Why Don’t Democrats Want to Win?
The battle to define the right side of the center-left is the most significant debate in American politics, and everything else is a sideshow.
In a two-party system, it is natural to assume that when one party is weak the other must be strong. Yet American politics has defied this seemingly inescapable logic in recent years. The Republican Party, and the right more generally, appears to be in greater disarray than at any time since the Reagan presidency. But the Democratic Party remains far from electoral dominance, with recent (albeit quite early) polling showing Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump and other Republican challengers in key states.
Republicans’ internal divides appear persistent and profound. The party has not been able to put forward a policy platform in the last two election cycles. Indeed, the right seems incapable of formulating any positive agenda at all, with a number of factions deeply divided on questions of economic and foreign policy. The economic proposals of what were once flagship conservative think tanks—some combination of slashing Social Security and unfunded tax cuts—are so toxic that party leadership disavowed them during the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile, the signature issue of cultural conservatives for the last fifty years—banning abortion—became an electoral embarrassment after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Following decades of declining family formation and religious observance, Moral Majority–style social conservatism has seemed like a lost cause for some time.
For its part, the Republican-led House can barely settle on a Speaker, while in the Senate the party is led by an octogenarian who has “frozen” in public on multiple occasions. Donald Trump, the overwhelming frontrunner in the 2024 presidential primary, is openly reviled by many of the party’s major donors and legacy institutions, and privately opposed by many more Republican officeholders. Indeed, a cottage industry of “Never Trump” conservatives thrived since his first campaign in 2016. And that’s even before wading into the morass of legal issues facing the former president.
Surveying this grim landscape, an observer with knowledge of only the present state of the Republican Party would likely imagine that Democrats were racking up massive majorities and that President Biden was cruising to reelection. Needless to say, that is not the case. Biden trails Trump in many polls. Democrats are the minority in the House, barely control the Senate, and hold fewer than half of state governorships. Although Democrats outperformed expectations in 2022 and continued to eke out victories in low-turnout elections in 2023, they are still far from anything approaching a commanding electoral position. This raises a vital question: why have Democrats failed to overwhelm a divided Republican Party?
As far as I can tell, Democrats rarely seem to ask this question and indeed have shown little interest in exploiting the opportunity for a broader “realignment” on the order of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Such mediocre performance and cramped ambitions point to the Democrats’ own weaknesses, ones perhaps as profound as those on the right.
To be clear: I am not a polling expert or campaign consultant, and I won’t pretend to explain how Democrats can “win big” in 2024. I will, however, explore the mutually reinforcing weaknesses of both parties and try to explain why neither seems especially interested in pursuing the presumed goal of democratic politics—winning decisive election victories in order to implement the most robust version of an agenda possible.
First, a few superficial and all-too-convenient explanations of Democrats’ electoral struggles deserve closer scrutiny. One is Biden’s age. Certainly, the president’s visible frailty and occasional public speaking lapses hardly help his polling numbers. But Biden’s age-related issues do not explain the party’s overall performance—it’s not as if Biden is an outlier and Democrats are dominating every other contest. Nor do any of the proposed younger successors fare significantly better; on the contrary, every poll I have seen shows alternative candidates, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, to be less popular, often much less so, than Biden.
If anything, the president’s age—and implicit association with an older Democratic Party tradition—probably helps him among Obama-Trump-Biden voters, who I suspect would be less likely to vote for any candidate whose career has been defined by the progressivism of recent years. And insofar as Biden’s chief rival is the seventy-seven-year-old Donald Trump, age would appear to be a relatively minor issue for Republican voters as well. While age-related concerns likely cost Biden some support, there’s no reason to believe they are holding back a landslide victory.
The second explanation of Democratic weakness is inflation. Inflation is undoubtedly an issue, but just how significant is it? Biden’s approval rating topped out at just 53 percent—before inflation accelerated. And while Biden’s polling decline coincided with the rise of inflation in 2021, it has not followed CPI readings since then, which is what one would expect if inflation were such a dominant explanatory factor. On the whole, it would appear that inflation might be the difference between a narrow victory and a narrow loss for Biden, but once again it is not holding back a landslide.
