Subdivide and conquer: a strategy for a new Democratic majority

A precinct-level analysis by the Seattle Times revealed that President Bush’s support slipped from 2000 in Eastside suburbs, including some of the ritzier neighborhoods. [Bush’s Eastside support slipped]

This is not just a local phenomena; even while Republicans have cemented their hold on an ever expanding red exurbia, close-in suburbs have been gradually shifting Democratic. For example, in Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line — a longtime bastion of “Rockefeller Republicanism” — Kerry carried some precincts by historic margins as Republicans finally seemed to realize that the national party left them years ago. And in traditionally Republican Mercer Island, Democrats now hold two out of the three legislative seats.

To me, this is one of the few hopeful signs that came out of an otherwise bleak election season. And it suggests a strategy for rebuilding a Democratic majority.

Just like the Democrats lost their base in the South with their support of civil rights legislation in the sixties, the GOP risks alienating their moderate, suburban base by abandoning fiscal conservatism to focus on right-wing social issues at home, and military and economic imperialism abroad. The neo-cons may dominate the national Republican leadership, but they do not represent the majority of suburban voters.

Families move to places like Mercer Island for better public schools, cleaner streets, safer neighborhoods, and all the other public services that a higher property tax base provides. These are people who believe in government because they benefit from it every day, and they routinely tax themselves to pay for the services they want.

These are people with whom urban Democrats have common ground, and we have an opportunity to exploit the wedge the neo-cons have provided, to expand our base politically and geographically. For in addition to a shared belief that good government is necessary to maintaining a high quality of life, suburban and city voters have a mutual interest in maintaining an economically and culturally vibrant urban core.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, yet I always considered myself a Philadelphian; it is this larger sense of community that Democrats must encourage in metropolitan areas around the nation if we are to have a hope of expanding our political base. To do so we must continue to be a party of progressive ideals, while remaining tempered by fiscal responsibility. We must focus on efficiently providing the level of public services voters demand, by maintaining an adequate and fair tax structure.

And urban Democrats must do a better job of reaching out across the city line to work with our suburban neighbors on solving our regional problems. I’m not suggesting compromise as a political expediency, but rather the type of collaborative engagement that fosters consensus and creativity. We’re both trying to improve education, reduce traffic, increase public safety, etc… if throwing money at a problem isn’t the only solution, then perhaps Seattle has something to learn from Mercer Island?

On the larger, divisive social issues that Republicans all too often successfully exploit to their advantage, Democrats must learn a rhetorical lesson from the opposition, and deconstruct these debates to the real world choices that people understand. For example, if the abortion debate remains a choice between dead and mangled fetuses versus a vague and unwritten Constitutional “right to privacy”, abortion foes will win. But when the public is faced with a choice between dead fetuses and young women dying of sepsis from back-alley abortions… well… that’s the kind of brutally compelling argument that led to legalized abortion in the first place.

But Democrats must also recognize that there are some issues on which we are clearly in the minority, and we must not replicate the Republican leadership’s penchant for arrogantly ramming an unwanted social agenda down the throats of the public. Political leadership is not about giving voters what they want, or what we want. It is about patiently and persuasively building a consensus where none existed before.

Democrats must not shy away from voicing their support for issues like gay marriage — if that is what they truly believe — but to attempt to impose gay marriage on an unwilling public through legislation or litigation is to invite the sort of costly political backlash we saw in the November election. The legal protections of civil union may be the least we can offer to committed, unmarried couples… but at the moment, it may also be the most.

Of course, a precinct-level analysis can be a little like reading tea leaves or entrails, and I wouldn’t want my right-wing friends at Sound Politics to label me a political haruspex. In the end, voters tend to vote for candidates, not issues, and so divining demographic trends from a single election can be misleading. After all, our state GOP is making a big deal about the so-called “Dinocrats” who may have cost Gregoire the gubernatorial election, but few are suggesting that this portends Washington turning red in 2008.

What I do know is that moderate suburban Republicans are increasingly willing to buck party loyalty and vote for Democratic candidates, representing a clear opportunity for Democrats to permanently expand their base. There is an urge to look at the huge swath of red on the electoral map and ask if we need to redefine the Democratic Party to appeal to this disaffected middle America.

