Talking Points

A liberal diagnoses the Democratic Party's pathologies

Joe Biden's steep slide in the polls since mid-summer is bad for the Democratic Party and, if it contributes to Donald Trump winning a second term in 2024, it could be terrible for the country. But it's been very good for political punditry.

The latest example, following on the heels of numerous smart Substack posts by Matthew Yglesias and several illuminating interviews with data analyst David Shor, comes from Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. In a cogently argued, lengthy essay, Chait examines Biden's political woes through the lens of two pathologies in the Democratic Party, one on the progressive left, the other in its centrist bloc.

On the progressive side, Chait points to the politically detrimental influence of a small class of wealthy left-wing donors who are using their money and influence to steer prominent liberal nonprofits further to the left on a range of issues, but especially on culture-war disputes where the progressive position is quite far from the median Democratic voter.

When it comes to the moderates (above all West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema), Chait chides them for failing to develop a principled centrist-liberal position on cultural issues in favor of deferring to the (politically unpopular) economic stance of the Chamber of Commerce.

Combine these two trends and the Democrats appear to be pulling apart, moving left on culture and right on economics when it would be much more politically salutary to combine a more leftward economic agenda with a more centrist position on culture.

It's a powerful argument — though also one with some problems.

For one thing, Chait draws on Shor's analysis in talking about donors adopting unpopular progressive positions on culture, but he underplays Shor's broader claim that the leftward cultural trend is driven mainly by education. This implies that it's not just Democratic donors but the entire college-educated faction of the Democratic electorate that has become more left-wing on culture. That faction of the party is quite large and growing — which means that the problem Chait highlights is much bigger and more difficult to solve than taming a handful of politically unhelpful donors.

Then there's Chait's critique of the centrists. It's true that they have followed the lead of the Chamber of Commerce in working to quash a number of provisions of the Bill Back Better bill that have polled quite well. But it's also true that most people who respond to polls know nothing about these policies beyond what they have been told by the pollster, making those opinions pretty superficial and tentative. Once those opinions run up against Republican messaging that labels the underlying policies socialism and blames any and all bad economic news on their effects, such support could well sink.

All of which points to the fundamental reality of American politics in 2021: The Democratic Party is deeply and narrowly divided, but so is the American electorate as a whole. Under such circumstances, getting anything accomplished is bound to be extremely difficult — as will attempting to remain popular while doing so.