More substantively, the Republicans have little credible to say about inflation (most of the serious criticism of the administration has come from Democrats like Lawrence Summers), nor any coherent policy agenda to address it. While cutting government spending would be counter-inflationary—though Republicans have a difficult time agreeing on specific spending cuts—another round of deficit-financed tax cuts, which seems to be the one thing they can agree on, would only increase inflationary pressure. It is also worth recalling that Congress spent more on Covid relief under Trump than it has under Biden. An anti-Trump conservative group recently found that attacks on Trump’s spending were ineffective among Republican audiences, which suggests that voter attitudes on these issues are complicated and probably influenced by factors beyond policy.
A third explanation, or perhaps excuse, for Democrats’ middling performance is that America is a hopelessly divided country, and thus any broad policy consensus or decisive electoral victory is simply impossible. While the country is certainly divided along numerous lines, and commentators such as Justin H. Vassallo have made thoughtful points about the revival of economic sectionalism, claims of intractable polarization are hardly self-evident.
In the first place, the Republican Party faces severe internal divisions, as already described. Even if culture wars have intensified—itself a debatable claim, as much of the electorate has simply moved left on cultural issues—that does not necessarily translate into cohesive, disciplined partisan coalitions. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, all of the warring factions on the right frequently and explicitly signal their increasing alignment with conventionally Democratic positions. The “Old Right,” shorthand for the faction that seeks to continue the Reagan-Bush GOP tradition, increasingly emphasizes its liberal internationalism, commitment to democratic institutions and norms, and so on, in contrast to Trump. Many of these figures have also significantly moderated, if not totally repudiated, their conservative commitments on social issues from abortion to LGBTQ rights to immigration. On the other hand, the “New Right,” a constellation ranging from “MAGA” to “post-Trump” Republicans, often highlights its rejection of neoliberal economic policy and its focus on the “working class,” its newfound support for labor organizations, critiques of financialization, and the like.
Taken together, there seem to be plenty of openings on the right for Democrats to make inroads—yet Democrats have made only narrow attempts to exploit them. They have, for example, amplified “anti-Trump conservative” pundits, perhaps helping to sway a small number of suburban and professional-class Republicans. At the same time, they have occasionally funded MAGA candidates in Republican primaries in hopes of securing weaker general election opponents. But they have not, as far as I can tell, made any systematic efforts to court large swaths of disaffected GOP voters, much less win them over. Either they do not know how, or they have no desire to do so.
The Democratic Party, and the left of center generally, presents two paradoxes: on the one hand, its policy apparatus is considerably more robust than its Republican counterpart, and it dominates most elite institutions. Given the right’s internal divides and atrophied policy institutions, it’s reasonable to argue that Democrats should be America’s true and only “governing party” at present. Yet when it comes to actual governance, Democrats’ performance, particularly in progressive states and cities, is somewhere between weak and abysmal. Democratic politicians generally ground their appeals on moralism and “values” rather than competence. Although Democrats are by any reasonable definition the party of the “establishment,” including in big business and national security agencies, they still tend to portray and legitimate themselves as the party of the countercultural vanguard. This has occurred even as Republican politicians and pundits increasingly drop the elitist affectations of, say, William F. Buckley and position themselves as more avowedly “anti-institutional.”
Neither party seems capable of reconciling its inherited self-image with new political realities. Many on both sides still do not even recognize that Democrats now benefit from low-turnout elections dominated by highly educated, relatively affluent, and politically engaged voters. But such self-delusion is arguably more debilitating for Democrats as the putative governing party. Their insistence on maintaining the pretenses of radicalism and “transformative” policy agendas both inhibits their ability to advance responsible policies and limits their electoral appeal to disaffected Republicans of all stripes.
Perhaps the most obvious policy example is immigration. Those who desire relatively open immigration policies should be especially focused on designing a system that maximizes the benefits of immigration to the existing citizenry while minimizing its costs and risks. This would involve selection processes that match immigrant workforce skills with economic needs and balance the economic benefits of immigration against issues like wage suppression or housing inflation. Such an approach would promote assimilation to avoid the creation of a permanent underclass and prevent cultural backlash. It would take border security seriously, recognize practical processing limits, and look to minimize illegal immigration. It would likewise minimize incentives for employer exploitation (through measures such as E-Verify), whether of illegal immigrants or of special classes of migrant workers with unequal rights, such as guest workers and H-1Bs. Under such conditions, relatively high levels of immigration can be maintained with broad popular support.