But for a party firmly rooted in our nation’s urban centers, a potential Democratic majority can be found much closer to home. In fact, it’s just across the city line.


  1. 1

    Mr. Cynical-dy spews:

    I encourage you to build your Democratic base by supporting Gay Marriage!

  2. 3

    Mr. Cynical-dy spews:

    Oh and one other interesting phenomonon is that more urban voters are leaning toward Republican principles. When you spend have your life in gridlock and see the Dems in-charge of the Governors House for 20 years and the problem is exponentially worse…after awhile you begin to awaken to the fact that it ain’t the Republicans fault and it’s time to give the R’s a chance.
    And when you see your job going to another more competitive state and you look around and businesses in Washington are downsizing or quitting due to bureaucratic goo and high taxes…you begin to look for alternatives too.
    Good topic Goldy. Unfortunately for you, the R’s tend to win the intellectual & factual battle as well as they have the Dems track record in Washington to hold them accountable to. And also unfortunately for you Goldy, there are too many raw emotional, hate-spewers on your side (not you so much). And emotion only carries you so far when you have a lousy job, are worried about losing and you have to sit in gridlock half of your life thinking about what a horrible existence you have carved out.

  3. 4

    Peter A. spews:

    It only shows how fixated some R’s are on other peoples bedrooms, that they can seen no issues except stopping gay marriage which only exists in one state, and only for a few months. Talk about over emotional, one issue politics.

    Did my own little poll recnetly among friends, Not one cares a whit about gay marriage , pro or con. Not hign on any list of priorities. Not even one gay friend I know. But to hear the hue and cry, it is the most threatening thing facing the USA. Outweights the Iraqi war. Sinking curency value, hard to find jobs. Pork barrel projects and out of control govt. spending at the federal level where deficit spending is legal.

    Gay marriage will be a state by state decision, where it started and where it will end. Today the US Supreme court refused with no comment to take a case on the topic. Guess they see no emergency to the public welfare.

    Goldy is correct, right wing extremes will drive political agendas in some areas of the country, but not in the mature suburbs, more linked to life and resources in the urban core than to the Grange hall, and cattle auctions.

  4. 5

    Goldy spews:

    I encourage you to build your Democratic base by supporting Gay Marriage!

    Cynicla-di-da, I assume you are being sarcastic, and didn’t actual interpret what I wrote as suggesting that the Democrats should attempt to build their base by promoting gay marriage? They should however, be free to speak their minds on the issue.

    And yes, it does seem funny that out of an 800-word manifesto, that’s the subject you would first choose to focus on.

    Oh… and your other comment: wishful thinking.

  5. 6

    jim p spews:

    Seems like most ‘far righters’ are actually closet queens. Ie, Cynical-dy and Chuck seem to be good examples. The first thing out of their mouths is usually words concerning gay marriage. Could it be that they are afraid of admitting their desires to themselves?

  6. 7

    Josef spews:

    Great, pithy post.

    That said, your favorite, unabahsed Dinocrat has to reply to:

    “After all, our state GOP is making a big deal about the so-called “Dinocrats” who may have cost Gregoire the gubernatorial election, but few are suggesting that this portends Washington turning red in 2008.”

    Many of my fellow Dinocrats and I went over to Gregoire NOT to endorse conservatives on the social agenda, BUT because of Gregoire’s animosity towards buisness, civil liberties and watchdogs.

  7. 8

    Chuck spews:

    Well like other good salesmen, I will throw rocks at the ditastful “competition” whenever possible, the problem is the liberal salesmen keep throwing the gay lifestyle in our faces, so Jim P I think it has to actually be your desire to join that lifestyle. Dont try to determine the “intent” of my vote or opinion, it is right there in front of you, no hanging chads at all!

  8. 9

    Jim King spews:

    Goldy- track your analysis back a few elections, and you will be astounded at how correct you are in observing the Democratization of the suburbs- and it is a trend that the state Republicans have yet to come to grips with.

