There’s an old Greek proverb: After the war is over, make alliances.
Ancient proverbs, however, are all Greek to the Democrat Party. Rather than forming new friendships in the wake of a hard-fought 2020 election campaign, the members of the Democratic Caucus have turned their swords upon each other. Even before all the ballots have been counted, the sniping has begun.
The first shots were fired during an all-hands call on November 5. Moderate Democrats pointed the finger at progressives, claiming that their radical agenda had driven away key voters. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn cautioned that “we’re not going to win” if Democrats run on a platform of “Medicare for All, defund the police, [and] socialized medicine.” Freshman Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger was more direct: if we run too far left, she warned, “We will get f***ing torn apart.“
Other moderates soon took to public airwaves to spread their gospel. The far left “almost cost [Biden] this election,” charged erstwhile Republican John Kasich, who spoke in support of Biden at the Democratic National Convention. By focusing on “guns,” “abortion,” and “gay marriage,” argued former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the Democrats “left a lot of people behind.”
Their arguments are disingenuous and downright false. No candidates ran exclusively on a message of “defund the police;” some progressives merged this plea with calls for intersectional economic reform, but no candidate made defunding the police their central message. Republican operatives will pain the Democrats as radical, no matter how moderate their beliefs. Liberals don’t need to cave to the center; they need to provide more resonant arguments defending their position.
The myth of the universally-appealing moderate Democrat is simply not true. As a memo released by progressive leadership groups demonstrates, liberals decisively outperformed moderates in 2020. The nine Democratic Congressional candidates who increased their vote share hold more progressive views; the nine who lost the most votes from 2018 to 2020 are more conservative. All the swing district Democrats who co-sponsored Medicare for All won re-election. Only one swing district Democrat who co-sponsored the Green New Deal lost in 2020. Meanwhile, four of the Democrats who lost re-election rank in the top ten most conservative members of the Democratic caucus.
Progressives argue that instead of caving to the center, Democrats should try to push policies that appeal to their base. In an interview with the New York Times, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pleaded with moderates to understand that progressives “are not the enemy. That their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib echoed her fellow Squad member. “If we truly want to unify our country,” she told Politico, “we have to really respect every single voice. We say that so willingly when we talk about Trump supporters, but we don’t say that willingly for my Black and brown neighbors and from LGBTQ neighbors or marginalized people.”
So is an avid embrace of progressive policies the solution for Democratic woes? Not necessarily — though their memo does include numerous insightful recommendations, some of which I will get into tomorrow. Democrats need to increase voter turnout by turning out their base and registering new voters, particularly voters in minority groups. But Republicans can expand their own electorate, too. What develops is an arms race where the vote count gets progressively higher and the margin remains razor-thin. There is still a place for persuasion in politics.
Broadly speaking, the “moderates vs. progressives” dichotomy in Democratic politics is a woeful way to view the situation. It sounds counterintuitive, but politics often isn’t political. It’s personal. Think of the 15% of Bernie Sanders supporters who said they preferred Trump over Biden if Sanders lost the Democratic primary. The two could not be more incongruous politically — but both have a message of populism and anti-elitism that resonates with some American voters.
The Democrats — particularly the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — need to let local politics dictate national priorities, not the other way round. Some districts might be more amenable to a candidate with a progressive vision for the United States. Indeed, progressives could well expand their influence within the Democratic caucus in the coming years. But other districts, like those in the rural Midwest, might prefer candidates with a more moderate streak — or, at the very least, candidates that pitch their progressive policies within a more moderate message.
Ideological purity tests, particularly on a national scale, are pointless exercises designed to rile up partisan passions rather than solve substantive problems. Instead of defining oneself on an arbitrary political spectrum, Democratic politicians should focus on what matters: the voters. How can they reach them? How can they win them over? And how can they persuade them to support a Democratic vision for a brighter America? That will be the focus of tomorrow’s essay.