Instead, however, Democrats have largely responded to concerns about immigration, especially during the Trump era, with condescension and moralism—often implying that any concerns must be motivated by racism. Their own reform proposals, such as the now-forgotten U.S. Citizenship Act, offered pathways to normalize the status of illegal immigrants but paid scant attention to border enforcement or employer exploitation. Meanwhile, the Biden administration increased asylum admissions, ended the “Remain in Mexico” program for asylum-seekers, and, despite cosmetic international agreements, has largely failed to stem the flood of illegal migration through Central America.
The result has been a widening immigration crisis now engulfing progressive states and cities. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has gone so far as to warn that “this issue will destroy New York City” and Massachusetts has had to violate its own “sanctuary” laws because it cannot accommodate the influx. In response, the Biden administration has scrambled to increase enforcement. Making a shocking about-face, the administration has even begun adding sections to Trump’s border wall. Such chaos is the opposite of the “smart policy” that Democratic wonks pride themselves on; all these problems were eminently predictable and addressable. Politically, the situation is even worse, as Democrats’ previous moralizing on immigration makes it difficult for them to claim credit for any sensible policy revisions.
A similar pattern occurs across a host of other policy issues. Democrats have had to backpedal on the soft-on-crime experiments of a few years ago. Controversies over anti-Semitism at elite universities have demonstrated that skepticism of “wokeness” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” continues to expand beyond right-wing constituencies. Extremely strict environmental regulations of previous decades are now blocking clean energy projects, new housing, and more. To remedy this latter problem, “supply-side progressives” have shown a newfound enthusiasm for permitting reform, but they have struggled to accomplish much. Red states are usually more receptive to the construction of new clean energy projects (and seemingly everything else) than progressive bastions.
Indeed, ultra-progressive cities are some of the most poorly governed places in the country. Even leaving aside highly publicized and politicized issues like crime or homelessness, basic public services in these cities are often atrocious. Transportation systems are decrepit; public schools are mostly underperformers; streets, parks, and playgrounds are frequently dirty and in disrepair; energy costs are higher while grids are more fragile. In a word, progressive governance rarely delivers on progressive values—and indeed tends to be highly dependent on tax revenues from the most oligarchic sectors, namely big tech companies and high finance.
As The New York Times put it in 2021:
…[F]or many Democrats, it’s obvious that Republicans are thwarting progress toward a more equal society. But what happens when Republicans aren’t standing in the way? In many states—including California, New York and Illinois—Democrats control all the levers of power. They run the government. They write the laws…In key respects, many blue states are actually doing worse than red states. It is in the blue states where affordable housing is often hardest to find, there are some of the most acute disparities in education funding and economic inequality is increasing most quickly.
In reality, progressive politics mainly serves to distract attention from poor government performance. No one seems to know how to modernize the subway and commuter rail systems or wants to talk seriously about immigration, so better to argue about pronouns and statues, or excluding white councilmembers from Christmas parties (as in Boston), or Israel and Palestine (as in Oakland).
To be sure, deep red states have their own problems with one-party rule, and Republicans in blue states also tend to prefer futile culture wars over pragmatic policy proposals. But progressive governments are—and should be—held to a higher standard. Their higher taxes and larger bureaucracies must be justified by something beyond virtue signaling. Progressives of the past launched urban planning projects that integrated new residential, transit, energy, and governance regimes, reclaimed land from the sea, and built public works that remain historical landmarks. By contrast, if today’s progressivism represents the future, it is a future fewer people seem to want: California just lost a House seat for the first time in its history, and New York recently dropped below Florida in population.
Although the national Democratic Party does not exhibit all the excesses of the San Francisco City Council, progressive baggage also limits its ability to project competence in spite of Republican disarray. Over the last hundred years, for instance, the U.S. economy has actually experienced stronger growth under Democratic presidents than Republicans. Perhaps surprisingly, deficit spending has also been lower during Democratic administrations in the last four decades. One might think, then, that Democrats would consistently poll better on economic stewardship. Yet the opposite is the case, and Trump enjoys a particularly strong advantage over Biden in this category.
How to explain this divergence between perception and reality? I would speculate that at least some of the gap has to do with the difference between how Democrats and Republicans discuss economic policy. Republicans generally claim to pursue economic growth for its own sake, even if the record of Republican tax cuts is questionable in recent years. Democratic economic policy, on the other hand, is usually intertwined with aggressive and relatively unpopular social engineering agendas, such as decarbonization or “diversity.” It has been a long time since the “It’s the economy, stupid” refrain of the Bill Clinton years.
