The difficult lessons of Democrats' 2020 victory
The presidential election was finally called for Joe Biden over the weekend, and so naturally Democrats, who also retained a House majority, are already pointing fingers about who to blame for the victory not being as big as expected. Moderates who lost, or had close races, are blaming the left, particularly the "squad" of lefty women in the House. "We pay the price for these unprofessional and unrealistic comments about a number of issues, whether it is about the police or shale gas," claimed Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Penn.) who barely won re-election.
In truth, the results of the 2020 election are a muddle, and nobody can credibly claim to have the secret ideological formula for victory. What the Democratic Party must rely on is long-term organizing, and leveraging power to deliver concrete policy wins whenever they can. Above all, they need courage.
Let me start with a big caveat: this election was extremely unusual, and therefore may not have much in the way of lasting political lessons. Donald Trump was a unique incumbent — inexperienced, utterly incompetent, monumentally corrupt, a massive drama queen, and on and on. There was the worst pandemic in a century, and the associated economic crisis. Turnout was probably the highest in 120 years, with both liberals and conservatives coming out in staggering numbers (and in several states the last votes are still being counted).
It just isn't clear at all what a more "normal" election, with candidates who are not deranged reality TV celebrities, might look like. (Though who knows, perhaps the next presidential election will end up being The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan.)
That said, we can tentatively conclude that neither leftists nor moderates can claim unqualified victory for their politics. The progressive organization Justice Democrats produced a regression showing that more lefty candidates were slightly more likely to win, but the correlation is minuscule. Some lefty candidates, like Kara Eastman in Nebraska, lost in swing districts where Biden did win. The right-wing ballot initiative Prop 22 passed easily in deep-blue California (though on deceptive grounds that it was pro-worker), while the progressive tax reform Prop 15 is trailing as the remaining votes are counted (though it is close). On the other hand, moderate candidates also lost in many states, while ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in Florida, to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Washington, D.C., and to decriminalize all drugs in Oregon, all passed easily. Every House incumbent in a swing district who co-sponsored Medicare-for-all kept their seat. Marijuana legalization was on the ballot in five states and passed in every one.
The most convincing explanation for this I've heard is that Democrats as a party simply had a fairly good night instead of the very good one they were expecting (and had in the 2018 midterms). Democrats in marginal districts or states, on average, were more likely to lose, no matter if they were moderate or progressive. Senate Democrats may have been most hurt by the media narrative that Biden was likely to win, which seems to have triggered the dread "we need a check on the president" thought process among the most incomprehensible swing voters who for some reason prefer a completely paralyzed, dysfunctional government.
Conversely, it is increasingly clear that, even with Trump horribly bungling the pandemic response and the ongoing economic crisis, the political background conditions were not as favorable for Biden as they seemed. Polling and reporting confirm that the strong economy of 2018-19 was very popular, as well as the CARES Act checks and boost to unemployment — the most blatant and obvious government support that most Americans have seen in their entire lives. It turns out Trump's instinct to take credit for all that free money was politically smart!
In that context, it's important to remember that moderate Joe Biden was at the top of the ticket. The presidential candidate is naturally going to have by far the most influence over the shape of the national campaign. This makes complaints from moderates like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) that the left is to blame for unexpected down-ballot losses completely ridiculous. Biden did not support any of the left-wing policies that have been discussed of late — on the contrary, he constantly ridiculed and attacked them. In the debates with Trump he dismissed the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, and elsewhere he said the police should get more money. Half the premise of his candidacy was that he was the safe bet who would be immune from right-wing attacks that he is a radical socialist. Yet now, when those attacks seemed to work in Florida, it's still the left's fault.
Whether it's motivated reasoning or simple dishonesty, "anything bad that happens is always the left's fault" is the operative principle for many moderates here. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), an ex-CIA moderate, yelled on a Democratic conference call that anti-police rhetoric nearly made her lose when she actually got a greater share of the vote relative to 2018. Alas, in politics repetition of misleading, simplistic talking points usually works much better than thrashing out complicated truths.
At any rate, the clearest political problem for Democrats is the mindset revealed by this entire discussion. The party and its voters are terrified of Republicans and desperate for some kind of guaranteed political winner. Given the appalling presidencies of Trump and George W. Bush, one can see why, but there simply is no such magic formula. What does work is political organizing — even if ideologically left-wing candidates do not automatically win, the massive surge of attention to leftist issues around the George Floyd protests produced an enormous surge in Democratic voter registration in many states, while Georgia has become a competitive state because progressive organizers have cut the share of voting-eligible residents who are not registered from over 20 percent four years ago to just 2 percent today, and tied the bulk of those new voters into political organizations to turn them out for Democrats specifically. Colorado has become a solidly blue state in part thanks to its state party, which is perhaps the best-organized in the country.
I submit that what Democrats need is some guts. Consider Republicans, who almost never evince the slightest worry about public opinion. Just now the Republican legislature in Florida is preparing to gut the $15 minimum wage referendum mentioned above, just like they gutted the felon re-enfranchisement referendum that passed in 2018. It's a safe bet that contemptuous disdain for the will of their own voters will have no effect whatsoever on Floridians reflexively voting GOP.
It no doubt helps Republicans to have a completely shameless propaganda apparatus defending their every move, and of course one would not want Democrats to start swilling conspiracy garbage until their brains dissolve as many conservative base voters have done. Whether or not policies are popular does still matter. But confidence, aggressiveness, and careful organization do pay political dividends. And Trump's unexpected strength on the back of honking great piles of free money suggests that even the crudest kind of government support wins political favor. If President Obama and the Democrats of 2009 had gone for full employment through handouts of literal "Obamabucks" (as crackpot Republicans accused him of doing), we would be living in a very different country today.
The question Democratic moderates must face is whether they are willing to include or even listen to their leftist party members, who generally comprise their youngest, best organized, and most media-savvy faction. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), undoubtedly the biggest rising star in the party, says she has offered her advice and expertise and been turned down, and has gotten so much abuse from the aging party elite that she is seriously considering quitting politics altogether. Whether moderates can avoid driving out the rising generation — or whether the left continues furiously organizing and demonstrating at the grassroots level, as Osita Nwanevu advocates at The New Republic — may determine whether or not Republicans manage to complete their project of turning America into a one-party state.