Where Is the Electoral Payoff to Progressivism?
There is a strong case that Democrats would benefit from moving to the center on a wide variety of cultural and “green” issues. Why don’t they? Surely this would help them with moderate, persuadable voters who are uncomfortable with Democrats’ recent embrace of uncompromisingly left stances in these areas.
The default response to this idea is that, while you might rope in some moderate swing voters with this strategy, you would lose significant support among Democratic base voters through such compromises and wind up a net loser. Despite its wide currency within the Democratic Party, particularly on the party’s left, there is remarkably little evidence for this assertion. The following details the many weak points in the case, so dear to the hearts of the party’s progressives.
Where is the turnout dividend?
The theory here is that, given a move to the center, progressives and the groups they claim to represent will simply fail to show up at the polls, canceling out any gains among swing voters. Conversely, the more Democrats reject that strategy and embrace the progressive program and world view, the higher turnout will be among Democratic base groups relative to the opposition.
To say the least, this does not appear to be happening. As Democrats have steadily moved to the left on cultural and green issues, relative turnout performance among base groups has actually been quite poor. Take 2022. Turnout fell across the board relative to 2018, according to recently-released Census data, but it fell more among Democratic base groups. While overall turnout declined a little over 3 points, it fell 10 points among black voters, almost 7 points among young (18-29 year old) voters and 5 points among Hispanic voters.
Or take the 2020 election. On the heels of the George Floyd summer and the Democrats’ ostentatious embrace of progressives’ racial and social justice priorities, one might have thought—progressives certainly thought—that Democrats would benefit greatly from high base group turnout. And it was indeed a high turnout election. The problem: everyone’s turnout went up, including among groups Democrats 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 helps explain 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.
Black turnout was particularly unimpressive in that election. As noted in a New York Times analysis of the 2020 Georgia vote:
Joe Biden put Georgia in the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 by making huge gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. The Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest level since 2006, based on an Upshot analysis of newly published turnout data from the Georgia secretary of state. In an election marked by a big rise in turnout, Black turnout increased, too, but less than that of some other groups….
The Black share of the electorate appears to have also dropped in North Carolina—another state where voters are asked their race on their voter registration form—based on initial data from counties representing about 10 percent of the state’s electorate. And there was no evidence of a turnout surge in Detroit or Milwaukee—along with an increase in Philadelphia that was smaller than in the state as a whole—where Democrats had hoped to reverse disappointing Black turnout from four years ago.
None of this fits very well with the alleged electoral benefits of progressivism nor with the presumed electoral liabilities of moving to the center.
Where is the support dividend?
But it’s more serious than the evident lack of a turnout dividend. If the progressive electoral case makes any sense at all, it should manifest itself by increased support for Democrats among key groups as the party moves to the left. After all, progressives reason, the currently-existing Republicans are only a hairs-breadth away, if that, from being fascists, so waving the progressive flag high should bring more of the disadvantaged and “marginalized” to the Democratic banner. Instead, the exact reverse has happened.
This is particularly obvious with Hispanics. In the 2020 election, Hispanics, after four years of Trump, gave him substantially more support than they did in 2016. According to Catalist, in 2020 Latinos had an amazingly large 16-point margin shift toward Trump. Among Latinos, Cubans did have the largest shifts toward Trump (26 points), but those of Mexican origin also had a 12-point shift and even Puerto Ricans moved toward Trump by 18 points.
Latino shifts toward Trump were widely dispersed geographically. Hispanic shifts toward Trump were not confined to Florida (28 points) and Texas (18 points) but also included states like Wisconsin (20 points), Nevada (18 points), Pennsylvania (12 points), Arizona (10 points) and Georgia (8 points).
But it’s not just Hispanics. Looking at 2022, it is clear that as the Democratic Party has moved to the left over the last four years, they have done worse among their base voters generally. They’ve lost a good chunk of their support among nonwhite voters overall and among young voters. Since 2018, Democratic support is down 18 margin points among young voters, 20 points among nonwhites, and 23 points among nonwhite working-class (noncollege) voters. The latter voters are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative in orientation and they seem distinctly unimpressed with Democrats’ fervent allegiance to progressive rhetoric and priorities.
Instead, the changing ideological orientation of the Democrats has simply made it easier for non-liberal nonwhites—especially conservatives and especially among the working class—to vote their ideology instead of a default loyalty to the Democratic Party. So much for the support dividend promised by progressives!
As the 2024 election looms, there are signs that the “missing support dividend” may continue to be missing. As Nate Cohn remarked, discussing a recent ABC/Washington Post poll particularly bad for Biden:
Even excluding ABC/Post polling altogether (in clear violation of the “toss it in the average” rule), Mr. Biden still has a mere 49-37 lead over Mr. Trump among Hispanic voters and just a 70-18 lead among Black voters. In each case, Mr. Biden is far behind usual Democratic benchmarks, and it comes on the heels of a midterm election featuring unusually low Black turnout.
If the lesson from the ABC/Post poll is that Mr. Biden is vulnerable and weak among usually reliable Democratic constituencies, then perhaps the takeaway from [the] poll isn’t necessarily a misleading one.
If Republicans are so terrible, why aren’t Democrats crushing them?
Of course, none of this means that Democrats can’t or won’t win elections. The Republicans, after all, are a party with glaring and very major weaknesses not unrelated to the continuing influence of Donald Trump on the party. In fact, these weaknesses are so serious and have damaged the Republican brand so severely that it raises the question as to why Democrats can’t beat them decisively. Instead, Democrats are hemorrhaging votes among some of their most loyal constituencies and limping to razor-thin victories (or losses) against their weakened foe, who remains at rough parity with the Democrats.
This gets to the heart of the problem with progressives’ strategy. Democrats have moved to the left in accordance with progressives’ wishes, which was supposed to align the party more closely with voters’ preferences and set up a heightened contrast with the “semi-fascist” MAGA Republicans and their dark plans for America. That should have generated a big electoral payoff but it has not.
Progressives have answers for this failure of course. The favorite one is that the Democrats have not become progressive enough. They simply need to press the accelerator on their leftward transformation and the votes will flow. This is not a falsifiable proposition since any move to the left can always be deemed not far enough and hence an explanation for any given electoral loss. Conveniently, true progressivism—like true socialism—can never fail since it has never been tried.
A secondary argument is that progressives’ real priorities and real values—which are actually quite popular, progressives assure us—are not getting through to voters because of mis- and disinformation emanating from the right. If not for that, voters would be responding enthusiastically and the progressive electoral payoff would appear. A simpler explanation, since any political program is always attacked by its opponents, is that the program itself is not that convincing to voters. If it was, it could stand up to political attack.
A more plausible explanation for the lack of a progressive electoral payoff is that the whole progressive electoral theory is just wrong. It’s not the case that moderating Democrats’ approach results in more losses among base group voters than gains among persuadable voters. On the contrary, it is strenuous progressivism that results in losses among base group voters and certainly does little good among persuadable voters outside the Democratic base. The whole tradeoff posited by progressives to justify their approach and disparage a moderate alternative does not exist.
It's time for Democrats to face up to the fact that the concerns of many of “their” voters do not track with the issues that motivate progressives. These voters would be more likely to turn out for a Democratic Party associated with safe streets, a healthy economy, and a sensible, non-divisive approach to social issues. That will necessitate doing some—perhaps many—things that progressives won’t like. But as Democrats look toward 2024, with its daunting presidential election and even more daunting Senate map, they would do well to ignore the predictable denunciations by progressives of any move to the center and instead head straight for the common-sense heart of the American electorate. That’s where the real electoral payoff lies.