Instead of wrapping themselves in academic social justice rhetoric, Democrats would arguably be better off if they simply embraced what they actually are: a party of business and the “establishment,” albeit one that could be more responsible than their Republican counterparts, with a more comprehensive view what constitutes “good business climate” than maximizing short-term incentives like tax cuts, low wages, and deregulation. Democrats often mock recent Republican efforts to pose as a “working-class party,” despite little in the way of policy substance to justify such claims. But why do Democrats insist on retaining the patina of left-wing radicalism when so much of it is unpopular anyway?
The left-liberal alliance at the core of the modern Democratic Party has broken down before. In the second half of the twentieth century, divides between the progressive vanguard and the working class splintered the New Deal coalition and allowed Nixon and Reagan to win landslides. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton rebuilt the Democratic Party and re-founded the left-liberal alliance around different constituencies, opening the coalition to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the professional classes more broadly. In part, this reflected a strategy of intentional moderation or “triangulation,” which is mainly how it was interpreted at the time. In retrospect, however, it might also be argued that triangulation simultaneously involved incorporating left-wing impulses such as post-nationalism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism into technocratic global management at the “end of history.”
As the end of history has unraveled and downwardly mobile segments of the professional class radicalized, the 1990s left-liberal alliance has become more difficult to sustain. Democrats’ remaining working-class constituencies (including nonwhites) continue to defect from the coalition, as shown in meticulous detail by other Liberal Patriot writers. Meanwhile, at higher income levels, tensions between progressive activists and the liberal center have risen for several years over issues such as crime, education, “wokeness,” foreign policy, and beyond, with the Israel-Palestine conflict offering the most recent flashpoint. Just as Republicans have tried to sustain the libertarian-conservative fusionism of Reagan and Bush well past its expiration date, the Clinton-Obama left-liberal fusion looks increasingly strained as well. Even with Trump as an opponent and Republicans in disarray, Democrats have not been able to achieve a genuine “realignment.”
On this point, it is easy to blame the failed policies and silly rhetoric of the progressive left for Democrats’ electoral weaknesses. But how to explain the liberal center, which seems unable or unwilling to break from the left and realign disaffected Republicans?
On symbolic cultural matters, centrist liberals seem to lack the confidence to articulate their own values or to defend them against the left. They can occasionally acknowledge progressive “excesses,” but there seems to be nothing an elite liberal fears more than facing accusations of cultural conservatism. With the possible exception of Senator John Fetterman, they seem dependent on the left for moral legitimacy. Centrist pundits like Bari Weiss or Matthew Yglesias sometimes point to an idea of “good old American liberalism,” in contrast to left progressivism, but they have not been able to explain or to assuage American liberals’ apparent insecurity in their putative convictions.
At bottom, on the most important economic and foreign policy questions, the liberal center itself seems deeply divided. Figures like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other members of the Biden administration, for instance, have attempted to outline a “post-neoliberal” economic and foreign policy vision. They are opposed by figures like Lawrence Summers, who cling to end of history paradigms and continue to advocate for the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” policies of the Clinton era. The Democratic Party has largely avoided an open internal debate on this question, and consequently put off any resolution. (By contrast, the Republican Party has engaged in an open debate since 2016 but failed to settle it.)
Until this question is resolved, it seems impossible for a self-confident center to emerge—whether in the Democratic Party or the nation as a whole. In my view, Sullivan’s post-neoliberal approach represents the only viable path forward because of both geopolitical realities and the fundamental problems of the neoliberal “fissured economy” that I described in an earlier article. Nevertheless, Sullivan’s new paradigm involves greater risks and difficulties in design and implementation, and is not a natural fit for the professional-class constituencies that, as Musa al-Gharbi has shown in these pages, comprise the Democratic base. Regardless, I would argue that this battle to define the right side of the center-left is the most significant debate in American politics, and everything else is a sideshow.
For now, however, it appears that everyone prefers the sideshow. Democrats will hope to continue their run of narrow victories by campaigning against Republicans’ unpopular abortion stances and Trump’s “literal fascism.” Republicans will bash Biden for being senile, woke, and socialist, while hoping no one cares too much about their own platform (or lack thereof). The most likely outcome is that the 2024 election settles almost nothing, and Americans will continue to endure divided and largely ineffective government even as geopolitical and domestic economic challenges continue to grow.
Julius Krein is the founder and editor of American Affairs.