“Wokeness” Is Not the Democrats’ Problem

Written by
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Dec. 7, 2021

Some in the Party chastise the left for driving away moderate voters, but they fail to consider why their own base isn’t turning out in larger numbers.

A year after Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the Presidential election, and nearly ten months after a Trump-led mob laid siege to the nation’s Capitol, a new round of elections yielded mixed results for the Democratic Party, which lost the Virginia governor’s race and came close to losing New Jersey’s. An unrepentant and insurgent Republican Party has motivated its base with the so-called culture war over public-school curriculum, opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, and relentless attacks on the entirety of Biden’s political program. Meanwhile, months after Democrats passed the most expensive domestic spending bill since the War on Poverty, they remain mired in internal conflict over the purpose and possibility of their congressional majority. Political observers have pointed to Republicans’ spirited turnout on November 2nd as evidence that their “culture war” tactics are working. But that doesn’t explain the enthusiasm gap that threatens the political fortunes of the Democratic Party. Unfulfilled expectations, not the often invoked “wokeness,” are what clouds Democrats’ horizons.

The gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey offer only a snapshot of contemporary politics, but both contests have been portrayed as referenda on the Biden Administration. And in both states Biden and his surrogates, including former President Barack Obama, rallied voters in person, indicating the importance of the elections. Afterward, what set off alarm bells among Democrats was Republicans’ enormous voter participation. In Virginia, the former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe captured almost two hundred thousand more votes than the winning ticket in 2017. And yet he still lost to the former corporate executive Glenn Youngkin, who captured more than four hundred thousand more votes than the 2017 Republican challenger. Republican voters overperformed in every Republican county, indicating their excitement and motivation. Not only did Youngkin win, but his big turnout helped Republicans win down the entire ballot, allowing the G.O.P. to wrest control of the Virginia statehouse from the Democrats.

Although Phil Murphy became the first Democratic governor to win reëlection in New Jersey since 1977, historically high turnout among Republicans across the state made the race much closer than anyone imagined. His Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, a former state representative and a featured speaker at a November, 2020, Stop the Steal rally, trailed by double digits throughout most of the campaign, only to lose by three points. Ciattarelli, who did not concede until more than a week after the race was called, gained almost three hundred and seventy thousand more votes than the Republican who lost to Murphy in the 2017 governor’s race. Even more significant was the dramatic loss of the powerful Democratic president of the New Jersey state senate, Steve Sweeney, to a Republican truck driver, Edward Durr, who had no backing from the state G.O.P. and spent just over twenty-three hundred dollars on his campaign.

What is driving this surge of Republicans to the polls? The Party has found new political traction on invented issues like “critical race theory” in public-school curricula, while still being fuelled by the notion that Trump was robbed of the election last fall. In Virginia, Youngkin deployed an ad featuring a white woman who led a campaign against teaching Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in Virginia public schools. Youngkin vowed to ban critical race theory in his state’s public schools “on Day One.” But there are also real issues on which the G.O.P. offers positions distinct from those of the Democrats, including the economy, immigration, crime, and federal vaccine mandates. In some areas, Republicans tend to want heightened government action, supporting the police and a tightening of the U.S. border, but they are simultaneously expressing suspicion of the state, opposing Biden’s spending proposals and bolstering claims of government overreach on vaccine mandates. These differing positions, including a fierce opposition to a perceived effort to “defund the police,” allow Republican officials to portray themselves as battling on behalf of an aggrieved voting constituency. Republicans feel as if they are in a struggle for the direction of the country, and they have been able to clearly identify the issues around which they are fighting.

The new momentum for Republican candidates provoked anxiety and finger-pointing among Democrats. Republican gains in presumed Democratic Party strongholds have unleashed dire predictions about the 2022 midterms and assessments that the Democratic Party has been captured by the left, alienating voters with big spending and a politically correct agenda. In some ways, this is a repeat of the intra-party rancor that ensued as the Party assessed its loss of thirteen House seats in the 2020 election. “There has to be a reckoning within our ranks about this because a lot of Justice Democrats”—a progressive group—“don’t give a damn about the Democratic Party,” one unnamed critic told the Washington Post last year. “They’re all about purity and orthodoxy, and it is damaging our opportunities.” This time around, moderates have pointed to the size of Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a culprit in the electoral losses. In dispensing electoral advice to the Democrats, the New York Times editorial board looked to last year’s election and concluded, “Mr. Biden did not win the Democratic primary because he promised a progressive revolution. There were plenty of other candidates doing that. He captured the nomination—and the presidency—because he promised an exhausted nation a return to sanity, decency and competence.” Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia, said, “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

