the national interest

Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze

Progressive donors to the left of him, cynical centrists to the right — a theory of why his popular agenda is so unpopular.

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2 photos, suit and face); iStock / Getty Images Plus (hand)
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2 photos, suit and face); iStock / Getty Images Plus (hand)
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Drew Angerer/Getty Images (2 photos, suit and face); iStock / Getty Images Plus (hand)

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It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the fate of American democracy may hinge on President Joe Biden’s success. If his approval rating sinks too far below 50 percent, it becomes more likely than not that the next election will reinstall into power his exiled predecessor, who has never relinquished his claim and by all appearances is intent on running for a second term in 2024.

The Democrats had a plan to rescue their party and the country: Biden would steer clear of the faddish slogans and radical demands that had seized his party’s base and focus relentlessly on practical benefits desired by the working-class voters who had deserted Democrats for Donald Trump. The elegance of this plan was that polls showed support not only for the new social provisions that would form the heart of his legislative agenda in his first year — child care, community college, expansions of Medicare and Medicaid, and so on — but also for the sources of their funding. The money would come from taxing the rich, bargaining down the cost of prescription drugs, and going after wealthy tax cheats.

This was the vision that entranced liberals in the heady months after Biden’s inauguration. He would usher in a New New Deal that would end the long Reagan era in which Republicans painted government as an enemy of normal Americans. The Democrats seemed to have the means to do it: control of Congress, a pandemic-induced national emergency that cried out for robust government intervention, and relative unanimity between their warring wings.

Eleven months into his term, and a year from a midterm election that appears likely to end his legislative majority, the cold reality for Biden is that his presidency is on the brink of failure. Business lobbyists swarmed over Washington, ripping chunks out of his Build Back Better program. The scope of his agenda kept shrinking in tandem with his poll numbers. Initially, the drop seemed attributable to temporary factors. Maybe the cause was the Delta wave that crested this past summer. Maybe it was the media freak-out over his ham-handed Afghanistan withdrawal. But even as those events receded from the headlines, Biden’s numbers continued to drop along with the fortunes of his party, which lost control of the governorship in Virginia in November and badly underperformed elsewhere.

Nobody can say with any confidence if this fall can be reversed. Indeed, given the U.S.’s steady job growth, nobody can ascertain exactly why the public has turned so sour so fast. Biden is like a patient wasting away from some undiagnosable disease. What is clear is that if the presidential election were held this fall, Biden would enter the contest as the decided underdog against Trump.

The conventional wisdom has deemed that Biden is getting his just deserts for trying to govern as a liberal. “The concerns of more centrist Americans about a rush to spend taxpayer money, a rush to grow the government, should not be dismissed,” scolded a New York Times editorial. “Biden misread his moderate mandate,” concluded Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast, while Maureen Dowd at the Times declared that the Democrats’ “overweening efforts” in Congress were “putting off many voters who are still struggling just to get by.”

But the truth is that Biden’s presidency began to disintegrate without his abandoning the center at all. He found himself trapped instead between a well-funded left wing that has poisoned the party’s image with many of its former supporters and centrists unable to conceive of their job in any terms save as valets for the business elite. Biden’s party has not veered too far left or too far right so much as it has simply come apart.

So many of the Democratic Party’s woes can be traced back to a statistical error. After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, exit polls showed he had prevailed despite losing the white vote by 20 points. The implications were enormous for both parties. Racial minorities were casting a rising share of the vote, reshaping the electorate in ways that seemed to doom the Republican Party and its heavily white coalition. After the election, a Republican autopsy recommended the party move to the center on social issues, including immigration, to win over Latino voters. Democrats, meanwhile, prioritized immigration reform, which they hoped Republicans would have no choice but to cooperate with.

Nearly four years later, Times data analyst Nate Cohn discovered the entire premise of this belief was wrong. Those exit polls turned out to have significantly undercounted the old white working-class share of the electorate. In fact, it was these voters in the upper Midwest who had supplied Obama’s winning margin.

Yet this correction came too late to budge what had become a settled belief across the political spectrum. The Republican Establishment in 2016 bemoaned that in nominating Trump, the party was angering the very constituents it would need to attract. Democrats were convinced their political fate depended on mobilizing the young, socially liberal voters who had fueled Obama’s rise. The 2016 primary featured two Democratic candidates with different theories as to how to energize these voters. Bernie Sanders believed they would turn out to vote en masse for a candidate who promised revolutionary economic change. Hillary Clinton began employing terms and concepts used by academics and embraced by progressive activists. Her campaign tweeted lines like “Flint’s water crisis is an example of the combined effects of intersecting issues that impact communities of color” and “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges.”

