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How Not to Build a Coalition
The Left’s Theory of the Case Falls Apart
It’s fair to say that the left of the Democratic party has been in ascendance for some time. You could see it in how candidates positioned themselves during the Democratic primaries. You could see it in the uncritical embrace of pretty much every aspect of the protest movements that erupted in the wake of the George Floyd murder. You could see it in how deferential Joe Biden was to the left after he secured the Democratic nomination and campaigned for the Presidency. You could see it in the staffing decisions made after Biden was elected and the rhetoric coming out of the administration. And you could certainly see it in the way Biden has repeatedly tried to mollify the left, especially the House’s Progressive Caucus, as he desperately tried to craft a successful legislative agenda.
Now that a year has passed since Biden took office, it’s a good time to ask: how’s all that working out? The left of the Democratic party has a theory of the case on how their actions will build a dominant progressive electoral coalition. In what follows, I will compare five key aspects of this case to actual results in the real world. It’s not a pretty picture.
1. Turnout, turnout, turnout! You don’t have to talk to anyone on the left of the Democrats for any length of time before they evince their touching faith in the wonder-working powers of high voter turnout. Interrogate them a little further and it turns out what they really mean is that the stark choices presented to the electorate by progressive policies will produce massive turnout by Democratic-leaning constituencies (nonwhites, young voters, etc)…..but (somehow) not on the other side. That’s not the way it works. The other side gets to vote too and the very stark choices favored by those on the left may mobilize the other side just as much—maybe more!—than the left’s side.
The 2020 election presented a pretty darn stark choice to voters. And it was indeed a high turnout election. The problem: everyone’s turnout went up, including among groups the left would have preferred stayed home. The net result of higher turnout did not significantly boost Democratic fortunes; if anything Republicans may have a benefitted a bit more from the higher levels of turnout.
This makes it easier to understand why Biden’s 2020 victory was so much narrower than anticipated and why the election saw Democrats lose ground in the House and in state legislatures. And why the hotly-contested Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021 did not turn out in Democrats’ favor despite very high turnout. High turnout is just not the magic key to Democratic victories the left wishes to believe.
2. “People of Color’! Perhaps no factor is so central to the left’s theory of electoral case than the growth of the nonwhite population in the country and the presumed way being “people of color” welds them together into a voter group with unshakeable loyalty to the Democratic party and loathing for the Republican party. This assumption looks less tenable by the day.
In the 2020 election, running against Donald Trump (Donald Trump!) and in the wake of a social upheaval after George Floyd’s murder that associated the Democratic party closely with a left stance on the centrality of “systemic racism” to pretty much every policy issue…the Democrats actually lost ground among nonwhite voters. They lost 7 margin points from their 2016 margin among black voters and a stunning 16 points from their 2016 margin among Hispanics (Catalist two party vote) The black share of voters in 2020 was actually slightly smaller than the black share in 2016 because, while black turnout did go up, it did not go up as much as other groups. Overall, nonwhite voters contributed less to Biden’s margin over Trump in 2020 than they did to Clinton’s margin over Trump in 2016.
So much for the assumption that the key to mobilizing nonwhites is highlighting their status as “people of color” suffering from systemic racism as the left stresses. That was tried in the 2020 election and it did not work. Nor has anything happened since 2020 that makes that approach look any better. The 2021 elections saw significant attrition of Democratic support among Hispanics and Asians and 2021 polling data indicated weakening support among nonwhites—particularly Hispanics, where the drift away from the Democrats is unmistakable.
The left’s recommended approach here is clearly not paying dividends. It should be discarded.
3. Cultural Leftism Is a Winner! The left in the Democratic party insists that cultural leftism is central to consolidating the “rising American electorate” that will power the Democratic party to dominance in an increasingly multicultural, multiracial America. It is a feature they say, not a bug, of current Democratic practice.
But in the process, the left has managed to associate the Democratic party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, schooling, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the left but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic party. From time to time Democratic politicians like Biden try to dissociate themselves from super-unpopular ideas like defunding the police but the voices of cultural leftism within the party are still more deferred to than opposed. These voices are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by cultural leftism. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.
That’s a huge problem because the median voter simply does not share the outlook embodied by cultural leftism. As a result, many voters are put off by the cultural positions that are now fashionable within the Democratic party, especially given that so many of these Democrats seem to look down on all those with different views. This attitude is not a secret to these voters and they react accordingly. And, as the data cited above indicate, it’s not just white voters who are put off by these cultural positions—the nonwhites in whose name many of these positions are adopted are not enthusiastic about them either.
This has consequences in two ways. The first is the most obvious. A group which is unfriendly to the Democrats but declining, like white working class voters, moves further against the Democrats, thereby cancelling out the pro-Democratic effect of their decline. The second is that a pro-Democratic group like Hispanics which is growing, moves against Democrats, thereby cancelling out the pro-Democratic effect of their growth. Both things can happen at once of course, but 2016 was notable for the first and 2020 was notable for the second.
