The White House has a big youth problem. Since the day of his inauguration, Joe Biden’s approval has declined by about 7 points among Americans over 50—and by an astonishing 19 points among Americans under 35. The pollster and politics writer Kristen Soltis Anderson joins the show to talk about Biden’s eroding approval among young people and what it means for November. Then she and Derek talk about what liberals don’t get about conservatives, why Democrats overrate the political power of Donald Trump, and whether masculinity could benefit from a liberal rebrand. A portion of their conversation has been excerpted below.
Derek Thompson: You held a focus group of conservative men that was written about and published in The New York Times that I thought was utterly fascinating. I thought the response to it, the online reaction to this article, was completely fascinating. So let’s talk about both the substance and the reaction. You hold this focus group with eight conservative men; what did they say that was most interesting to you?
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I feel like for these men, what was most interesting to me was that their sense of not fitting into modern culture was very real and it wasn’t just theoretical. It wasn’t just, “I feel like I don’t fit in because someone on TV or something I saw on social media told me I didn’t.” It was that these men had examples of being ostracized within their church communities for having noted that they were conservative. You had one participant—this was one moment that went particularly viral from the focus group—who talked about being a realtor and getting negative Yelp reviews from someone with whom he had had a conflict on an HOA board and feeling like the world becoming more progressive was having real consequences for him personally—not just theoretical, but something that was affecting his life.
And that’s why, even though they were very clear that they know their views were unpopular, they nevertheless think that they’re right and were unwilling to back down from their views on things like gender roles, for example, even in the face of me, as a young female moderator telling me to my face, “Well, you know, there’s a reason why women are called the weaker sex.” I thought, “OK, well, tell me more about that, sir.”
These guys know that they are out of step with today’s culture, know that they are out of step with where culture is headed, and they know that it can have consequences for their lives, their careers. Many of them said things like, “I haven’t made a new friend in many years,” and there’s plenty of data outside of this focus group that backs that up, that men in particular these days just have fewer and fewer close friends, that a lot of them are just sort of retreating from a lot of spaces that they may have previously engaged with because they just sort of get that they are not where society is headed and don’t know how to make sense of that.
DT: It’s funny, I’ve long thought that there were surprising similarities between left-wing millennials and working-class Republicans. They’re both turning away from religion; church attendance among white men without a college degree is declining just about as fast as it is among young college grads. Both are deeply skeptical of elites. And both are lonely. What you’re describing is a culture of loneliness, and loneliness isn’t often considered a political phenomenon, but maybe it should be. Maybe we need some anti-lonely politician to raise the political salience of loneliness.
And I wanna connect that to your article in The New York Times. I read it. I disagreed with about half of what these conservative men said. And I thought the subtext of their message was, “I’m done with the left because I think liberal America basically wants me to go fuck myself.” And then I go on Twitter and guess what a lot of my left-of-center friends told these guys to do: in not so many words, basically, “Go fuck yourself.” So Kristen, from a coldly political standpoint, are my friends right? Is it just not worth it for Democrats to pursue this group? Or do you think Democrats are making a huge error in assuming that working class dudes are hereby rendered eternal property of the Republican party?
KSA: From a pure political strategy perspective, anytime you have decided that you are OK with losing a group of voters, you have to have someone else that you are adding to take their place. And I think in this focus group, some of those men probably have never voted for a Democrat. They probably never would vote for a Democrat. Writing them off is not costing Democrats any votes. But there were a couple who I think that if you had approached them with a message that said, “Hey, don’t you think it’s terrible that the middle class has been hollowed out over the last couple of decades in American society?” And if your message to them was focused on that and also didn’t say, “By the way, I find you repellent,” they could potentially vote for Democratic candidates.
But the counterargument is we should call their views for what they are. We should acknowledge that if we are trying to pander to them and tell them that they’re welcome in our coalition, you are depressing the base of our party and they will not turn out. Republicans had the same thing go down 10 years ago when Mitt Romney lost in 2012. That fight was, should Republicans try to moderate, be more accommodating to socially progressive voters, bring them in, say nice things about immigration reform, et cetera, or should they double down on a really strongly conservative message and win back those disaffected evangelicals? So this is a tale as old as time in politics. But I do think that some of those men in that focus group would be available to Democrats on a purely economic message if they were not also simultaneously hearing “we don’t want you” at every turn.
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Kristen Soltis Anderson
Producer: Devon Manze