Did the Woke Help Trump?

Democrats dreamed of a crushing victory. But something kept this close.

Early this century, Democrats surveyed a changing America—growing more socially liberal, more urban, more diverse—and they pictured a victorious future: The country, it seemed, was headed their way. But that future is nearly two decades in the past now, and the Democrats have not risen into the all-conquering force of American politics.

Despite Covid, despite the economy, despite rage in the streets, American voters failed to deliver the overwhelming repudiation of Trump’s Republican Party that some pundits had predicted in this latest election. What ever happened to the expected Democratic dominance?

In an ongoing Persuasion feature, “Ask an Expert,” we seek insight into something we’ve been wondering. In this case, we phoned the political scientist Ruy Teixeira, whose influential 2002 book with John B. Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority, is associated with the idea that Democrats would prevail because of demographic change. But that presumption is not one Teixeira himself makes. On the contrary, he has argued that the Democrats have taken their built-in advantage for granted.

Persuasion: Commentators have said the Democratic Party’s most progressive wing put off some voters, particularly Latinos in Florida who had known socialist dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. But what effect did progressive activists actually have? After all, the Democrats did select a centrist candidate in Joe Biden.

Teixeira: I don’t think there’s any doubt that wokeness, and the issues around that, helped brand the Democratic Party. The Democrats spent three months with a discourse dominated by the protests around George Floyd, racial justice and so on, culminating in the defund-and-abolish-the-police movement, which was basically of very little interest to the median voter. To the extent that the Democrats are identified with that rhetoric—from language-policing to terming the U.S. a White-supremacist society—the less able the party is to appeal to working-class voters of all races and moderate voters in general. It’s great for the Democrats and, I think, for the country that Trump is probably going to be a one-term president. But I think it’s fair to say the Democrats fell short of their goals.

Persuasion: Is it possible that racist dog-whistles from the president might’ve appealed to some minority groups? And his anti-immigrant sentiments too?

Teixeira: In terms of what the data are telling us, it’s not really clear to me that the Black vote subsided. It’s much clearer when you look at the Latino vote that it fell off nationally, most catastrophically in Miami-Dade and Florida, but also in other places around the country. The more bankable empirical finding from this election is that—despite all the characterization of Trump as a racist (that, to some extent, he probably is)— this did not appear to be enough to move Latinos in any significant degree over to the Democrats. In fact, they lost ground. Why would that be? Most Latinos are working class, and their issues are primarily around material things about their community, about healthcare, about the economy, about their jobs, about the recession, about Covid and its effect on their lives. It’s less that the more flamboyant Trump rhetoric around immigrants and race is hugely appealing to these voters, but rather they can discount it if they feel that Trump is still a guy who can shake things up, make things work. And they don’t really get what the Democrats are going to do for them. That was the money left on the table for the Democrats. Looking at the median Latino working-class voter, they didn’t hit the sweet spot, and they paid the price.

Persuasion: What did we learn about White voters from the results we have so far?

Teixeira: The data aren’t the greatest at this point for making judgments about any of these things. Exit polls are a highly vexed instrument in general, and they’ll get re-weighted eventually. So making inferences is difficult. But, if you look across these data sources, what they’re telling us is that the big shift for the Democrats in this election was certainly among White voters. The bigger movement was a reduction of the deficit among White non-college voters, both overall and in some of these key Rust Belt states that look like they are going to put Biden over the top. The assumption was that there would be this huge outpouring of White college-educated for the Democrats because they just detested Trump so much and his rhetoric and so on. For many voters, that was true. But it’s not clear to me that it produced the huge margins among these voters that people thought they would. One could argue that Biden’s strategy of concentrating on the Rust Belt, and trying to get back White non-college voters, worked to some extent.

Persuasion: Younger people and women remain more liberal. Are age and gender where the Democrats need to look for future electoral coalitions? If so, how to balance a more progressive base with more culturally conservative White working-class voters?

Teixeira: It’s not clear to me that the way to frame it is that younger people are woke. It’s more that they’re less bothered by it. What’s going to keep these voters with the Democrats is that the Democrats are able to deliver on their concerns in terms of the lives they want to lead and their prospects for upward mobility. Millennials have had a difficult time in the labor market, and the latest economic problems don’t make their position any better. In terms of their attitudes toward diversity and in some of these social issues, they are fairly liberal. But if you delve down into the views of a median member of the millennial generation, it’s not clear that they love The 1619 Project and believe America is a White-supremacist society, and that everybody who disagrees with that is a racist. There’s a sort of boutique social liberalism that is much more common in elite circles than is characteristic of that generation. The Democrats are, and will continue to be, the party that’s more accepting of diversity, that’s more socially liberal, that’s opposed to racism and persecution of immigrants and so on. I don’t think these voters are giving the Democrats the nod because the party is maximally woke. It’s because the party is more or less on the right side of these issues in a broad sense, and I think the Democrats can continue to be so, and still reach some of these working-class voters. We should remember that the views of voters of all races in the United States and of all classes have become way more liberal over time. There’s certainly a hardcore who are very resistant to this, but if you look at the views of the median working-class White voter, a Latino voter, they’re into tolerance, they’re into equality, they’re against discrimination. But what they don’t want is some of this more outré stuff that was becoming part of the discourse this election year. They don’t want to defund the police—but they’re against police brutality. There’s a simple formulation that, I think, tells you a lot.

Persuasion: According to the GOP strategist Mike Murphy, “The Republican Party is going up against demography — it’s like a python slowly squeezing it to death…There are not enough White people to survive.” What do you make of that vision?

Teixeira: It’s almost like a demographics-is-destiny argument, which I’ve been trying to push back against. You can simultaneously hold two thoughts in your head: one is that demographic change by and large favors the Democrats; the other is that demographic change by itself is not enough to form an effective and powerful governing coalition, and you still need significant support from declining constituencies. Why is this so complicated?

Persuasion: So what must the Democrats do?

Teixeira: They need to put a lid on the culture-war stuff, and emphasize issues that are of broad concern to working- and middle-class people of all races. That’s the Democrats’ brand historically: that they’re for the common good and therefore the use of government to enhance that common good. They believe government has a huge role to play in making people’s lives better on issues like healthcare, education, building the country back up, jobs, incomes and so on. And, yes, we are a party that’s opposed to racism. We are a party that’s opposed to discrimination. We are a party that’s relatively friendly to immigrants. But that’s all in the context of bringing us all together to make the country a better place. To some extent, that was Biden’s message. But I just think it got muddled by things that didn’t allow it to come through as loud and clear as it should to some voters. The idea isn’t complicated. The execution is tricky.

[Interview condensed and edited for clarity.]