While this lingo may have sounded alien to people without college degrees, it thrilled progressive intellectuals, who saw it as a sign of ideological and cultural affiliation. One Vox story, headlined “Hillary Clinton Said ‘Systemic Racism’ in Tonight’s Speech. That’s Major,” explained that while Obama had “addressed racial divides in his speeches, the term ‘systemic racism,’ embraced in particular by younger activists, was not present in his addresses.” Both Clinton and the media assumed that mobilizing young, non-white voters meant winning the praise of progressive activists and journalists, which in turn meant adopting the language of the seminar.

Sanders’s strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, challenge to Clinton appeared to validate the theory that the electorate was quickly moving left. That premise was one reason so few political strategists in either party took Trump’s chances seriously. How could he win when he was alienating such a huge share of the voters he needed?

Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was spurred in part by older white voters in the Rust Belt defecting to Trump, causing the Democrats’ famous Blue Wall in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to crumble. But her loss did not cause Democrats to abandon a strategy based on inspiring liberal voters. Instead, it paradoxically accelerated their commitment to it. Among other things, the shock of Trump’s victory seemed to topple the whole notion that voters would punish candidates who endorsed extreme or unpopular positions.

The left teemed with bold, progressive new ideas: socialism, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and others. All these interesting new slogans drew broad media coverage — especially, though not exclusively, on Fox News, which gleefully turned the party’s left wing into its public face.

During the 2020 primary campaign, progressive commentators were writing columns on a near-daily basis insisting that none of this could hurt the party. Swing voters barely existed, left-wing policies were all popular, mobilizing the base mattered far more than appealing to moderates, and electability was just an empty buzzword used by a failed Establishment to fend off popular changes. For a while, these arguments carried the day as the leading Democratic candidates kept racing one another to endorse ideas that polled catastrophically: decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent approval versus 66 percent disapproval), abolishing private health insurance (37 versus 58), and providing government health insurance for people who immigrated illegally (38 versus 59).

The assumption that the left had gained control of the party became so self-evident that the very idea that a retrograde figure like Biden could win its nomination seemed like a sad joke. A whole genre of columns literally begged Biden not to run for president, to spare himself the embarrassment of the inevitable rejection by a party that had moved on. Even the insider-y publication Politico deemed Biden “a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party.”

Biden, of course, won the nomination, then the general election. But the years that preceded his victory left internal schisms and damage the party has not managed to heal.

Democratic Party insiders experienced the election as something more like a defeat than a victory. The narrowness of his win against Trump — and the unexpected losses absorbed by Democrats running for Congress — brought into the open complaints that had been only whispered before. A postelection autopsy by a trio of Democratic-aligned groups found that congressional candidates suffered damage with voters who believed their party supported socialism or defunding the police.

Yet while most of the official Democratic Party — meaning its elected officials and paid staffers — now agrees that it erred by allowing its brand to be associated with unpopular left-wing ideas, many progressives remain loath to concede the point, noting that the Democrats got their old white moderate and still only managed to eke out a win against a historically unpopular incumbent. Their most common pushback, now as then, is to treat the argument that Democrats need to cater to political moderates as an endorsement of white power. Will Stancil, a progressive researcher and popular left-wing social-media personality, has dismissed calls for heeding public opinion as “a tool for moderate white dudes to argue in defense of the old consensus that moderate white dudes have the most pragmatic politics.” Taifa Smith Butler, president of the progressive think tank Demos, told CNN’s Ron Brownstein that Democrats should focus on “marginalized communities,” rather than “continuing to try to appease white moderates.” The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. argued, “The idea of White appeasement is certainly not new, even if it is often not acknowledged directly or referred to with a pejorative such as ‘appeasement’ — the term ‘electability’ is often invoked instead, obscuring that the swing voters at issue are almost all White.”

The grim irony is that, in attempting to court non-white voters, Democrats ended up turning them off. It was not only that they got the data wrong — they were also courting these “marginalized communities” in ways that didn’t appeal to them. For the reality is that the Democratic Party’s most moderate voters are disproportionately Latino and Black.

