So You Lost the Election. We Had Nothing to Do With It.
Among Democrats, there is no question that the Democratic Party is sailing in rough waters. Yes, it assembled a winning national majority in the 2020 presidential election, but it has struggled to sustain itself at every other level of government.
The Republican Party controls the majority of states and state legislatures, holds a modest advantage in the fight for control of the House ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and holds a substantial advantage in the fight for control of the Senate on account of the chamber’s rural bias. It also has a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court and can more easily win the Electoral College — and thus the presidency — without winning the majority of votes, as it did in 2000 and 2016.
Everyone, within the Democratic Party, can see the problem. The question is who, or what, is to blame. For the last year, the answer from many moderate Democrats — and a sympathetic coterie of journalists, commentators and strategists — is that progressives have sailed the ship aground with their views on race, crime, immigration and education, which alienate potential swing voters, including working-class and blue-collar Hispanics.
Writing on this problem for The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein quotes the demographer and election analyst Ruy Teixeira, who argues that “The more working class voters see their values as being at variance with the Democratic Party brand, the less likely it is that Democrats will see due credit for even their measures that do provide benefits to working class voters.”
In a similar piece, my colleague Tom Edsall quotes William Galston of Brookings, who also argues that progressives threaten to limit efforts to win blue-collar support and that “Some progressives, I fear, would rather be the majority in a minority party than the minority in a majority party.”
It is true that some progressives — either Democratic lawmakers or affiliated activists — hold unpopular views or use unpopular language. It is also true that Republicans have amplified this to some electoral success. But missing in this conversation is one inconvenient fact.
Progressives are not actually in the driver’s seat of the Democratic Party.
It’s easy to think otherwise. Even the most sober version of this critique makes it sound as if the Democratic Party is in the grip of its most left-wing officials and constituents. But it isn’t — to the dismay and frustration of those officials and constituents.
The president of the United States, and leader of the Democratic Party, is Joe Biden, the standard-bearer for a bygone era of centrist governance and aisle-crossing compromise, who made his mark in domestic politics as a drug warrior in the 1980s and a “law and order” Democrat in the 1990s.
The speaker of the House is Nancy Pelosi, a long-serving liberal establishmentarian. Her leadership team — the majority leader, Steny Hoyer; the majority whip, James Clyburn; the assistant speaker, Katherine Clark; and the Democratic caucus chairman, Hakeem Jeffries — are similarly positioned in the center-left of the Democratic Party. The same is true of Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate, as well as the people who run the various organizations of the institutional Democratic Party.
Although the share of progressives within the Democratic Party is much larger than the share of progressives writ large (12 percent of the party versus 6 percent nationally, according to the most recent political typology survey from the Pew Research Center), the large majority of Democrats are moderate to moderately liberal on most issues. That’s why — and how — Joe Biden won the nomination for president in the first place, easily beating his more left-wing opponents in the South Carolina primary and rallying much of the rest of the party behind him on Super Tuesday and beyond.
In office, Biden has led from the center of the Democratic Party. His main legislative achievement so far, Covid relief notwithstanding, is a bipartisan infrastructure bill. The next phase of his agenda, the Build Back Better plan, now rests in the hands of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. He does not celebrate violent protests; he denounces them. He supports law enforcement and the criminal justice system — see his comments on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict — and avoids most cultural battles. This is true, as well, of most elected Democrats in Washington.
There was a battle for control of the Democratic Party, and the moderates won. They hold the power and they direct the message. But despite this victory, moderate Democrats and their allies can’t seem to take responsibility for the party’s fortunes. When faced with defeats — as they were, last month, when Terry McAuliffe fell to Glenn Youngkin in the race to succeed Ralph Northam as governor of Virginia — they blame the left. It’s the same song, each time. If progressives would just stop alienating the public, then they could make gains and put power back in Democratic hands. Somehow, the people in the passenger’s seat of the Democratic Party are always and forever responsible for the driver’s failure to reach their shared destination.
Writing for his newsletter, the journalist Osita Nwanevu made a version of this point earlier in the year. Progressive politicians and activists may be occasionally off-message but in the main, “The simple truth is that most of the things moderate liberals tend to argue Democrats should be doing and saying are, in fact, being done and said by the Biden administration, Democratic leaders in Congress, and the vast majority of Democratic elected officials.”
If, despite their influence, moderate Democrats are not satisfied with the state of their party, then they might want to turn their critical eye on themselves. What they’ll find are a few fundamental problems that may help explain the party’s current predicament.
After all, 2020 was not the first year that Democrats fell short of their expectations. They did so in 2010, when moderates had an even stronger grip on the party, as well as in 2014 and 2016. Here, again, I’ll echo Nwanevu. Despite pitching his administration to the moderate middle — despite his vocal critiques of “identity politics,” his enthusiastic patriotism and his embrace of the most popular Democratic policies on offer — Barack Obama could not arrest the Democratic Party’s slide with blue-collar voters. For the last decade, in other words, the “the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects have been in decline for reasons unattributable to progressive figures and ideas that arrived on the political scene practically yesterday.”
Perhaps the problem, then, lies less with the rhetoric (or existence) of progressive Democrats and more with any number of transformations in the material circumstances of American life and the response — or lack thereof — from the Democrats with the power to do something. What was the Democratic Party’s response to a generation of neoliberal economic restructuring? What was its response to the near-total collapse of private-sector unions? What was its response to the declining fortunes of American workers and the upward redistribution of American wealth?
The answer, for most of the last 30 years, is that the moderate Democrats who led the party have either acquiesced in these trends or, as in the case of the Clinton administration, actively pushed them along. And to the extent that these Democrats offered policies targeted to working Americans, they very often failed to deliver on their promises.
The result, as David Dayen of The American Prospect notes in “The Case for Deliverism,” is that “cynicism finds a breeding ground. People tune out the Democratic message as pretty words in a speech. Eventually, Democratic support gets ground down to a nub, surfacing only in major metropolitan areas that have a cultural affinity for liberalism.” These Democrats, in their failure to deliver, lend credence to the view that Washington is more a hindrance than a help. We can see this right now, as moderate and conservative Democratic resistance to the most ambitious parts of Biden’s agenda has bogged down the entire party and hurt its overall standing.
Read in this light, the frequent focus on progressives as the cause of Democratic woes looks less like hard-nosed analysis and more like excuse-making. And my sense is that this excuse-making will only get worse as Republicans weaponize the institutions of American politics to entrench their power and lay the conditions for durable minority rule.
Right now, the moderate Democrats who run the party have a narrow and slipping hold on Congress against an opposition that relies on structural advantages, which could be mitigated, or at least undermined, with federal power. They have failed to act, and there’s no sign, so far, that anything will change.
If and when Democrats lose one or both chambers of Congress — and when we all face the consequences of their failure — I am confident that we’ll hear, once again, how it’s everyone’s fault but their own.
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