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The Solution to the Democrats’ Leftism Problem

The party’s elites and activists are more progressive than its base. Here’s how to close that gap.


Is cultural leftism going to destroy the Democrats’ chances in next year’s midterms? That’s the drumbeat. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argued in a much-discussed essay last week that a “well-funded left-wing [base] has poisoned the party’s image with many of its former supporters” (that was only one side of Chait’s argument; half of his ire, or even more than half, was aimed at centrist Democrats in Congress who’ve delayed and whittled down Joe Biden’s economic agenda). Ryan Grim of The Intercept wrote a piece whose headline screamed that Democrats “are losing normal voters of all races.”

Chait pokes at the left with some regularity. Grim has been arguably the leading journalistic champion of the resurgent Democratic left. So when they both say the same thing, it’s worth worrying about, especially after Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia and the alarming shift of suburban voters there.

It’s an undeniable fact that Democratic Party elites, progressive activists, foundation and think-tank officials, and most opinion journalists are well to the left of the party’s rank and file. In 2018, for example, Pew found that 46 percent of Democrats identified themselves as liberal, 37 percent as moderate, and 15 percent as conservative (Republicans, in contrast, were far more conservative overall than Democrats were liberal). So let that sink in: More than half of the party’s rank and file isn’t even liberal, let alone progressive-left.

Earlier this month, Pew put out some new numbers, arranging Democrats into four categories: Democratic Mainstays, Establishment Liberals, Outsider Left, and Progressive Left. Mainstays are older party loyalists who are somewhat moderate; Establishment Liberals are pretty left in their views but not convinced of the need for “sweeping change”; Outside Left are young, “very liberal in most of their views,” but frustrated with politics; Progressive Left are very liberal and want big changes.

Of the aforementioned elites, activists, etc., I’d venture that a clear majority are Progressive Left—at least 60 percent, and maybe 75 or 80 percent. Yet this survey of 10,221 adults found just 12 percent of Democrats are Progressive Left, and only 6 percent of the country. Some percentage of that Outside Left category is probably pretty left-wing, but overall, Pew plots that group as being slightly less liberal than Establishment Liberals.

In other words, opinion-shaping elites are much further to the left than the party’s voters. This is a clear disconnect—and it’s one that doesn’t really exist on the right, where the right-most of Pew’s groups, Faith and Flag Conservatives, is nearly twice as large as the Progressive Left. It’s a clear possibility that certain issues, or ways of talking about certain issues, will be established as litmus tests within the party that could be quite problematic for Democrats trying to run in purple districts.

And if they want to keep their majority, Democrats have to win purple districts—more than Republicans do. According to the Cook Political Report, there are 165 congressional districts in the country that have a Partisan Voting Index of D+5 or greater. In contrast, the Republican number there is 192. That leaves 78 swing districts. If Democrats want to get to 218, they need to win 53 of the 78. That’s 68 percent of those seats.

That is hard. And Democratic candidates in those districts can’t win if they have to spend the campaign fending off charges that they want to defund the police or make white grade-schoolers feel guilty about their race. On Biden’s economic agenda, I think they have at least a shot at winning; they must think so, too, since all but one of them voted for it. But if they decide they need to steer well clear of debates about police budgets and critical race theory, one can hardly blame them. Nobody can reasonably expect that Elaine Luria, who represents Virginia Beach (Cook calls her district, which it rates R+1, the archetypal median district of the whole country) and will face a challenge from a Republican female state senator next year who has already said she’s running in part to wage war against “cancel culture,” to run as if she were in Rashida Tlaib’s D+29 district.

At the same time, I think Democrats tend to freak out about this stuff in a way that history just doesn’t warrant. Everybody points to the way Karl Rove used panic over same-sex marriage to George W. Bush’s advantage in 2004 by getting referenda on 11 state ballots that helped Bush get reelected. But I’m sitting here trying to think of all those other high-profile examples of right-wing moral panic leading to success at the ballot box, and I’m not coming up with a lot.

I remember when those tapes of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons were going to kill Barack Obama’s candidacy. I remember when Obama’s failure to wear an American flag lapel pin was supposed to be the end of him. I remember when the Iowa Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriage in 2009 was going to doom Obama in the state in 2012—but he won. I remember when his gaffe-prone vice president came out in favor of gay marriage in May 2012, forcing Obama to do the same. That was supposed to lead to his demise, too. And I remember when Sarah Palin was going to energize the right-wing base and help John McCain win.

At the congressional and other levels, yes, there are some examples. Actual evidence is surprisingly hard to come by, but “defund the police” probably hurt some purple-district Democratic House candidates in 2020. And this year, every candidate in the country who ran on some aspect of police defunding lost, including in deep-blue cities.

Democrats also have to worry about the bleeding among working-class Latino and Black voters, which Grim describes in detail in his piece. I suspect that that’s mostly among men, and mostly because they just kinda like Trump.

Democrats need a solution to this, but the solution is not race- or ethnicity-specific programs. The solution is probably a strong economy sold by a message that connects with these voters emotionally. Republicans want to fight on the terrain of cultural resentment. As I noted above, they don’t always win those fights; far from it. But that’s the field they want to play on. That means Democrats should not get locked into those debates on Republicans’ terms and change the subject to the economy, but that means inflation has to subside and the economy has to be good by next fall, and it means Covid needs to be under control. If those things happen, they have a shot. And if they don’t, they’re far more likely to doom Democrats than critical race theory is.