable to politicization in the national discourse.
Overconcentrated and overeducated: the Democratic Party’s chief problem
In American politics, geography matters. This reality is a problem for Democrats because it means that while their candidates get a lot of votes, they don’t have much to show for it. Indeed, despite often winning a majority of the vote nationwide, Democrats have found it increasingly difficult to gain governing majorities. Because their voters are concentrated in communities that, geographically speaking, make up a minority of communities throughout the country, those votes don’t translate into an equivalent amount of governing authority.
One cannot understate the importance of this point: Political geography—and how parties’ coalitions are distributed across space—plays an outsize role in American politics. No other advanced democracy privileges geographic considerations as much as ours; they are central to our system of representation and elections. Two of our defining representational institutions – federalism and single-member districts – were designed under the assumption that citizens’ interests vary across space and are fundamentally linked to the distinctiveness of particular places. Consider federalism. If ours was a unitary rather than a federal country, and elections were conducted between parties (rather than between individual candidates) at the national level, Democrats would be well-positioned to win and maintain majorities within the national legislature most of the time. But in our federal system, where Democratic voters are overly concentrated in a minority of states and within a small number of locales within those states, political boundaries and the proportion of the population on either side of those boundaries matter a lot. This dynamic is at the core of the Democrats’ electoral disadvantage.
Two groups are central to the party’s geography problem: rural voters and, more broadly, working-class voters. The party has performed increasingly worse among these two constituencies dating back many cycles now, with trends spiking dramatically for the worse since former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
In sum, the overconcentration of Democratic voters makes it difficult for the party to translate its routine voter majorities into governing majorities at both the state and national levels. This would not be the case if the party were to 1) trade a fraction of its support among urban voters for support among rural and exurban voters, and 2) trade a share of its college educated white-collar constituency for an equivalent share of working-class voters who have been gravitating toward the GOP. Crucially, however, the party doesn’t necessarily need to sacrifice one part of its coalition in a desperate gambit to regain a cohort that used to comprise its base but has since drifted away. Indeed, one great advantage of creating an intraparty faction is that it doesn’t require zero-sum tradeoffs. Creating and institutionalizing a new faction within the party could expand, both compositionally and geographically, the Democratic base without significantly alienating existing supporters.