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Mr. Caldwell is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.”
According to the Gallup organization, 47 percent of Americans now identify with the Republican Party and 42 percent with the Democrats. That sounds ho-hum: one party doing a tad better than the other. But the Gallup numbers may portend a political earthquake.
Republicans seldom lead on measures of party identification, even when they are doing spectacularly well in other respects. Since Gallup began tallying party identification in 1991, Democrats have averaged a four-point lead. Republicans did lead in the first year the poll was taken — the year of the first Iraq war. But since then, even when Republicans rack up midterm wins at the voting booth — the year after 9/11, for instance, or in the aftermath of the unpopular Obamacare bill eight years later — they tend to run roughly even with or behind Democrats.
Between 2016 and 2020 the Democratic advantage swelled to between five and six points. When Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump a year ago, Democrats held a 49-to-40 advantage. From nine points up to five points down in less than a year — it is one of the most drastic reversals of party fortune that Gallup has ever recorded.
The data analysis site FiveThirtyEight shows a parallel collapse in Mr. Biden’s own popularity. He entered office with higher approval (55 percent) than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush did, but has since tumbled to 42 percent, lower than any president at this stage in his tenure except his immediate predecessor, according to data that go back to World War II.
How did Democrats get into so much trouble so quick? Inherited trends, including Covid-19, deficits and geostrategic overreach, are partly to blame. So is poor policymaking on issues like the economic stimulus. But the heart of the problem lies elsewhere. Democrats are telling a story about America — about the depth and pervasiveness of racism, and about the existential dangers of Mr. Trump — that a great many Americans, even a great many would-be Democrats, do not buy.
From the start Mr. Biden faced complex managerial challenges. He has always had a weak hold on the coalition of Democratic interest groups that won him the election, and he has had to acquiesce in some of their policy preferences. He has liberalized many of the immigration rules he inherited from Mr. Trump, suspending construction on a border wall and opening asylum procedures to victims of domestic violence. The result abroad has been hope: In September, a wave of mostly Haitian migrants large enough to fill a medium-size American town — about 14,000 people — arrived at the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas. American voters have been less pleased. Mr. Biden’s approval on immigration, according to a recent CBS News poll, is 36 percent.
Mr. Biden has also done little to counter the skepticism toward police forces that simmers in some Democratic circles. In light of high and rising murder rates, this is poorly viewed. Philadelphia, Austin, Milwaukee, Columbus and St. Paul all set homicide records last year. The president’s approval on crime is 39 percent. And while Americans may be largely happy to have left the Afghanistan war behind, the shambolic retreat of the nation’s armed forces last summer is another story. Mr. Biden’s Afghanistan approval: 38 percent.
Mr. Biden insisted that the country “go big” on a new $1.9 trillion “rescue” package in the spring, even after Larry Summers, Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, warned that such a stimulus could produce inflation. Now inflation is at 7 percent, the highest since early in the Reagan administration. Mr. Biden’s approval on the economy is at 38 percent.
But even more harmful to Democrats has been the fallout from pandemic lockdowns. Mr. Biden didn’t invent them, but he is suffering from them more than Mr. Trump did. That is because Covid-19 has opened a window on schools — and exposed Democrats as being on the wrong side of issues that many voters are passionate and even emotional about.
Democrats are the party of teachers’ unions, whose interest in school closures has clashed with that of working parents throughout the Covid-19 crisis. They are the party that backs the teaching of contentious race dogmas (sometimes called critical race theory, whether rightly or wrongly) to impressionable children. And they are the party that has overhauled or abolished competitive public school examinations in New York City, San Francisco, Boston and Northern Virginia because of the racial composition (usually disproportionately Asian) of the resulting student bodies.
These issues are especially salient because they concern the heart of Democrats’ public philosophy. Roughly since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Democrats have been telling a story about the country that focuses way too much on race and way too much on Donald Trump.
The various iterations of the voting-rights bill known as the For the People Act are a case in point. Holding the presidency, both houses of Congress and the most influential parts of the media, Democrats have monopolized the political argument for a year now. If there were a solid case that the bill really was an emergency project to protect democracy, rather than the partisan wish list that its opponents claimed, it would have triumphed by now.
When Mr. Biden told an Atlanta crowd this month that those who opposed this bill were on the same side as Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace and the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis, he was arguably combining the condescension of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “deplorables” remark with a kind of anti-white race-baiting. That is electorally dangerous. Democrats lost white non-college-educated voters by 25 points in the last election, and there is no guarantee that the margin will not get wider.
But this may not even be the party’s biggest miscalculation when it comes to demographics. Minorities do not seem to like the Democrats’ racialized approach any more than whites do. The political scientist Ruy Teixeira, who has written extensively about Hispanic abandonment of Democrats, notes that 84 percent of nonwhites support the photo-ID requirements for voting that the Democrats’ voting-rights reforms would ban. In a hypothetical rematch of the 2020 election, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that Mr. Biden would beat Mr. Trump among Hispanics — but only by a point (44-to-43), not by the nearly 30-point margin he enjoyed back then.
This is not the triumph for false consciousness that it might appear to disappointed activists. Democrats have been led astray by their Trump obsession. They have misunderstood what the former president represented to voting Americans. Mr. Trump tapped into smoldering grievances against various information-economy elites and managers. There is no reason that ethnic-minority voters wouldn’t share some of those grievances.
Voters of any background might, for instance, be appalled by Mr. Trump’s whipping up of his followers on Jan. 6, 2021. But they might consider the intervention of info-tech billionaires in the 2020 election to be a larger potential threat to our democracy. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan gave upward of $400 million to the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life to help local governments organize elections under Covid-19 conditions. Their gift roughly equaled the amount of federal funding designated for that purpose in the 2020 CARES Act. It is hard to imagine that anyone worried about the role of private wealth in prisons or military logistics or public schools would welcome such a role in elections.
Whether this says anything about the presidential election of 2024 is unclear. For the time being, the Republican product against which the Democratic product is being measured does not include Mr. Trump. That could be a sign that, should he return to a position of prominence, the country’s party preferences will revert to their traditional pattern of Democratic advantage.
On the other hand, it could be a warning to all parties. Perhaps sympathy with populist discontent was actually tamped down by the public’s repugnance for Mr. Trump as a person. We may yet underestimate the discontent itself.
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