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The Progressive Left Is a Paper Tiger
Time to call their bluff.
Large segments of the progressive left disgraced themselves by indulging in demonstrations and statements that, directly or indirectly, excused Hamas’s terrorist massacre. For that, they were rightly condemned across the political spectrum, including by many Democrats. But the progressive left has not given up on pushing their “decolonialist” perspective within the Democratic Party, demanding that Biden soften his support for Israel and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in the conflict. This policy recommendation is backed up what is essentially a threat: if Democrats don’t move in the direction recommended by the progressive left, “their” voters, especially young voters, will fail to be “energized” in 2024, endangering Biden’s re-election and Democratic electoral prospects generally.
But is that really true? Leaving aside the question of whether that would be a responsible use of their power (I don’t think so), do they even have that kind of power? I doubt it. In fact, I think the progressive left is more of a paper tiger, claiming power and influence way above what they actually have.
Start with the fundamental fact that the progressive or intersectional left, for whom issues from ending fossil fuels to open borders to decriminalizing and decolonizing everything (free Palestine!) are inseparably linked moral commitments, is actually a pretty small slice of voters—six percent in the Pew typology, eight percent in the More in Common typology. So we should ask whether and to what extent their commitments are reflected in the views of the voter groups in whose name they claim to speak.
Probably the most important of these is young voters, lately lionized as Democrats’ best hope—but also perhaps their downfall, if not appropriately catered to. And it is true that young voters generally lean more left than older voters, including in expressing more sympathy for the Palestinians and more opposition to sending weapons to Israel. But that does not mean young voters’ views are therefore in sync with those of the intersectional left and likely to take their cues from activists’ fury at the Biden administration. Consider these results from a very recent poll by Slingshot Strategies on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Respondents were asked who they blame for the current violence in Israel and Gaza. Among the 18-44 year old age group, which covers the entire Millennial generation and eligible members of Gen Z, just 19 percent blame Israel for oppressing the Palestinians, less than half the 44 percent who blame Hamas for committing acts of terrorism against Israel (36 percent had no opinion).
Respondents were also asked what they think about the level of support Biden is showing for Israel. Less than one third (31 percent) of 18-44 year olds think Biden has been showing too much support for Israel, compared to 69 percent who believe he is either showing the right amount (42 percent) or not enough (27 percent) support for Israel.
Similarly, only a third of this age group prefers that the U.S. work to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, less than the 36 percent who would prefer that the U.S. support Israel’s attempt to eliminate Hamas’s military capabilities.
The disjuncture between these views and those of progressive activists is striking. Far from speaking for the younger generations, it would appear the intersectional left is, as usual, speaking for itself.
This disjuncture can be seen on many other issues. One such is how to tackle the problem of climate change. The progressive left is in a state of perpetual outrage that the country is not moving faster to get rid of fossil fuels and transition to renewable (e.g., wind and solar) energy, the alleged solution to the problem. This too is supposed to be an issue where the Biden administration is out of sync with younger voters, who therefore will fail to be energized by his re-election bid.
But, again, is this true? In a recent 6,000 person survey by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life (SCAL) respondents were asked about their preferences for the country’s energy supply. By 64 percent to 36 percent, Millennial/Gen Z (18-44 year old) voters favored “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources” over “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only.” This does not seem consistent with the mantra of progressive left activists.
Similarly, in a recent 3,000 voter survey conducted by YouGov for The Liberal Patriot, the following choices were offered to voters about energy strategy:
We need a rapid green transition to end the use of fossil fuels and replace them with fully renewable energy sources;
We need an “all-of-the above” strategy that provides abundant and cheap energy from multiple sources including oil and gas to renewables to advanced nuclear power; or
We need to stop the push to replace domestic oil and gas production with unproven green energy projects that raise costs and undercut jobs.
Among the same Millennial/Gen Z (18-44 year old) voters, the progressive left-preferred first position, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables, is a distinctly minoritarian one, embraced by just 36 percent of these voters. The most popular position is the second, all-of-the above approach that emphasizes energy abundance and the use of fossil fuels and renewables and nuclear, favored by 48 percent of Millennial/Gen Z voters. Another 16 percent flat-out support production of fossil fuels and oppose green energy projects. Together that’s 64 percent of these voters who are not singing from the progressive left hymnbook.
So the progressive left’s claim that failing to embrace their positions is the death-knell for Democrats among younger generation voters is highly suspect. Of course it’s entirely in their interest to claim that only a bracing tonic of progressive left positions can jolt these voters out of their torpor. But there isn’t much behind this claim; in reality, the intersectional left and the groups and politicians in +25D Democratic districts that support it are paper tigers. Their power derives more from their ability to scare the rest of the party than from their power over actual voters.
Democrats would be well-advised to worry less about the progressive left’s complaints and more about the uncomfortable possibility that the voters who surge into the voting pool in 2024—those who sat out 2022 but may return in 2024—will present a serious persuasion challenge to their party. Gone are the days when higher turnout necessarily bodes well for Democratic fortunes. As Nate Cohn noted in a recent article:
Mr. Biden’s pronounced weakness among less engaged voters is, at least momentarily, disrupting the usual patterns. It has at least temporarily weakened or even reversed the typical Democratic advantage from higher turnout. It has hurt Mr. Biden in national polling of registered voters and all adults, as low-turnout young and nonwhite voters make up a far larger share of eligible voters than the actual electorate.
Even more sobering, consider some findings specifically about Hispanics, the group driving the growth of the nonwhite population and much of Democrats’ hopes for the future. It turns out that Hispanic voters who did not show up in 2022 but did vote in 2020 are much more Republican leaning than 2022 Hispanic voters. According to a study by Equis Research of the Hispanic electorate, Hispanics who were drawn into the 2020 Presidential election but have been skipping congressional elections favor a generic Republican Presidential candidate over Biden by 20 points. Hispanic men under 40 in this group are even more pro-GOP, favoring a generic Republican by well over 30 points.
Now that’s a challenge. Instead of worrying about placating the progressive left, Democrats should be scheming about how they can persuade these peripheral voters that the Democrats are better for them than the Republicans. Otherwise, they may “energize” themselves right into a 2024 election loss.