Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Howard Schultz, the coffee billionaire who imagined that he could attract broad support as a “centrist,” turns out to have an approval rating of 4 percent, versus 40 percent disapproval.
Ralph Northam, a Democrat who won the governorship of Virginia in a landslide, is facing a firestorm of denunciation from his own party over racist images on his medical school yearbook page.
President Donald Trump, who ran on promises to expand health care and raise taxes on the rich, began betraying his working-class supporters the moment he took office, pushing through big tax cuts for the rich while trying to take health coverage away from millions.
These are, it turns out, related stories, all of them tied to the two great absences in American political life.
One is the absence of socially liberal, economically conservative voters. These were the people Schultz thought he could appeal to; but basically they don’t exist, accounting for only around, yes, 4 percent of the electorate.
The other is the absence of economically liberal, socially conservative politicians — let’s be blunt and just say “racist populists.” There are plenty of voters who would like that mix, and Trump pretended to be their man; but he wasn’t, and neither is anyone else.
Understanding these empty quarters is, I’d argue, the key to understanding U.S. politics.
Once upon a time, there were racist populists in Congress: The New Deal coalition relied on a large contingent of segregationist Dixiecrats. But this was always unstable. In practice, advocating economic inclusion seems to spill over into advocacy of racial and social inclusion, too. By the 1940s, Northern Democrats were more pro-civil rights than Northern Republicans, and as the Northam affair shows, the party now has very little tolerance for even the appearance of racism.
Meanwhile, the modern Republican Party is all about cutting taxes on the rich and benefits for the poor and the middle class. And Trump, despite his campaign posturing, has turned out to be no different.
Hence the failure of our political system to serve socially conservative/racist voters who also want to tax the rich and preserve Social Security. Democrats won’t ratify their racism; Republicans, who have no such compunctions, will — remember, the party establishment solidly backed Roy Moore’s Senate bid — but won’t protect the programs they depend on.
But why are there so few voters holding the reverse position, combining social/racial liberalism and economic conservatism? The answer, I’d argue, lies in just how far to the right the GOP has gone.
Polling is unambiguous here. If you define the “center” as a position somewhere between those of the two parties, when it comes to economic issues the public is overwhelmingly left of center; if anything, it’s to the left of the Democrats. Tax cuts for the rich are the GOP’s defining policy, but two-thirds of voters believe that taxes on the rich are too low, while only 7 percent believe they’re too high. Voters support Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax on large fortunes by a 3-1 majority. Only a small minority want to see cuts in Medicaid, even though such cuts have been central to every GOP health care proposal in recent years.
Why did Republicans stake out a position so far from voters’ preferences? Because they could. As Democrats became the party of civil rights, the GOP could attract working-class whites by catering to their social and racial illiberalism, even while pursuing policies that hurt ordinary workers.
The result is that to be an economic conservative in America means advocating policies that, on their merits, only appeal to a small elite. Basically nobody wants these policies on their own; they only sell if they’re packaged with racial hostility.
So what do the empty quarters of U.S. politics mean for the future? First, of course, that Schultz is a fool — and so are those who dream of a reformed GOP that remains conservative but drops its association with racists. There’s hardly anyone who wants that mix of positions.
Second, fears that Democrats are putting their electoral prospects in danger by moving too far left, for example by proposing higher taxes on the rich and Medicare expansion, are grossly exaggerated. Voters want an economic move to the left — it’s just that some of them dislike Democratic support for civil rights, which the party can’t drop without losing its soul.
What’s less clear is whether there’s room for politicians willing to be true racist populists, unlike Trump, who was faking the second part. There’s a substantial bloc of racist-populist voters, and you might think that someone would try to serve them. But maybe the gravitational attraction of big money — which has completely captured the GOP, and has arguably kept Democrats from moving as far left as the electorate really wants — is too great.
In any case, if there’s a real opening for an independent, that candidate will look more like George Wallace than like Howard Schultz. Billionaires who despise the conventional parties should beware of what they wish for.
Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.