The most common counter to this analysis on the Democratic party left is simply to deny that cultural leftism has any electoral consequences. The positions of the cultural left, they argue, are only a problem for voters who are irredeemably reactionary and racist and would never vote for the Democrats anyway. That assessment flies in the face of empirical evidence from public opinion and from results of the last several elections.
This defense of cultural leftism is usually twinned with the assertion that problems around issues like crime, immigration and race essentialism are vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like and are not problems Democrats need concern themselves with. In fact, to put much effort into such concerns would simply be to play into the hands of the right. I have termed this “the Fox News fallacy.”
Neither of these objections are convincing. The logical response of a party to unpopular cultural positions that are hurting it electorally should be to moderate those positions. The left’s insistence on defending these positions—and even doubling down in many cases—is another huge flaw in their electoral theory of the case.
4. The Crisis of Democracy! Another key link in the left theory of the case is the assumption that voters will, if the messaging is loud enough, necessarily agree with the Democrats on the nature and extent of the current threat to democracy posed by the Republican party and therefore the need to vote Democratic. The January 6th events, especially, are continually cited as an ironclad justification for rejecting the Republicans. This approach is being repeatedly put to the test and repeatedly failing.
It didn’t work in Virginia in 2021. And it’s not generally working with voters as a whole. As the strenuously nonpartisan election analyst Kyle Kondik notes on Sabato’s Crystal Ball:
A year after Jan. 6 and nearly a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, the Republican political position appears strong — just as one might expect heading into a midterm with an unpopular president in the White House, and arguably unhampered by Jan. 6.
Moreover, despite the unending emphasis on Trump, the anti-democratic Republican Party and January 6, Republicans are doing remarkably well in terms of party identification, an all-important determinant of voting inclination. In recently released Gallup data, the last year has seen a change from a Democratic advantage of 9 points on this indicator to a 5 point GOP advantage. Philip Bump analyzed these data for Washington Post and points out:
Americans don’t appear to be particularly concerned about the Republican Party’s response to 2020, particularly given the significant role that Trump still plays in setting its direction….There are a lot of reasons for the swing back to the right over the past year, most of which center on Biden, not Trump. But Democratic efforts to cast the GOP as hostile to democracy itself either aren’t landing — as polling has suggested — or aren’t compelling.
In other words, Gallup’s data suggests both that Democrats are poised to lose ground this year and that a central argument against their opponents isn’t having a political effect.
Most recently, Democrats, cheered on by the left of the party, pursued a doomed attempt to push extensive voting rights bills through the Senate, accompanied by a truly astonishing level of rhetoric on how only passage of the bills could save American democracy and how those failing to support passage were aiding and abetting a New Jim Crow and siding with George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis.
This was all pursued despite an abundance of evidence that most voters, including nonwhite voters, were not particularly animated by the issue and the rather embarrassing fact that the bills would actually have done little to counter the threat of election subversion, the most common target of Democratic messaging. In the end, the failure has just made the Democrats look ineffective without any real political payoff.
The signal failure of the crisis of democracy issue to galvanize voters to support Democrats is another example of an issue that obsesses the Democratic left but just does not build the electoral coalition their theory says it should.
5. It’s Transformation Time! It’s odd that Biden’s narrower-than-expected Presidential win with downballot losses and, finally, whisker-thin control of Congress was interpreted a suggesting it was transformation time in America. Any reasonably clear-eyed look at the election strongly indicated that Biden was elected to get the country back to normal by containing the covid pandemic and fixing the economy. But the need to barrel ahead with transformation was pushed consistently by the Democratic party left—pushed in fact to the point of collapse in 2021.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill was held up for months as the House’s Progressive Caucus refused to vote for it unless a truly transformational Build Back Better bill could be elaborated and somehow guaranteed passage. Eventually, the infrastructure bill was passed, though the long delay vitiated its political effects, and the Build Back Better bill collapsed exposing the left’s refusal to understand the limitations of a narrowly divided Congress.
And one might add, exposing the left’s lack of understanding of what the American people most wanted, which was very simply the return of normality not transformation. While the Democratic Congress wasted months in arcane negotiations about bill structure, what programs it would and would not cover and how many trillions of dollars it all would cost, ordinary voters were trying to cope with the Delta wave and the emergence of supply and inflation problems in the economy. As they became increasingly unhappy with the Biden administration and increasingly unsure just when things would finally get back to normal, the endless, confusing negotiations went on.
This was a terrible look for the Democrats, making them seem out of touch with the country and ordinary voters. They are now paying the political price for this, staring into a likely defeat in 2022 and the very real possibility that Donald Trump might return to the Presidency after the 2024 election. The left’s theory of the case now lies in ruins and it is up to Democrats to come up with a theory of the case that gives them a fighting chance of staving off disaster. It won’t be easy.