Poll: Democrats Win on Ideas, Lose on Identity

A little while ago I wrote about Why Democrats Compromise When Republicans Won't, noting that one reason is that more Americans self-identify as conservatives than as liberals.

And, as I noted back then, this is so even though they support liberal policies.

Now comes a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing just how stark is this apparent contradiction. Look at these samples, on the subject of how we should deal with federal deficits:

  • Raise the tax rate for millionaires: 81%
  • Eliminate the Bush tax cuts: 68%
  • Cut oil and gas tax breaks: 74%

And what should we not do?

  • Don't cut Medicare: 76%
  • Don't cut K-12 education: 77%
  • Don't cut Social Security: 77%

Meanwhile, 77% of those surveyed support collective bargaining for public sector workers.

And yet: 36% of those same voters self-identified as conservatives, while only 24% called themselves liberals.

Liberals can of course be heartened by the results having to do with policies. But there's an important lesson to learn about identity. It's taking a while to sink in.

Many Democratic candidates see poll results showing conservative self-identification and think they need to tweak their policies, or maybe just explain them better. They should learn to take Yes for an answer. Americans like liberal policies.

What Democrats, the party of ordinary Americans, need to do is re-connect with ordinary Americans. This happens on the level of identity, not ideas. The success of FDR-era Democrats and unions in creating a mass middle class had an unforeseen consequence: Education and upward mobility led subsequent generations up and away from their roots. It led some among those generations to embarrassedly spurn those roots -- strenuously distancing themselves from "gun-toting rednecks" or "tacky suburbanites", for example. This is why "elite" as an anti-liberal slur now has some sticking power. (Of course, it's been helped along by decades of Republican political marketing).

Reconnecting with working Americans does not mean pandering or patronizing. Franklin Roosevelt could hardly have been more of an "elite". Yet it was clear that he knew, understood and cared about ordinary Americans. They could tell.

Last Saturday, Zach Friend and I were panelists at a conference of the American Constitution Society, at which a keynote speech was given by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA 31). Becerra was eloquently direct on how Democrats need to connect more from the heart than the head -- more on identity, less on ideas. Quoting Rene Zellweger in Jerry McGuire, he said voters are telling Democrats, "Shut up... You had me at hello."