I wish some members of the Democratic National Committee had been with me a few months ago, when I attended a county party convention in Western North Carolina. They would have learned a lot about purple state Democrats, whose views fall closely to the middle of the political spectrum.
The local party was about to adopt its platform when a pro-choice activist challenged the proposed middle-of-the-road language on abortion rights. She wanted the party to adopt language which was more clearly pro-choice. A heated debate ensued in which a number of delegates with pro-life views opposed the new language. At one point a man asked whether the party had room for those with pro-life views. “Yes,” he was told, there was room for everyone. But the more pro-choice language was ultimately adopted in a vote in which about one-quarter of those present voted in opposition.
I have to admit I was surprised by the number of pro-life Democrats in attendance. I shouldn’t have been. According to a 2017 Elon University poll, only 41 percent of North Carolina Democrats said they were liberal, while 41 percent described themselves as “moderate” and another 17.5 percent identified as “conservative.”
The fact that some Democrats hold conservative or even pro-life views seems to be news to some of the party’s national leaders. Right now all light seems to shine on the newest crop of far-left Democrats such as the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a primary in New York, and Georgia’s first African American female gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams.
The leftward shift can also be seen in the party’s leadership. Last year the new DNC Chairman Tom Perez announced the party would support only pro-choice candidates before he was forced to retract (sort of). Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to correct for Perez’ comments, but he was criticized for being insufficiently pro-choice and out-of-touch. It remains to be seen how Schumer will handle the issue if and when the Senate holds hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination later this summer.
But if the party cares about North Carolina’s Democrats, it might consider moving closer to the middle of the political spectrum. Americans like capitalism. They want companies to create jobs; they just want all Americans to have the opportunity to get one if they work hard and follow the rules.
As the Republican Party becomes a captive of the far right and cedes any claim to ideals of promoting equality of opportunity, Democrats should seize the abandoned center of political debate with emphasis on traditional Democratic issues like education, the environment and jobs.
One of the lessons Democrats seem to have learned from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat is that they need to mobilize their base. If younger minority voters had turned out, she might not have lost. But there’s another reason Clinton lost. She failed to engage the center. One needed only to watch the first nights of the Democratic convention to know why: she focused almost exclusively on identity politics.
The result? The center stayed home. Clinton lost the independent voters Obama had won. In North Carolina, six counties that voted for Obama cast ballots for Trump, and Clinton’s losses in a number of other N.C. counties were significantly larger than Obama’s. It wasn’t just that Clinton didn’t energize the base. She lost the middle.
One doesn’t need to read the polls to figure out that Donald Trump has energized the left. The Women’s March and Resist movement demonstrated that. There are efforts to reach younger voters, who tend to be more liberal. But if Democrats want to win North Carolina’s electoral votes in the next presidential contest, they should think about occupying the middle.