In 2020, even as Biden improved on Clinton’s performance among white voters, Black support for Trump rose by three percentage points from four years before, and Latino support rose eight points. The California recall election and Virginia governor’s race this year both showed at least some evidence that Latino voters are continuing to slip away from Democrats. The 2021 New York mayoral election was marked by heavily Asian American neighborhoods flipping Republican.

Confounding the liberal assumption that immigrant communities demand more lenient border policies, many signs suggest the swing is a result of their wanting stricter enforcement. Some of Trump’s largest gains came in Mexican American precincts in Texas; Biden’s approval rating among Hispanic Texans stood at 37 percent in late September, with just 26 percent approving of his handling of the border. Their dismay was not that Biden has deported too many immigrants; by a 20-point margin, they registered their support for deporting Haitian refugees.

It was Black voters who powered Biden’s victory over his more progressive opponents in the primary and who did the same for Eric Adams’s mayoral run in New York City. Adams’s election drew some attention to the fact that most Black voters oppose defunding the police, but the moderate tendency is broader. Asked whether the Democratic Party should “move more to the left and embrace more liberal policies, move more to the center and embrace more moderate policies,” or neither, 32 percent of white Democrats, but only 23 percent of Black ones, preferred to move left.

The split within the Democratic Party runs along educational lines. The party’s college-educated cadre holds more liberal views and is increasingly estranged from its working-class counterparts. Those non-college-educated voters are disproportionately Latino and Black, but their worldview bears similarities to that of the white working-class voters who have left the party. The college-educated wing might have claimed power in the name of minority voters, but in reality it has started to drive them away.

When confronted with the reality that the Democratic Party is losing Black and Latino moderates, the response on the left is often to treat their views as morally beyond the pale. “Yes, it turns out that a number of people of color, especially those without a college education, can see the allure of the jackboot authoritarian thuggery offered by modern Republicans,” wrote The Nation’s Elie Mystal. “A certain percentage of non-college-educated people are hostile to immigration. Sure. Does that mean Democrats should embrace beating migrants? A certain percentage of non-college-educated people are resistant to science. Sure. Does that mean Democrats should embrace horse dewormer?”

Obviously, nobody is proposing Democrats run on authoritarian thuggery. The question is whether any compromise with the center is acceptable. Obama competed for moderate views by promising that people could keep their private insurance even as he covered those who couldn’t get any coverage, that he would secure the border even as he gave amnesty to Dreamers. Reducing all these spectra of belief to a simple binary, then declaring the opposing position so horrific it cannot be accommodated, is not a political strategy. It is a kind of anti-politics.

This anti-politics did not materialize out of thin air. It is the working assumption of a vast array of progressive nonprofit organizations and the millionaires who fund them. Over the past half-dozen years, several people who work in and around the nonprofit world have told me, the internal political culture at progressive foundations has undergone the same changes that have torn through elite universities, mainstream-media newsrooms, and private schools. An uncompromising version of left-wing political rhetoric has put the leadership of these organizations on the defensive and often prodded them to fund more radical organizations and ideas than before.

These groups have churned out studies and deployed activists to bring left-wing ideas into the political debate. At this they have enjoyed overwhelming success. In recent years, a host of new slogans and plans — the Green New Deal, “Defund the police,” “Abolish ICE,” and so on — have leaped from the world of nonprofit activism onto the chyrons of MSNBC and Fox News. Obviously, the conservative media have played an important role in publicizing (and often distorting) the most radical ideas from the activist left. But the right didn’t invent these edgy slogans; the left did, injecting them into the national bloodstream.

Twitter is often blamed for (or, alternately, credited with) facilitating the rise of the Democratic Party’s left wing. But an important and generally unexamined source of the left’s growth is the left-wing millionaires who finance it. A little more than a decade ago, David Callahan wrote a book, Fortunes of Change, describing a social and political evolution among the American rich. The rise of a knowledge economy had produced a growing class of liberal millionaires and billionaires, and this elite cohort had begun to work its will on the system by forming “a new progressive donor class.”

Gara LaMarche, the former president of the Democracy Alliance, a constellation of progressive groups, told an interviewer in the spring, “The DA’s own strategies have moved several notches to the left as the donor class has as a whole.”

