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What Democratic candidates’ priorities say about the party’s direction

As the candidates prioritize various groups, they’re making ideological arguments.

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The 2020 Democratic presidential race isn’t quite at full tilt — the candidates really aren’t in your face just yet, and you need to make an effort to see their pitches. But they are actually making those pitches, and as they do so, they’re making arguments about which direction the Democratic Party should be heading. The language may be buried within discussions about interest groups, but deciding which groups to prioritize is a strongly ideological one.

This view differs somewhat from that recently offered by David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann. They have argued, both in their book and in the New York Times, that one of the most important differences between the two major parties is that the Republican coalition is an ideological one while the Democratic one is group-oriented. Democrats argue about the positioning and power of various interest groups within their ranks, while Republicans argue about how faithful to be to the principles of conservatism. This framework helps explain why a great deal of recent polarization has been driven by Republicans moving rightward.

It was with this framework in mind that I went to hear nearly a dozen potential Democratic presidential candidates speak recently at the Ideas Conference of the Center for American Progress. It’s of course still early in the cycle, so candidates are still testing themes and applause lines. But yes, many of the candidates explicitly referred to groups in their speeches.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio talked about the need to listen to workers in places like, well, Ohio. Donald Trump won in places outside of urban areas that, according to Brown, he just had no place winning. Brown explained that what Democrats need to do to win back those voters is to talk about “the dignity of work.” He said even using terms like “the Rust Belt” to describe this region is offensive to this dignity: “It diminishes what we are, and it diminishes what we do.”

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, meanwhile, talked about the importance of championing the needs of racial minorities, with specific references to African Americans. He drew an interesting contrast between the Michael Brown who was recently admitted to 20 universities and the Michael Brown whose killing at the hands of police sparked weeks of protest in Ferguson, Missouri.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York focused on a strongly feminist message, name-checking female political activists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, and Sojourner Truth. She talked about the importance of electing women to office, saying, “Women in positions of power changes everything.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker mixed up the formula a bit to interesting effect. As Matt Yglesias notes, Booker started by talking about racial progress but then pivoted to an economic message, arguing that an impoverished white community in Appalachia has many of the same needs and concerns as an impoverished African-American community in Newark.

In short, many candidates talked about the need to reach out to specific groups and champion certain messages in the process. But while it is not specifically stated, reaching out to these groups usually carries an ideological component. If you’re trying to appeal to moderate whites in rural areas, you’re basically arguing for moving the Democratic Party to the right, or at least to highlight certain issues of interest to more conservative voters. Meanwhile, appealing to African Americans by championing social justice or to women by advocating gender equality is to move the party to the left.

The argument that the party should avoid certain “divisive” issues to focus on matters of concern to the “working class” is a coded way of saying the party should move rightward.

Recent research by Sean McElwee, Jesse Rhodes, Brian Schaffner, and Bernard Fraga sheds some light on this topic. They note that the number of Obama’s 2012 voters who switched to the Republican side in 2016 is similar to the number who stayed home in 2016. The Obama-to-Trump voters are largely moderate whites, while the Obama-to-nonvoters are largely liberal people of color. These groups have different income distributions, demographic components, and policy perspectives. Deciding which group to prioritize has a strongly ideological component, and which group is seen as returning the party to power will have an effect on which policies the party then pursues.

The Democratic Party has an important decision to make over the next two years in terms of picking a champion to challenge Trump, and it has plenty of options right now. But the decision it’s making is an ideological one, and that will have consequences — both in terms of the election and in terms of policy choices should they win — one way or the other.

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