    In the past three decades, the immediate suburbs of Seattle went from Republican to swing to Democrat- at the same time the Republicans were losing their grip on portions of the city. In the mid ’70’s, many areas of Seattle sent Republican delegations to Olympia- and by 1982, there was hardly a Republican legislator left from within the city limits. In the ’80’s, the 33rd District- Burien, Des Moines- went Democrat, and has hardly elected a Republican since. Edmonds went solidly Democrat in the ’90’s, and Federal Way is trending that way. Now we witness the Republicans’ inability to regain seats in Bothell, Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, and lose further ground in Mercer Island…

    Admittedly, in other areas of the state, Republicans have solidified their hold, but they still concede much more ground to the Democrats than the Democrats concede to them…

    To try and keep their grip on the State Senate, they were reduced to going after the very Democratic State Senators that a Governor Rossi will need to govern- Haugen and Rasmussen (as well as Kastama, who is less likely to split with his party, but is nonetheless centrist). In that they failed, and created problems that will come back to bite them, both with those Democrats, and with core Republican-oriented constituencies who support those Democrats.

    In the 1980’s, I watched as conservative union members from the Teamsters, Building Trades, and Longshore (among others)- the Reagan Democrats- were radicalized by the attacks on their basic organizing rights. Today, I watch too many Republicans attack the very social groups who are potentially up for grabs and who have much in common with the Republicans on many social issues- but they ain’t white like us. Nevermind that many who take that attitude spring from groups who only two decades ago would not have been welcome at the Eastside’s country clubs… (ain’t no ‘inas, ‘elis, ‘steins and ‘skys allowed in here- we barely tolerate the Irish…)

    Demographics is the future, but some think they can SUCCESSFULLY (are capitals allowed HERE, Goldy?) play King Canute and sweep back the tide… The result is wandering in the wilderness as a political minority for a great many years, until new leaders emerge (or the thirst for majority tempers the thought processes).

    Anyway, fortunately the Governor-elect has much more of a clue of how to build a majority- it will be interesting to see how long it takes the right-wing to begin denouncing him…

  9. 10

    Jim King spews:

    And, of course, there is a certain hope in Democratic Party mistakes- “Ezra- thar’s boys marrying boys out in San Francisco” was one hell of a rally cry for middle America in 2004, when it was just too early (speaking of political strategy, not merits of the issue either way).

  10. 11

    Mr. Cynical-dy spews:

    One of the biggest problems is cutting services the majority of people don’t want to pay for. It seems like every time some well-intentioned social program is developed, the follow-up bureaucracy gobbles up most of the $$$ leaving scraps for the intended recipients. That’s why government should incent people & other more cost-effective organizations to do this. The goal should be less government employees until government provides essential services only (defense & infrastructure). Social engineering is a monumental waste of time & resources. But everyone gets excited when they can create a huge new pot of money by telling taxpayers…it’s only another $25/yr.

    You make some good points Goldy. Things we can all agree on. However, it was your decision to toss the “gay marriage” thing in there. I really do hope you keep pushing that agenda….and huge tax increase proposals…and more & more excessively restrictive land use policies (look what has happened in Oregon when the far-left neo-ecologists went too far…now virtually all policies are rejected and the state has to pay for past takings). I hope you keep pushing for feel-good, junk science regulations & programs that strangle business. All these things the neo-leftists simply can’t help making front-and-center and you so-called Moderate Dems are too afraid to take them to task on.

  11. 12

    Goldy spews:

    Jim, thanks for the historical rundown on WA state politics. I am a relative newcomer (only 13 years a resident), and only recently radicalized into activism, so I lack the historical perspective. It’s always nice to have my intuition backed up with facts.

    I do not share your faith that, if elected, Rossi will disappoint the right-wing of his party. Looking at his record and prior public statements I find him much less moderate than his campaign portrayed him — and you are well aware of my concerns over the uncompromising agenda of his BIAW backers. He also doesn’t strike me as a particularly creative thinker… but then, few politicians do.

    In my opinion (whatever that’s worth) I don’t see either party putting forth the kind of political leadership necessary to dramatically shift the balance of power in WA.

  12. 13

    Goldy spews:

    The goal should be less government employees until government provides essential services only (defense & infrastructure).

    Ahh… so you’re a free-market libertarian.

