Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Coveted CoalitionDemocrats must double down on “socialism,” but not on its name.

By Nina BrownPublished December 24, 2020

An electoral map, divided red and blue.
In the 2020 election, Democrats won the white house, but not much else. Across the nation, hopeful predictions for Democrats in the House and Senate fell through. What was wrong about their strategy and messaging? And what lessons should they take going forward?

In the 2020 election, Democrats had hopes that Texas and Florida would go blue. This was because of the “Latino vote”—Texas and Florida both had grown a significant Hispanic population over the years, and minorities tend to vote Democrat. In fact, it was often predicted that as the demographics of America changed and the proportion of minorities grew, a multiracial coalition would form, giving Democrats a decisive foothold over American politics.

However, these hopes were crushed in both Texas and Florida, which both stayed red. The demographic shifts in these states did not lead to the expected blue wave. What happened? Was this a bad omen for the prospects of the multiracial coalition of voters which Democrats dreamed would form, not just in California, but across the nation? And what lessons can Democrats take moving forward in how to amend their messaging and strategy?

What is clear is that, in the future, Democrats cannot assume that they will receive the “minority vote.” Rather, Democrats must construct legislation that understands and acknowledges the respective interests of different minority groups in order to earn it.

But then, which legislation can Democrats use to build a proper coalition? This is a difficult question. However, I think that Democrats ought to focus on economic policies which benefit everyone.  The Globalist notes that “national polls showed that Latino-American voters thought jobs and health care … were the most important issues for them.” Notably, it was not necessarily issues like racial justice, which receive much attention from academics and activists.  This aligns with general trends among the population: the Pew Research Center reports that economy and health care are the top issues for voters, with 79% and 68%, respectively, saying that it was “very important” to them. The Globalist article explains further:

“Most Latinos and Black Americans are working class—like the majority of whites. … Trump succeeded in part because large numbers of white working people felt abandoned by Democrats. Over the last few decades, the Democratic Party’s establishment forged an alliance with Wall Street financiers who are liberal on social issues—such as racial discrimination, immigration and abortion—but very conservative on economics. One result was that Democratic leaders refused to help their trade union allies defend themselves against the sustained big business campaign to destroy organized labor. As union membership declined, the Democratic Party voter base shrunk."

And so, this is my suggestion. Democrats should continue their vocal support of, and properly commit to, policies which change the material conditions of Americans across the board—raising the minimum wage, affordable healthcare, tax reform. In short, on what could be called socialist—or at least, socialist-adjacent—policies.

However, I admit my position is fraught. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who barely won her race in Virginia, stated heatedly that “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . .  We lost good members because of that.” Others agreed. Others disagreed. But what is undeniable is that “socialist” rhetoric is still painfully unpopular in the United States; for example, in Florida, where there was large-scale efforts from Republicans to paint Democrats as socialists, around 55% of Cuban Americans voted for Donald Trump. This tactic has been successful throughout America. In this respect, Republicans have won and are poised to continue winning the PR game. Yet, it is not as if policies in line with economic populism—at least the ones which have dodged being pegged as socialist—lack support. For example, in Florida, a $15 minimum wage was passed with 61% support.

It’s important to remember that Democrats can forward “socialist” policies, while also burying the term, “socialist.” The term “socialism” is poison for Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that what the term represents is poison as well. Democrats can give up on the name, but keep the spirit. As Rep. Jared Huffman, a member of the Progressive Caucus said, “Republicans did get some traction trying to scare people on this ‘socialist narrative.’ . . . That was a shrewd play from them. These labels do distract us and divide us in unfortunate ways. . . . What’s the point of embracing a phrase like that? All you do is feed into these fears and bogus narratives.”

Democrats have an arduous task ahead. With one hand, they must fend off the deluge of bad press from Republicans, which has proven to be frighteningly effective in these past years.  With the other hand, they must build a proper coalition which unites the working class, and unites people across many different races. There is no way to achieve this without addressing America’s worsening economic inequality through radical legislation; and Democrats should call such legislation whatever name makes it more likely that it will be passed.