The Democratic Guide to Losing Elections

First, tell parents to butt out of schools. Next, imply that mom and dad are racists.

When the flagship of the progressive flotilla calls for a retreat, you know something big has happened. In a remarkable editorial last week, the New York Times called for “an honest conversation in the Democratic Party about how to return to the moderate policies and values that fueled the blue-wave victories in 2018 and won Joe Biden the presidency in 2020.”

The Times editorial board cited economic issues such as inflation and spending and cultural issues such as border security and crime. “The concerns of more centrist Americans about a rush to spend taxpayer money, a rush to grow the government, should not be dismissed,” the editors rightly declared. A recent Gallup survey found that whereas a year ago Americans wanted government to do more, today they prefer government to do less. The share of independents who favor a more active government has dropped nearly 20 points.

The editorial noted, as many other observers have, that the progressive approach to policing went down in defeat across the country, including in Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked national demonstrations. But the Times stayed notably silent on the issue that arguably made the difference in the Virginia gubernatorial contest—namely, teaching about race and ethnicity in public schools. In three easy steps, the defeated Democratic candidate showed how not to deal with it. First, tell parents to butt out and leave the matter to the experts. Second, infuriate parents by telling them that they are confused and there’s no real problem. Finally, accuse the Republican candidate of blowing a “racist dog whistle.” In effect, Terry McAuliffe accused Virginia voters who responded to Glenn Youngkin of being racists.

I can only speculate about why the Times editorial board chose not to address this matter, and I await their contribution to the discussion. Here’s a good place to begin. Recent surveys indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support teaching America’s history honestly—our sins as well as our accomplishments. If that is all that’s happening, why are so many parents upset, and why did Mr. Youngkin head into the election 15 points ahead of Mr. McAuliffe among parents with children in public schools?

Many Democrats would like to ignore the cultural issues and run instead on the economic benefits their agenda will provide middle- and working-class Americans. This strategy is unlikely to succeed. As the Times’s David Leonhardt put it recently: “Democrats can’t win over the working class by talking about only economic issues, any more than Republicans can win Scarsdale simply by saying ‘tax cuts now!’ ”

Persuadable working-class voters, Mr. Leonhardt observes, “span racial groups. They tend to be worried about crime and political correctness, however they define it. They have mixed feelings about immigration and abortion laws. They favor many progressive positions on economic policy. They are skeptical of experts. Most believe in God and in a strong America. If Democrats are going to win more of these voters, they will probably need to listen to them and make some changes, rather than telling them that they’re irrational for voting Republican.”

The bottom line: It is time for Democrats to get serious about the problems they have created for themselves in their decadeslong drift toward a cultural progressivism that repels the voters they need to build a national majority.

The Times editorial points to a gap between the reasons Joe Biden was elected president and what has happened since he took office. “Mr. Biden did not win the presidency because he promised a progressive revolution,” but “because he promised an exhausted nation a return to sanity, decency and competence.” Or, as moderate Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger put it, “No one elected him to be FDR. They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

Here is the problem: The coalition that elected Joe Biden is divided between those who favor incremental improvements and those who insist on “transformational” change. The latter form the base of the party; the former, the moderates and independents who make a national majority possible. Many Americans who thought they were voting for a unity-seeking incrementalist now suspect that they were victims of a bait-and-switch.

Mr. Biden has the power to change this narrative, though probably not in time to alter the results of the midterm elections. He can begin by moderating his rhetoric—no more calling GOP voting laws “Jim Crow 2.0” or other hyperbole—and by focusing more on the issues that seem likely to dominate 2022, such as inflation, immigration, crime, schools and culture. A party that can’t discuss these matters honestly is unlikely to retain a majority—or the White House.