Will the Democratic presidential debates this week shake up the race? Unlikely. All these people have a lot of debating experience and have learned to be fast on their feet. When I think back to the Democratic primary debates of 2008, the last time there was a bushelful of candidates, I remember only one thing, something about Hillary Clinton and drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants.
But the debates will start to answer what I think is the one big question for Democrats—and I mean here rank-and-file Democrats—that this election presents. How much change do Democrats really want?
That is, every Democrat, from the most centrist to the most left-wing, wants Donald Trump out. And every Democrat would like to see changes in dozens of areas, from the Supreme Court to economic policy to civil rights to climate change and a lot more.
The divide in the party, though, is around the question of the relationship between those two goals. There’s a view, and polls say it’s the prevailing view, in which Democrats seem to be saying: Let’s just beat him first, and we’ll worry about an agenda after that. So let’s just pick someone who looks like a winner. And on the other side of the argument are those who say having a strong and clear governing agenda is the only way to win.
Different voting blocs within the coalition will see these matters very differently. I’d bet a majority of black voters, for example, tend toward the “let’s just win” camp. Civil rights face a massive crisis if Trump is re-elected, and especially if he gets to put more justices on the Supreme Court. Even Brown v. Board of Education is not entirely safe (seriously). Most African-American voters will vote pragmatically and defensively not for the candidate who promises the most aggressive agenda but for the one who can win and protect their gains.
Young voters, including younger African Americans and other people of color, will likely tend toward the opposite view. Things have been pretty screwed up in this country their entire sentient lives. Yes, we had a black president. But the economy serves only those at the top. Most of the ones who’ve gone to college are in debt, and the ones who aren’t college material—the majority—and live in small towns have zero opportunity.
God knows we need tons of change in this country. And you might think that Democratic voters’ response to Trumpism would be a demand for an extraordinary degree of change. But I’m not so sure. In fact, I think it might be just the opposite.
Trump represents a unique and terrifying crisis. And crises usually cloud our ability to think beyond them. When your house is on fire, you’re not thinking about where you’re going to move to next. You’re just thinking about putting the fire out and salvaging everything you can before the house burns down.
That describes exactly where we are in this country to rank-and-file Democrats. The house is burning down. Let’s just put the fire out. We’ll worry about the other questions later. I suspect that’s how most rank-and-file Democrats are thinking.
I keep repeating “rank and file” because I want to emphasize that I’m talking about regular Democratic voters here. Who are they? Well, they’re not the people you see on TV (yes, including me!). They’re not the people you read on Twitter. TV and Twitter Democrats represent a sliver of Democratic opinion that is more educated, whiter, frankly more elite, and therefore more likely to hold views that are on balance to the left of most Democrats.
Who are the real Democrats? I have a piece in the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, available now online, in which I write a bit about who Democrats are, based on a major Pew Typology Survey. Here are some key numbers:
•57 percent are over 40;
•56 percent are female;
•54 percent are white (blacks and Hispanics are 19 percent each, and the remaining 8 percent are Asian/other—it truly is an impressively multiracial organization);
•Of four designated income levels, the most represented by far is the lowest, under $30,000, at 36 percent;
•Likewise, of four designated education levels, the most represented by far is high school or less, at 37 percent.
That’s who the party is—mainly poor and working-class people, considerably more diverse than the country as a whole, who live lives of tremendous financial stress (the largest of the four income groups among Republicans, at 30 percent, was $50,000 to $99,999).
So when I think about what Democrats want, I think about what these voters want. They’re the ones who are going to be doing the bulk of the voting. Of course, donors and TV and Twitter Democrats have outsize influence and can persuade many of these rank-and-file people to think differently, and sometimes they do, but usually people follow their common sense. And their common sense may be telling them: just put the damn fire out.
That mentality probably benefits Joe Biden. But it doesn’t necessarily benefit only Biden. Others can use prominent platforms like this week’s debates to make the case for themselves. And the case I suspect most regular Democrats want to hear and see is not who makes the most and most far-reaching promises but who manages to convey the one thing you have to do before you can unveil plans: that he or she can win.