In a Georgia special election on Tuesday, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by almost 4 points. It was the most expensive race in the history of the House of Representatives, and Ossoff was narrowly favored to win. It was a disappointing loss for Democrats, especially given that Hillary Clinton only lost the district by 1.5 points. It should have been winnable.
Left-leaning people of all stripes naturally searched for some validation of their personal politics. Leftists argued that it was evidence that neoliberalism needed to be abandoned, while crestfallen centrists argued that it was merely a red district and nobody could have done any better.
Nobody can really know the political future. But I suggest that what Democrats need to do is sharply discount predictions about what sort of politics will play best, and proudly run on something substantive.
Handel's win is only one part of a palpably chaotic political map. Tuesday had another almost totally overlooked special election in South Carolina, where Democrat Archie Parnell — who was expected to lose in a landslide — only lost by 3 points. Despite the fact that Ossoff had raised nearly $24 million to Handel's $4.5 million (though outside Republican groups closed most of that distance in Georgia), of all the special elections so far, only Ossoff has actually underperformed Clinton's 2016 margin in the district.
What distinguishes the Georgia Democratic strategy from the others — especially that of James Thompson in Kansas and Rob Quist in Montana — is an almost total lack of content. Ossoff, for the most part, presented himself as a bland, inoffensive technocratic manager who was all about good government. What policies he did propose were often disappointing. He rejected any possibility of Medicare for all, and favored austerity.
Indeed, all that money might have been a liability. Big donations come with strings attached, and those strings are hooked up to the substantive preferences of the big donors. As The Intercept reports, emails from donors to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee use their donations to pressure the party away from more populist stances — and towards the kind of socially liberal but economically conservative stance that Ossoff ran on.
An interesting survey of political preferences among the 2016 electorate broke them out into the traditional two-axis map comparing economics and social issues. Ossoff/DCCC politics are in the bottom right, which is almost totally depopulated:
— Jeff Spross (@jeffspross) June 19, 2017
You can bet that many of those people are very wealthy. The purpose of those DCCC contributions, and the entire Republican Party, is to shove vicious policy into the national agenda which otherwise would be virtually nonexistent.
Another interesting case study is that of the Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn, who made up an over 20-point polling deficit to nearly tie the Conservatives in the U.K. snap elections, partly on the strength of a strong left-wing manifesto. But oddly, he actually did somewhat worse than Tony Blair did among the working class, and much better among the middle and upper classes — even winning the extremely wealthy Kensington constituency.
I suspect that part of that is down to the increasing precarity and proletarianization of the middle and upper-middle classes, as even "good jobs" often aren't good enough to reach the traditional middle-class symbols of home ownership, a family, and a secure retirement. (One excellent aspect of universal policy is how it can enlist the middle class to protect the poor.)
But another equally important factor is Corbyn's confidence. Instead of carefully adjusting himself to suit what a bunch of wealthy consultants think the voters already believe, as Ossoff did, he ran on bold policy, took fearless stances, and presented a compelling vision of the future. That got him near-delirious enthusiasm from the young, who turned out at the highest rate in 25 years — and the support of a good many voters who are attracted to confident leadership in a chaotic, frightening time.
Hillary Clinton had a pretty decent platform (much of which came from Sanders delegates pressing hard for concessions). But she barely mentioned it during the general election, instead running a campaign markedly similar to Ossoff's. In the future, Democrats would be well advised to dust that thing off, or perhaps roll out some even better policy.