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The Trade: Meet the New Red Dog Democrats

The two parties have traded voters—whether the old political class likes it or not.
December 21, 2020
The Trade: Meet the New Red Dog Democrats
(The Bulwark / Shutterstock)

In 2011 my beloved Denver Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, three draft picks, $3 million in cash, and four coupons to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Fans of the organizations were mixed on the trade. In Denver, we experienced the full panoply human emotion:

  • Anger at Melo for forcing the trade.
  • Jealousy that a bigger city can draw star players.
  • Worry that the return package wouldn’t have anywhere near the same ceiling for success.

Meanwhile the perpetually (and deservedly) grumpy Knicks fans were fretting that they had given away too much and would be shackled with a star who couldn’t carry them to the next level. (As it turned out, they were right.)

But no matter what the coaches and fans and general managers and commentators wanted to happen, everyone had to embrace the trade and move forward with the guys that they got.

And that is the prism through which I view the state of affairs when analyzing the current realignment in American politics.

Over the last four years, some people who have traditionally been with the Republicans are finding that they were traded to a new team. And vice versa. Everyone intuitively knows that has happened, but for various reasons, many in the Washington political class don’t seem willing to accept the reality of it.

I get it. Changing political identities isn’t always easy. You don’t have to tell me.

But if you want your team to be successful, you need to understand who is on it.

So let’s go to the political Trade Machine to try to figure out what just happened.

The Democrats Receive: The Red Dogs

In the 1990s, after the GOP won control of both houses of Congress, moderate Democrats who believed their party had moved too far to the left started calling themselves the “Blue Dogs.” Today, it’s the “Red Dogs” who are looking for a home in the Democratic party: college-educated, largely white suburbanites in major metropolitan areas who used to be Republicans or swing voters. (Remember the security moms? Most of them are Red Dogs now.)

These are people who voted for Mitt Romney and/or George W. Bush but who pulled the lever for Democratic House candidates during the 2018 mini-wave; voted for Joe Biden/Mike Bloomberg/Mayor Pete/Amy K, powering a massive suburban turnout surge in the 2020 Democratic primaries; and then pushed Biden over the top in the general election.

They live in the suburban sprawl of major metropolitan areas, like my hometown of Denver. The congressional district that I grew up in, which forms a suburban horseshoe around the city, has gone from R +10 to D +18 in just six years! In Atlanta, Red Dogs helped create a Democratic ring around the city, electing Lucy McBath to the House in 2018 and carrying Joe Biden to a surprise win in 2020.

The Red Dogs might still vote for a Republican in a local race, maybe even enthusiastically if they live in a blue state or a swing district where the Republican candidate is more pragmatic. But in the nationalized races (which most are these days) they’re now aligned with the Democrats.

The Republicans Receive: The Diners + The Contrarians

The Republicans have added culturally conservative white voters in the exurbs, rural America, and small towns, particularly those without a college degree. These are the people whose diners were frequented by New York Times profile writers for the past four years. They don’t much care for the globalist GOP establishment or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s policy priorities.

As part of the deal the Republicans also are picking up:

  • Some culturally conservative Latinos, particularly men.
  • A smattering of very online contrarians who don’t like “wokeness” and think the most important issue facing the country is whether they can call people faggots on Facebook without being shadowbanned. Also mostly men (of course).
  • Cash considerations.

As a demographic matter, Republicans also face something akin to having to give up a future pick in the 2028 draft. While cottagecore might be all the rage on TikTok during the pandemic, the growing parts of the population are going to continue to shift towards the Red Dogs’ dynamic metros, not rural America or the industrial Midwest. You don’t see too many people moving to Erie, Pennsylvania these days.

Despite this, Republican strategists are happy with the trade and not fretting about this longer-term trend, because they are built to win now.

Kind of.

It might be more precise to say they are built to “win” now.

What you have to understand is that the GOP is a solid minority party—they have no real plan to win a majority of the vote in a national election in the foreseeable future—but because of the Electoral College, the Senate, and state-level gerrymandering, their coalition has a key advantage.

