If there’s one clear winner so far in the NFL-Trump fracas, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva, the only player on his team to take the field on Sunday for the national anthem while his teammates stayed out of sight in protest. As of Monday, Villanueva’s No. 78 jersey was the best-selling jersey in the NFL.
The overnight popularity of Villanueva, an ex-Army Ranger and offensive tackle who did three tours in Afghanistan, underscores the delusion of the American Left in general and the Democratic Party apparatus in particular: they think that extreme identity politics and cultural warfare of the kind exemplified by NFL players kneeling in protest during the pre-game national anthem is going to benefit them and hurt Trump.
It’s not, and not just because most Americans disapprove of such protests. The larger problem for Democrats is their wholesale reliance on identity politics: the sincere conviction that certain demographic groups of Americans will vote for their candidates simply because of their race or sex.
Those wayward assumptions were palpable this weekend in Austin, Texas, where Democrats featured large at the Texas Tribune Festival, an annual weekend confab of politicians, journalists, and policy wonks at the University of Texas at Austin. While NFL players and officials were busy protesting Trump by refusing to stand for the national anthem—and thinking they would be seen as courageous for doing so—Texas Democrats were indulging in their own little fantasy: they think they’re poised to take back the Lone Star State.
Democrats Are In Thrall to Identity Politics
Why? Because of identity politics, mostly. In a panel on the 2018 Democratic playbook, 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis argued that “Texas is already blue” and that Democrats would take control of the state if only Hispanics would come out and vote in larger numbers. Davis, you might recall, lost to Republican Gregg Abbott by a whopping 20 points in 2014. Her staggering loss has become something of a cautionary tale for Texas Democrats, in part because she was thought to have the best chance of winning statewide office since the last Democrat, Ann Richards, won the governorship in 1991.
Still, Davis was greeted like a celebrity by the Austin crowd, which appeared to accept at face value her assertion about Hispanics turning Texas blue. But that line of argument is especially odd coming from Davis. Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2014, a higher share than the 38 percent Gov. Rick Perry won in 2010, and he even won a larger share of Hispanic men than Davis.
Part of the reason for these gains was Abbott’s aggressive campaign outreach to predominantly Hispanic areas of the state. But it was also because Hispanics are doing better in Texas than they are in deep blue states like California, and were therefore more open to Abbott’s economic message of opportunity than Davis’ culture warrior message about abortion rights and the GOP’s supposed War on Women. Davis and her fellow panelists told the crowd in Austin that the only reason Democrats lose constantly in Texas is because Republicans suppress the vote with voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts. They never discuss that maybe Hispanics in Texas, like the vast majority of all Texans, simply prefer Republican policies to Democratic ones.
Davis never stood a chance, just as no Democrat now stands a chance against Abbott, whose only potential challenger at this point will come from the conservative wing of his own party. On some level, Texas Democrats know this, which is why none of the Democratic panelists at Tribfest would talk about the fact that they have no candidate for governor in 2018. The truth is most likely that no one has come forward to run because no one wants to lose the way Davis lost.
Yet Democrats remain confident. They point to 2016 election results in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, as evidence that they’re on the cusp of turning Texas blue. Certainly, Harris turned solidly blue in 2016, voting for Hillary Clinton by more than 12 points, the largest margin in a presidential election in more than a decade. But Harris County went narrowly for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before swinging back to the GOP and supporting Abbott by more than 4 points in 2014. And anyway, Houston is just one city in a state of 27 million people.
Resistance to Trump Isn’t A Recipe For Electoral Success
Victory in a presidential election year in a major metropolitan center like Houston is by no means a guarantee that a Democrat can win a statewide election in 2018. Yet the other big Democratic star at Tribfest this weekend was Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman who stepped down to run against Sen. Ted Cruz. Tribfest was more or less a press junket for O’Rourke, who seemed to be everywhere, flashing his “Kennedyesque” good looks and effusing confidence despite the reality, even by his own admission, that he has almost no chance of unseating Cruz in 2018.
Here again, Democrats mistakenly think Cruz is vulnerable to a relative unknown like O’Rourke because they conflate Cruz with President Trump, who isn’t as popular in Texas as one might assume a GOP president would be. They assume that because Cruz is a Republican, and because he (begrudgingly) endorsed Trump, voters will punish him. But Cruz won the state’s Republican primary last year by 17 points. Even if his approval rating has slumped this year on account of his failed presidential bid and strained relationship with Trump, it’s likely to rebound before next year’s election.
That Cruz is in many ways the polar opposite of Trump might be hard for coastal Democrats to understand, but not for conservative Texas voters, who tend to care less about Trump’s economic nationalism and more about limiting government and maintaining free trade with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The larger point is that resistance to Trump is not a guarantor of popularity among a large and diverse electorate, something Democrats should have grasped by now. And if last year taught us anything, it’s that demographics aren’t destiny, which is another way of saying that identity politics might fire up the Democrats’ left-leaning base but it won’t be enough to turn Texas blue—any more than it will turn NFL fans against the likes of Villanueva.