The script of the left mucking up the Party’s chances with “wokeness” also still holds strong. The Democratic strategist James Carville left little doubt where blame lay for the Election Night losses. “Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey,” he said. “Look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools. People see that, and it really has a suppressive effect all across the country.” Carville was pointing, among other things, to the Buffalo mayor’s race, in which India Walton, an activist and democratic socialist, defeated Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary, only to lose the general election to Brown, who launched a write-in campaign. Recently, Walton told a national online audience of progressive organizers that her opponent and his wing of the party “actively colluded with the G.O.P.” After his win, Brown told the Washington Post that “mainstream Democrats need to stand up and fight back” against the left, because “it’s making it more difficult to get things done at the national level and it’s not good for the country.”

These critiques share an assessment that the Party is dominated by its left wing and pursuing a political agenda at odds with the wishes of the broader American public. A review of the events of 2020 reveals a different state of affairs. For most of his long career as a Democrat, Biden was a small-government deficit hawk, but the onset of the pandemic and the eruption of powerful protests pushed him and his party to embrace an agenda of political change. The pandemic had exposed two realities: that the government, on every level, was ill prepared to handle a national disaster, and that the threadbare safety net exposed poor workers of color to the worst of a public-health crisis. In the middle of protests, the Democratic Party pledged “a new social and economic contract,” including an increase in the minimum wage, Section 8 housing vouchers for every eligible family, and “affordable” child care.

Nearly two months after he was inaugurated as President, Biden signed into law the nearly two-trillion-dollar American Rescue Plan Act, one of the largest domestic spending bills in American history. The gigantic bill included expanded unemployment benefits, rental assistance, direct stimulus payments, billions for public schools and beyond. Democrats also led successful efforts to expand the child tax credit and the earned-income-tax-credit programs to allow for more benefits and to broaden eligibility. The Biden Administration oversaw a twenty-five-per-cent increase in food-stamp benefits—the largest in the history of the program. In the face of mounting food insecurity, Biden’s U.S.D.A. also extended free school lunch programs into next year. By early April, just weeks after the bill was signed into law, Biden enjoyed the highest combined approval ratings of his Presidency, at fifty-five per cent.

The infrastructure bill that has been the source of angst within the Democratic Party pitted Biden against centrists within the Party looking to scale back spending and rein in the creation of new programs. The bill was finally signed into law by Biden, but vastly diminished in size and scope after stonewalling by Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, with a fraction of the money needed to fully address the infrastructure crises that abound in the country. For example, fifteen billion dollars is dedicated to removing lead pipes in water systems, but experts have estimated that sixty billion is necessary to do the job. A hundred billion dollars to fix the deplorable condition of American public schools was dropped entirely from the final bill.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to haggle over Biden’s social-spending bill—even after some of its most popular provisions, like free community college and, perhaps most important, twelve weeks of paid family leave, have been jettisoned. Moderates like Manchin not only oppose spending but reject the role of government in provisioning social welfare. Manchin said, of his opposition to the original bill, “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving towards an entitlement mentality.”

The Democratic Party has not been captured by the left and forced into espousing an agenda of political correctness. It does, however, face the problem of having made big promises to its core constituencies—including African Americans—that it has been unable to fulfill. Moreover, the Party is raising doubts about whether it’s capable of delivering the kinds of economic and political reforms that can radically improve voters’ quality of life. Last January, when Biden took office, his approval rating among Black voters stood at eighty-one per cent. That was the high point; by early October, it had dropped to forty-three per cent. Even as census reports indicate that the proportion of eligible nonwhite voters in Virginia has grown, according to exit polls, their participation has shrunk since 2017. Participation among eligible voters under thirty in Virginia this year, compared with last year’s Presidential election, fell by more than half, from fifty-six per cent to twenty-five per cent. In the week before the election, a Monmouth University poll showed forty-nine per cent of Republican voters saying that they were more enthusiastic than usual to vote in the election, compared with only twenty-six per cent of Democrats. Obama understood this as a possibility when he campaigned in the state. In a speech at Virginia Commonwealth University, he said, “When you’ve got someone in your corner who has shown that they will work for you, who has a track record of accomplishments, then you have to go out there and work for them. Not because everything suddenly is going to be perfect but because it’s going to be better.” In New Jersey, voting in urban districts was down dramatically. The day after the election, Patricia Campos-Medina, the head of the Worker Institute at Cornell, described a disconnect between those neighborhoods and the Democratic Party: “Rather than create excitement within the more progressive part of the electorate — its young, Black, and brown and immigrant voters — it’s easier to focus on white, middle-class voters who always vote.”