This is because all of those diner folks bring with them a big geographic benefit—having the right land mass carries influence in our system. And since Republicans have no aspirations to be a majority party, they are content with a trade that solidifies this geographic advantage.

As is always the case, not everybody is happy with the trade.

The populist wing of the Democratic party, which carries disproportionate weight on Twitter dot com, loathes the Red Dogs. It has a weird obsession with extirpating from the party every person who has ever attended a brunch. Many Red Dogs like to go to brunch. So there’s some tension in the ranks there.

Some of the identitarian Democrats wish their coalition could succeed only with people of color and don’t want to invite new white women to the party. Many Red Dogs are white women, so there’s some tension there, as well.

Conversely, some of the Red Dogs don’t really feel at home yet with their new team and are still keeping the elephant brooches that they bought for the 2004 Republican National Convention, just in case.

The remaining Chamber of Commerce Republican types don’t really like their new teammates and are wishing they could get back to their “normal” Ryanomics ways after Trump magically disappears.

Many of the diner types and contrarians who are newly minted MAGAt Republicans are pissed that the old GOP men are just quietly going along with Trump’s clown coup rather than actively supporting martial law and wish they would get out of the way.

The problems with all of these groups’ concerns about the trade are (1) when a country as big and diverse as ours has only two political parties there are always going to be internal conflicts; and (2) how people feel about the trade doesn’t really matter—it already happened.

When the Nuggets traded their once-in-a-generation star for a stone-footed Russian center, I wasn’t happy either. But it was a fait accompli. Certainly the team couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened: You don’t run the same offensive sets with Timofey Mozgov as with Melo. So Denver’s coaching staff adapted, tried to leverage their strengths, and make the best of it.

As a wildly irresponsible SecDef once kind of said, You go to war with the team you have, not the team you wish you had.

And the same principle holds for the Democrats and the Red Dogs, who, as Politico reported last week, are trying to figure out their future options.

Here’s an example of how not embracing the reality of the trade could backfire: Red Dog former Rep. David Jolly has been floated as an independent candidate for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat in Florida.

Now I like David Jolly. I think he’d be a great senator. I’d love to donate to his campaign against wee, widdle whataboutist Marco. There’s a problem though. Jolly’s voters are mostly Red Dogs and MSNBC-viewing Democratic regulars—not Republicans.

Meaning that if Jolly ran as an independent, he’d mostly just take votes away from the Democrat. Sure he’d pick up a few votes from marginal Republicans too, but when push comes to shove, almost all of those folks are fine with Rubio.

When you think about it, this shouldn’t be surprising: Despite being a former Republican, David Jolly agrees with the Democrats and disagrees with Nationalist New Coke Marco on basically all of the animating issues of our time.

This is evidenced by a recent New York Times op-ed from 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin about the potential need to replace the GOP with a “new conservative alternative.” Here is how McMullin describes what that alternative party would stand for:

It should start with unyielding commitment to the equality and liberty of all, and then to facts, reason and knowledge. It should champion democracy and its improvement and cherish life in all its phases. It should promote personal responsibility, limited government and government’s vital role for the common good. It should advance justice for all, and uphold the personal and religious freedom of a diverse people.

It should expand economic opportunity, rejecting cronyism and protectionism, while defending innovators and workers from theft and predatory practices abroad. It should recognize immigration as a vital national asset and universal access to quality health care, public and private, a national obligation. It should imagine new methods of learning and work. It should be decent, ethical and loyal to the Constitution.

I agree with all of that!

But here’s the thing: With the exception of the words “limited government,” Joe Biden agrees with everything this third party would stand for too. And he is the president-elect and standard bearer of a party that already exists and just got over 50 percent of the vote in a national election.

I don’t want to minimize the differences over scope of government between the Red Dogs and the mainline Democrats. They are real and genuine and deeply held.

But are the passions around limited government so widespread to make a new party centered around it viable? Are the disagreements between the Red Dogs and the Democrats over the size of government so vast that they merit blowing up this new coalition and potentially helping a populist, nationalist, anti-democratic Republican party? (Which, by the way, has no interest in “limited government” either.)