Speaking more generally of other progressive groups, he said, “More of the money is white, and more of the places the money goes to are BIPOC organizations.” Of course, just as the young, college-educated white staff at progressive organizations tend to have far more liberal views than white people as a whole, so do the young, college-educated staff at organizations representing racial minority groups. As both the staff and the donors of the progressive-nonprofit complex have moved left, it has grown increasingly difficult to ground their worldview in a political reality recognizable to most Americans.

The Ford Foundation is an instructive case study in this change. Ford’s president, Darren Walker, had helped develop and promote a prison-reform proposal that would have closed Rikers Island, a facility notorious for mistreating prisoners, and moved the inmates elsewhere. In a 2019 blog post headlined “In Defense of Nuance,” Walker defended his work from criticism by prison abolitionists that the reform did not go far enough. His argument was characterized by the “yes, but” constructions beloved by mainstream liberals: “We can see how our capitalist systems have broken down while also appreciating that markets have helped reduce the number of people around the globe who live in poverty … We can see the historical failures of our own republic on fault lines of race and gender and sexual orientation and class — as the New York Times has illustrated with deft, delicate care in its 1619 Project — while also protecting and promoting democratic values and institutions, and participating fully in democratic processes, around the globe.”

It did not go over well. Protesters marched in front of his office with signs bearing slogans like FUCK YOUR NUANCE. Over 300 Ford Foundation fellows signed a letter denouncing his blog post. In June 2020, after the George Floyd murder, a group funded by the Ford Foundation demanded the defunding of the police in Minneapolis. Activists booed Jacob Frey, the liberal, reform-minded mayor, for appearing at a rally for Floyd but refusing to endorse their demands. Three months later, the Ford Foundation announced it would devote $180 million “to support the organizations, movements, and visionary individuals that are building power in their communities to dismantle the structural systems that harm Black and Brown people.” In November, a ballot measure to replace the city’s police force lost in Minneapolis, faring worse in the most heavily Black neighborhoods while doing better in white liberal areas.

Several liberal political analysts told me that the left-wing tilt in the progressive-foundation world has given liberals a strong incentive to play along. “The story of foundations and influence is a subset of the overall story of how the center left has moved rapidly in a direction inimical to their goals,” the liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira, co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, told me. “But they’ve done it with eyes open and hands out for the cash.”

The nonprofit world exerted a profound influence over the Democratic presidential race. In June 2019, a coalition of eight activist groups — including Indivisible, MoveOn, and Women’s March — issued a call for Democratic candidates to endorse the decriminalization of border crossings and close detention facilities. “There’s no path to victory that doesn’t bring in communities of color, immigrant communities, working-class folks of all colors,” said Ana Maria Archila of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, one of the groups endorsing the demand. “Latinos are watching, and Asian American communities are watching, and Black immigrants from all over the world are watching.”

Polling showed the public opposed this idea by a 40-point margin, and even Democrats narrowly opposed it. And yet candidates and the news media reporting on these demands tended to take at face value the claim that they represented the authentic desires of the party’s voters. When border decriminalization came up at a Democratic presidential debate a few days later, every candidate but two endorsed it.

Progressive activist groups, once atomized into a gaggle of single-issue lobbies, have increasingly closed ranks, endorsing one another’s ideas as a single, all-or-nothing program. The Green New Deal, for example, blossomed into a call for Medicare for All, affordable housing, student-debt forgiveness, and “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.”

After Floyd’s murder, progressive activists quickly coalesced around defunding the police as a slogan and policy objective. (The slogan was itself a compromise between activists who favored reduction of police budgets and those who favored outright abolition.) Defunding the police never commanded strong support among the public, which has rejected it by margins of more than two to one, and is unpopular among Democrats. Black and Hispanic Democratic voters are more likely than their white counterparts to support higher spending on police, and no more than one-quarter of any Democratic constituency, Black or white, supports reduced funding. Black voters have consistently registered support both for reforming police to crack down on racism and abuse and increasing the level of protection for residents of high-crime areas.

As longtime Minneapolis police-reform activist Nekima Levy Armstrong lamented, most Black Minneapolis residents wanted serious police reform: “Instead, what we got was progressive posturing of a kind seen throughout the country and a missed opportunity to bring about real change and racial justice.” There are at least some models of police reform that combine greater accountability with more robust protection. Camden, New Jersey, for example, reconstituted its corrupt, abusive police force with one that was both more responsive and larger. Those kinds of reforms are not easy, but they at least have a chance of success since they can command significant public approval (which is not a sufficient condition to enact a high-profile reform, but it is a necessary one). There was never a world in which a concept supported by less than 20 percent of the public was going to emerge victorious.

