The left-wing plan to rescue the Democratic Party

The party gains nothing by drifting to the center of the ideological spectrum

Saving the party
(Image credit: Illustration by Jackie Friedman)

With fruitcakes in first and second place in the GOP presidential primary (Donald Trump and Ben Carson, respectively), and the party's seeming inability to find a single warm body to serve as speaker of the House, it's easy to argue, as Kevin Drum does, that the Republican Party is on the verge of collapse.

However, it is also the case, as Matt Yglesias writes, that Republicans are basically the governing party across most of the country. They fully control 25 state governments, compared to the Democrats' seven. They are certainly not guaranteed to lose in 2016. Yglesias thus concludes that the Democrats are a party in crisis without a serious plan to take back power at the state and local level.

But Yglesias overstates his case. On the one hand, it is true that the Dems have been obliterated on the state level, losing more than 900 state legislative seats since 2009. But it isn't true, as he argues, that nobody in the party is trying to address this issue. And his implicit argument that Democrats can win by running to the center is suspect.

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Ed Kilgore is a former Democratic staffer, with good contacts in the party, and he reports that weakness at the state level is a constantly discussed problem in party circles. They haven't been able to do that much about it thus far, of course, but it's not like they're unaware or in denial. On the contrary, it's right below keeping the presidency on the priority list.

So why have Democrats been struggling at the state and local level? Yglesias has several explanations: structural over-representation of rural voters, who tilt conservative; the fact that the bulk of the monied class is conservative; gerrymandering; and so forth. All good reasons. However, he also implicitly embraces one of the hoariest Washington clichés: It's because Democrats are too left-wing — they've abandoned the center! Perhaps sensing that he's sounding disturbingly like America's Worst Pundit, he tiptoes up to this rather than stating it outright, but the conclusion is clear enough:

[T]he party is marching steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave — even though existing issue positions seem incompatible with a House majority or any meaningful degree of success in state politics. [Vox]

One problem with this argument is that conservative Democrats have already lost in droves. During the huge Republicans wave in 2010, it was overwhelmingly conservative Blue Dogs and New Democrats who got thrown out. The party leadership has been desperately trying to preserve its last few Blue Dog preserves in battleground states, but they lost a bunch more in 2014 too.

It is true that Democrats struggle to recruit candidates in conservatives states; many crazed reactionaries now run unopposed. And by all accounts the party leadership is none too competent. But it's simply not true to say that Democrats are marching left and throwing their right wing over the side, Hillary Clinton's proposed milquetoast expansions of the welfare state notwithstanding. Instead, the conservative wing of the party simply got beat.

Another hole in Yglesias' argument is that of turnout. Simply put, the bulk of Republican victories since 2009 can be chalked up to the midterm electorate being 10 to 20 percentage points smaller than the presidential one — and those midterm voters are far more conservative than the rest of the electorate.

This is a relatively recent development — in the 2006 midterms, the Democrats won a smashing victory. But since then the voting population has evolved such that Democratic voters — younger and browner than average — are massively less likely to vote in midterm elections. Conversely, the bigger the electorate, the less conservative it is. Left-wing activists and analysts have been shouting themselves blue in the face about this for years. So has Bernie Sanders.

Seen so, the Democrats' de facto strategy of generally moving to the left makes some sense. After all, extant political reality makes it more important for committed liberals to vote during midterms, since their vote will count for more.

And it is not as if Republicans have been running to the center themselves — instead, they doggedly pursue their ideological objectives, many of which are deeply unpopular (total resistance to all abortion and gun control, for instance), almost regardless of electoral politics. But today they're stronger at the state level than at any time since 1928. It turns out that a committed and organized minority can pay vastly outsized political dividends.

The Democrats' strategy is thus far a halfhearted, pale shadow of the fervent ideological mobilization that the Republican base has been deploying for generations, but it basically makes sense. The end game is a politically activated base that fully understands that merely voting in presidential elections is totally inadequate to securing substantive liberal goals. It might not work, but it's got a better shot than being the party of triangulating sellouts.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.