It seems to me the answer to these questions is a big fat No.

This scope-of-government debate between the Red Dogs and the establishment Democrats seems much more akin to the genuine disagreements that Blue Dog Democrats or Rockefeller Republicans had with their parties in the past than it does the kind of fundamental fissure that requires a new party.

Now, there might be specific campaigns or parts of the country where the calculus is different.

Maybe two candidates closer to the fringes—a DSA socialist and a member of the GOP Q-Squad, say—win primaries for the same Senate seat, making room for a “conservative independent” who can put together a plurality of the vote.

Some version of this has happened in the near past, with Lisa Murkowski and Joe Lieberman winning Senate races as independents by holding the middle. Red Dogs supporting such a candidate would make a ton of sense.

In certain GOP districts maybe the entire ballgame is a Republican primary between a Trumper and a more old-line Republican that the Red Dogs would prefer. And in places with ranked-choice voting or a top-two nonpartisan primary the calculus may get funky.

But those types of races are going to be the exception, not the norm. At least for a while. At some point in the future this will change—political coalitions are always in motion. But that motion is slow and the truth is, the realignment that happened with Donald Trump had been under way for about 25-30 years.

So maybe things will be more or less like they are for a generation. Or maybe not. It’s possible that Biden could lose hold of the center and the Democrats break up their new coalition, leaving the Red Dogs homeless (again).

If that happened, there would be another realignment. Maybe it would open up a more realistic avenue for a third party. Or maybe it would result in a snap-back of some of the illiberal strains in the GOP. I don’t have a crystal ball.

But the future will take care of itself. All that we can do is look at the present and assess the teams that are on the floor.

The existence of these new teams is, I realize, frustrating for many involved. But for the liberals who are cranky about the trade, let me give you a scouting report on your new teammates.

(1) You can keep the Reds in the tent without doing any of the dog-whistle pandering to white grievance culture that will be required to win back the Obama-Trump voters.

  • Black Lives Matter? Got the t-shirt.
  • Kneeling for the anthem? You do you, Kaep!
  • Gay and Trans rights: Hell yes!
  • Mask wearing: The Red Dogs triple bag it!

(2) There are substantial progressive policy priorities that Red Dog voters either actively support or won’t make a stink about. Here are just a few of those items:

(3) There’s another batch of policies where the Red Dogs will go along with liberals either part, or most, of the way.

  • Climate regulations, re-entering the Paris Agreement, and investing in green energy—yes! (But banning fossil fuels is going to hurt you with the charter Red Dogs in places like Dallas and Houston.)
  • Major criminal justice and police reform—awesome! (“Defunding” the police is not going to be a winner.)
  • Dream Act, refugee resettlement, pathway to citizenship—sweet. Republicans used to be for this! (Decriminalizing the border, not so much.)
  • Reasonable gun-control legislation. Think of it this way: Anything that has a prayer of getting through Joe Manchin and Jon Tester, the Red Dogs will support enthusiastically.
  • Taxing the rich. (Okay. Just don’t stick it to the HENRY’s too hard.)
  • Health care public option. (Key word: “option.”)
  • A new Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Do Democrats support free trade agreements anymore? That’s unclear at this stage. But if they do, the Red Dogs are with them.)

Not every Red Dog will agree with everything on the above list. And there will be areas of disagreement within the coalition not covered above. Abortion rights, education reform, and the like.

But for the most part, this new team can unite behind a broadly popular center-left agenda that is—let’s just be honest here—already beyond what is realistically achievable in our current political environment.

With both values and substance aligning, for at least the next two cycles, these are the teams and this is the battlefield that they will have to build their coalitions on. That is, if they want to maximize their chance for victory.

As Midge Decter—the Democrat turned neocon Republican—famously put it, “There comes a time to join the side you’re on.”

So here we are.

Correction, December 21, 2020 9:54 a.m.: The article originally stated that Carmelo Anthony was traded in 2013. He was traded in 2011. The text has been changed accordingly.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.