In Buffalo, Walton more than doubled the number of voters supporting her from the primary to the general election, even defeating Brown in his home district, where he once served as a member of the city council. But, over all, the turnout in the districts that voted for Walton was significantly lower than the turnout in those that voted for Brown. His totals more than tripled from the primary. This dynamic shows that the Democrats are not just suffering from a failure to get their message out. Walton, who gained traction with a platform of reforming police, creating affordable housing, and addressing poverty in Buffalo, offered a clear alternative to the incumbent and was not carrying the baggage that can come with being an elected official. Yet those voters who would stand to gain the most from a democratic-socialist agenda often don’t vote for the candidate. There are several reasons for this, and among them is that when working-class people have been neglected by powerful and well-connected Democratic administrations, like that of Byron Brown, it may be hard for them to believe that a political outsider will have the clout to change the status quo. For decades, Democrats have told these voters that help is on the way, and constant disappointment may eventually give way to a belief that things can’t change.

The problem facing the Democrats is that repeated promises are simply not enough. After decades of shrinking the social safety net and championing the market as the most efficient way to facilitate public policy—outsourcing the creation of affordable housing to private developers; using publicly financed, privately run charter schools—the Party could not mobilize voters with a single season of social spending. That vastly underestimates the crisis that continues to dominate the lives of ordinary people in the U.S. Even after historic levels of public spending, more than fifty-five per cent of Black and Latinx households have reported facing serious financial problems over the past few months, as have nearly a third of white households. Thirty-one per cent of Black households reported losing all of their savings during the pandemic; the same was true of more than a quarter of Latinx and Native American households.

Making matters even more dire, many of the emergency measures undertaken by the Democrats were temporary and began to expire just as the fall races were heating up. On September 6th, supplemental unemployment insurance came to an end, leaving roughly seven and a half million people with diminished incomes. September also saw the end of public subsidies to cover health-insurance payments for people who had lost their jobs for pandemic-related reasons. Rents across the U.S. are up more than sixteen per cent this year. Just months after the Supreme Court interceded to end the nationwide ban on evictions, the New York Fed reported an expected increase of more than ten per cent in the cost of rent for 2022. The federal government has dispensed billions of dollars in rental assistance, but state and local governments have failed to deliver the money to residents in a timely manner. And soon, unless the Biden Administration acts, student-loan payments will resume, adding to the burden of millions of Americans’ debt.

It is worth remembering, too, that for millions of ordinary people who were outraged by the callous murder of George Floyd, voting for Biden was about securing police reform. But efforts to reform police on a national level quickly dissipated. Instead, as murder rates jumped across the country, both Democrats and Republicans denounced the slogan “defund the police” while returning to conventional calls for law and order. Not only did the protest movement fail to achieve its central objective—ending racist police violence—but the powerful backlash to it has smothered any sense of momentum. Instead, activists and political neophytes drawn into the centripetal force of Black Lives Matter in 2020 have been chastised, denigrated, and dismissed as naïve and out of touch.

It may be particularly demoralizing that some of the most outspoken critics of the left are Democrats themselves, reinforcing the cynicism among progressives that the Party is not a real vehicle for social change. For years, Obama has advised young Black voters that they don’t have time to be tired, telling them and others, “Don’t boo, vote.” At the same time, he and other Democrats chastise them for being “woke” ideologues: for demanding an end to systemic racism, police brutality, and rampant inequality in this country. For years, a large portion of the Democratic base has been waiting for substantive help from the Democrats, and it has not arrived. Indeed, the perpetual delay is part of why rebellions and uprisings have roiled the U.S. since the Obama Administration. While the Republican Party prepares to remake the country to its liking, the Democratic Party warns its members to slow down and be sure not to offend. It’s no surprise that one party is enjoying record turnouts and the other is wondering what just happened.