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Democrats’ ‘Red Dog’ dilemma

Posted on January 10, 2022

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Alexander H. Jones

Alexander H. Jones

During the Donald Trump presidency, suburban areas were a gold mine for Democrats. Across the Sun Belt and into the North and West, well-educated suburban voters moved sharply toward the Democratic Party.

It wasn’t just a one-cycle reaction in midterm elections, either. In 2020, college-educated white voters provided the margin of victory for now-President Joe Biden. One could even sense a realignment.

That’s certainly what it looked like in North Carolina’s inner-ring suburbs. After years of trending blue by increments, Wake and Mecklenburg counties — the very definition of suburban Carolina — suddenly went Democratic by huge margins. Given the demographics in those counties, which included a mix of left-leaning new residents as well as settled college grads repelled by the social conservatism of MAGA, observers surmised that Wake and Mecklenburg were now the keystone of any Democratic victory.

After all, in each county, only one Republican still remained in the respective state legislative delegations.

The “Never Trumpers” have a term for these people: “Red Dog Democrats.”

The Red Dog Dems now represent an important constituency, both mirroring and distinct from the more established “Gentry Liberals.” Red Dogs, unlike the progressive gentry, have streamed into the Democratic Party recently and largely in reaction to the appalling bigotry, ignorance and authoritarianism of the Trump-era GOP. They are still fiscally conservative and averse to the excesses of the cultural left — as, for the record, are many members of the pan-racial working class. While deeply alienated from the GOP, Red Dogs are not yet solid Democrats. Democrats will have to work to keep their support.

The rise of Red Dog Democrats has been a good thing for the party in the electoral sphere — see the fact that Biden won the 2020 election in large part due to shifts in the educated suburbs. But the trend brings with it several vexing challenges for the Democratic Party.

First, Red Dogs are not an inherently Democratic constituency. They voted Republican until very recently; for example, even Elizabeth Dole won southwestern Wake County while losing badly statewide. As the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia demonstrated, a certain percentage of center-right suburbanites seem willing to vote for a Republican again if the GOP candidate appears amenable to suburban sensibilities.

Democrats, again, cannot take these voters for granted. They will have to actively court their votes.

Which brings us to the second dilemma that Red Dogs pose to Democrats: to win them, Democrats may have to make painful concessions that anger not only the “progressive left” — who make up a very small percentage of the electorate but a large share of the activist class — but old-school Democrats committed to the party’s historic identity as the party of the working class.

For the most part, Red Dog Democrats do not have any deep affinity for the Democratic Party or FDR liberalism. They are new Democrats and New Democrats, in the mold of Bill Clinton’s fiscally conservative administration. While Jeremy Corbyn’s strong showing in suburban Great Britain suggests that economic leftism is not an automatic loser in the suburbs, other, more local results suggest Democrats will face a tough dilemma.

Consider the Build Back Better Act. A group of “centrist” Democrats, led by the outspoken Rep. Josh Gottheimer, insisted upon restoration of the state and local tax deduction as the price of their support for BBB. SALT is, to be blunt, a giveaway to the wealthy. The vast majority of the deduction will go to millionaires in rich regions, and almost nothing will flow to people mired in poverty.

This outrageous sop to the privileged is a good proxy for where, in the worst-case scenario, the party could go as the influence of Red Dog Democrats continues to grow. Tax policy would tilt toward the affluent, unions would be forsaken, free trade would once again become Democratic dogma and, in general, the legacy of FDR would be supplanted by “Simpson-Bowles”-style socially progressive centrism.

In North Carolina, Democrats need the Red Dogs. Unfortunately, the white working class in rural North Carolina has completed its long transformation into a Republican constituency.

Mobilizing Democratic non-voters will help, but Democrats will still need to do better with suburban and exurban swing voters if they ever want to become the majority party again. But, like everything in politics, the Red Dog phenomenon brings challenges as well as blessings.

Can Democrats keep suburbanites in the fold? Can they still be the party of FDR? Time will tell.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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