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The Democratic Party can't win back mythical 'Reagan Democrats' without forsaking their principles

The defeat in 1980 still looms so large in the Democratic imagination that many are convinced that the nation is and remains center-right.
Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan moves through the crowd shaking hands at the Neshoba County Fair
Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan moves through the crowd shaking hands at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi on Aug. 3, 1980.Jack Thornell / AP file

When Elizabeth Warren said during this week’s Democratic debates, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she demonstrated with stark clarity the problem with the party establishment. They don’t just need to transmit a vision of beating Trump, but one of marshaling resources and taking the reins to lead us forward in a new American century.

In that instant, Warren articulated what frustrates late Gen Xers through Gen Zers: That the Democrats, under moderate leadership appealing to centrists, have become the party of no-we-can’t-because-it’s-too-hard, and the party of but-we’ll-alienate-a-group-of-voters-who-are-never-coming-back.

The belief among many in leadership, in the punditocracy and those running for the presidency seems to be that some large number of Trump voters — alternately thought of as the moderates or the centrists, the Reagan Democrats or the blue-collar Rust Belt workers, but always tacitly thought of as the white, supposedly forgotten ones — are the people on whom to map a path to unseat Donald Trump. They are the voters, these economically insecure white voters in the Midwest, that news narratives and Delaney, Klobuchar, Bullock, Ryan and more are vying for.

But the voices of moderation in the Democratic Party lack the moral conviction to name the racism staring us all in the face.

The mythical Reagan Democrats don’t exist anymore — if they ever did. They were social conservatives whose party affiliation was rooted in a Democratic Party that thankfully no longer exists; moderates of that time are conservatives now, and their conservatism is and was rooted in decades of a culture war that began with a little thing called the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s a hard truth for many to admit that the delicate push-pull of the American democracy centers around how vehemently politicians believe they can embrace the dismantling of racial apartheid in America, or that the conservative worldview, particularly as embodied by Trump, increasingly embraces bigotry as a social and political norm — though that certainly did not begin with him.

And yet even the idea of “Reagan Democrats” was always, and should remain, synonymous with the idea of racial retrenchment.

It was deeply intentional that on Aug. 3, 1980, the newly minted Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered in 1964 after they disappeared trying to register African Americans to vote. There Reagan touted his vision of states’ rights and welfare reform with purported colorblind language to appeal to embittered voters feeling abandoned by the Democratic Party after the civil rights era — those who had yet to fully declare themselves Republicans but were certainly social conservatives.

“I believe that there are programs like that,” meaning welfare, said the man who is widely credited with popularizing the myth of the black welfare queen, “programs like education and others” — this, in the era of desegregation and busing — “that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them,” he finished to thunderous applause from an all-white audience. “I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.”

Perhaps these words don’t resonate in 2019 as they did in 1980 but his audience had no doubt about his references: He was talking about the end of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the end of federal government programs (and state contributions to them) widely seen as benefiting impoverished African American residents more than white ones, the end of federal interference in state efforts to maintain segregation and segregated poverty, and the end of federal oversight that endeavored to bring about America’s mythical promise of justice for all.

But those words didn’t just resonate in the South: The decades preceding Reagan’s rise had seen northern American cities transformed by the internal migration of African Americans away from that state-enforced segregation, and the subsequent rigid resistance by northern communities to absorb or welcome them — shoehorning them into ghettos under restrictive housing policies (which have proven far more volatile and difficult to upend nearly four decades later). This extended into debates about (if not all-out war to avoid) integrating school districts nationwide as predominantly white communities launched virulent resistance campaigns (some of which continues today).

Much as the media has often credited Trump’s win to economic insecurity despite much evidence to the contrary, Reagan Democrats were similarly deemed to be economically insecure, even though, when questioned more deeply, they explained their shifting allegiances in terms similar to Trump voters today: feeling rejected by a more integrated society, aligning themselves with soft (or even hard) bigotry, feeling comforted by the outwardly race-neutral messaging of Reaganism even when its effects were discriminatory.

To the still mostly white Democrats mollywhopped by the 1980 national campaign and examining the electorate, it was easy to fearfully pivot to the stated proclivities of those voters and forfeit policies that would support and sustain communities of color, who made up most of the statistical working class. Reagan’s war on drugs prepared the ground for the Clinton administration’s 1994 Crime Bill. Reagan’s constant invocation of the welfare queen was repackaged under Bill Clinton as the "end welfare as we know it" — still using black women, as Reagan had, as symbols of government dependency.

Today, Democratic Party centrists continue to center their language and thinking to appeal to the same white discomfort with a liberal and inclusive society, the same suspicion that brown folk are getting an unequal share of resources and prosperity in American society. Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980 still looms so large in the Democratic imagination that they are convinced that the nation is and remains center-right and, instead of adopting a vision to capture voters across class and ethnic lines, centrists continue to push the party to direct its energies toward the white working class even as polls, elections and demographics show the actual way forward.

This week’s debates made it obvious that the moderate platform is simply to obstruct any necessary deep structural changes and to placate voters who fear the younger brown and black progressive “hordes.” But we are actually a coalition of people across class and ethnic lines who recognize, finally, that the moderate forces are not our allies, that the “Reagan Democrats” are not the belles of this ball. We are not willing to cede to Republican policies and undermine the desires of our own base. The center has moved left — and, for those relying on the center-right, the panic has set in.