  13. 15

    Goldy spews:

    Oh… and I’m the extremist.

    A question… do you extend your libertarian ideology to social issues, or are you happy legislating morality when it is your own?

  14. 16

    Jim King spews:

    Goldy- you hit a nail on the head- the lack of bold leadership from EITHER party has kept things bouncing back and forth. This state leans D, but the weak leadership of Gary Locke kept that grip from solidifying. And when the R’s have taken steps to move toward control after Democratic errors (see 1994), they failed to develop strong leadership that could give them the opportunity that Thompson had in Wisconsin or Engler had in Michigan.

    Rossi could prove interesting. IF he governs from the center, he could move the Republicans into a leadership role in this state. The GOP has a bright team holding (yes, subject to recount) four of the eight partisan state offices, and three of the four (Governor, Attorney General, and Public Lands Commissioner, the other being Insurance Commissioner) that really set policy.

    And having a nominally Democratic legislature all but guarantees governance from the center…

  15. 17

    Goldy spews:

    I think this lack of political leadership also greatly contributed to rise of Tim Eyman. My concern, now that Timmy is clearly on the decline, is what other demogogue might rise to fill the void he leaves behind.

  16. 18

    bmvaughn spews:

    That ain’t the only bad news for the Dems… look at this morning’s P-I. They’re broke, and the DNC doesn’t want to help. Uh oh, looks like no recount!

  17. 19

    Chuck spews:

    Now that is too cool…oh I mean im sorry to hear every wont be counted after the voters “intention” is determined.

  18. 20

    Goldy spews:

    So when a Democrat says something you want to hear, that’s the only time you believe them? This was a clever use of free media to make a fundraising plea, and also an attempt to set up a PR excuse for funding only a partial recount.

    With a 42 vote margin out of 2.8 million, this race is a toss-up in a hand recount. There’s no way they’re not going to find the money for one.

  19. 21

    Jenny spews:

    Definitely Democrats need to strategize and do what they can to reach voters in the suburbs – a key place to pick up votes.

    In future elections, we may also see Nevada voting blue as the Las Vegas metropolis expands; the state is becoming increasingly Democratic. And we need more states on our side of the fence.

  20. 22

    Goldy spews:

    Absolutely Jenny. I think New Mexico and Colorado are potential blue states too. And here’s a bold, long term prediction — given a successful Democratic strategy, the first state of the old Confederacy to turn blue will be… North Carolina!

    But for the moment, I think we need to ignore the electoral map, and focusing on rebuilding Democratic majorities in state and local elections. We need to dominate state houses by the end of the decade so we can avoid the kind of redistricting debacles seen in Texas. As to the White House, personality trumps policy in presidential elections, so we may be in the desert until Obama is ready to run.

  21. 23


    Around the Blogs
    Yoram at Evergreen Politics, on the lookout for a good progressive outfit to supportm asks about Progressive Majority, Democracy for Washington and the state Democratic Party (check the comments for our replies).

    Meanwhile, the local blogosphere is …

  22. 25

    Steve spews:

    Mercer Island and other close-in and middle-to-upper income suburbs have been voting more and more Democratic for about 15 years. Thus, your reference to Mercer Island being “traditionally Republican” relies on an old “tradition.” It has been voting up to 60% Democratic in most seriously contested races since around 1992 (not long after I moved there). The 41st Legislative district, of which Mercer Island is maybe one-fifth, and which goes out to Issaquah, has gone from entirely Republican to almost completely the other way (indeed, Fred Jarrett, the State Rep. who is the only Republican now, was endorsed by NARAL, the Sierra Club, and the Trial Lawyers Assn., and is far from a conservative). This phenomenon is true throughout the country, even in some of the South. On the other hand, working-class suburbs are becoming less Democratic to a significant degree. On the whole, however, the Democrats’ problem is that they used to win or come close in rural counties but now their percentage of the vote in rural areas has gone down even farther than it has gone up in the suburban areas. While Democrats like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus won in Idaho in the 1970s and 80s, Democrats get clobbered in places like Idaho now. The same is true in Eastern Washington and many rural Western Washington counties and parts of otherwise urban counties.