Yet activist groups of all stripes rushed to join the defund movement, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and dozens of climate groups. Those endorsements have continued to blow back in the faces of Democrats. Virginia Republicans in this year’s election learned they could attack any Democrats receiving endorsements from these groups as gaining support from “pro-defund” organizations, and one Democrat declined an endorsement from NARAL, an abortion-rights group, in order to avoid being linked to police defunding.

Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in 2020 may offer the single most instructive example of the distorting effects of the progressive-activist complex. Warren began her presidential candidacy with some liabilities — most obviously, she was a woman running after an election many Democrats believed they had lost because of sexism — but also many strengths. She had earned a reputation as a hard-nosed champion of economic reform. Her platform was simultaneously aggressive yet broadly acceptable within the party.

Over the course of her campaign, though, Warren found herself both racing to outflank Sanders to her left and unable to expand her base beyond college-educated liberals. Persist, Warren’s campaign memoir, chronicles her dogged and largely successful efforts to win the approval of political activists. She proudly notes that a 2015 address at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston was called “the speech that Black Lives Matter activists had been waiting for” by the Washington Post. At another speech in 2018, she declared, “The hard truth about our criminal-justice system: It’s racist … front to back.”

The book quotes an activist’s tweet approving of her criminal-justice plan, her well-received appearance at the “She the People” forum, her endorsement by Black Womxn For. At no point, however, does she show any sign of grasping the disconnect between the preferences of progressive activists and those of minority voters. Indeed, as Warren’s campaign went on, her strategy devolved into issuing more (and more left-wing) policy promises, lining up more activist groups, getting more positive tweets.

The progressive-foundation complex was designed to lift up a candidate like Warren. Instead, it swallowed her in a trap, luring her deeper and deeper into a worldview increasingly alien to the voters she needed to win.

Several people in the Democratic Party have told me they believe the party’s voters — especially its Black voters — saved them from a debacle by selecting Biden as the nominee, rather than any of the candidates vying for progressive-activist approval. The dynamic is an inversion of the structure of the Republican Party, in which the donors try to promote slick, broadly acceptable candidates while voters routinely flock to the angriest and craziest candidate they can find. “The Koch brothers are strategic; their voters are bananas,” one leading Democrat confided. “Our voters are moderate, but our funders are crazy.”

The progressive-foundation infrastructure set out to build a new Democratic majority. When the underpinnings of its theory collapsed, the movement it built simply continued onward, having persuaded itself that its ideas constituted an absolute moral imperative. Re:Power, a leading progressive nonprofit, wrote in a memo that the New Jersey and Virginia fiascoes demonstrated that “BIPOC leaders, especially young people, will no longer settle for moderate policies and compromises” and called for funding more activists to coax the imagined left-wing constituency into existence. Rather than feeling chastened by failure, the donors are doubling down.

In the view of many elected Democrats, their official party now has to carry the burden of a privatized shadow party, financed by naïve donors and staffed by fervent foot soldiers, carrying out a strategy of anti-politics.

Biden’s victory in the primary temporarily wrested control of the party out of the hands of its activists and placed it back with its voters. Yet as the year comes to a close, he has only been able to pass an infrastructure bill whittled down small enough to satisfy Republicans, the Build Back Better plan has been cut to ribbons, and his approval is in tatters.

Biden’s critics in the center and on the right have blamed his excessive liberalism. But the opposite is true. Biden is actually following a plan designed in direct opposition to the party’s movement-driven leftward turn.

Biden’s first-term strategy was predicated on a counterrevolution in Democratic Party political thinking led by an unlikely spokesperson: a data analyst and socialist named David Shor. He has become something of a cult figure on the center left for his critique of the party’s leftward lurch, which he believes is out of step with the values of most of its voters.

The principles of David Shor Thought boil down to a few key precepts. Shor believes the central dynamic in western politics is educational polarization: the tendency of college-educated voters to move left while those without college education move right. It follows that, as educated people have diverged from the working class, the Democratic Party’s political class (which consists entirely of college-educated voters) has moved much further from the political midpoint that it once inhabited. Shor’s solution is to be vigilant about this bias and to correct for it by paying close attention to polling and speaking in plain, accessible language.

Biden’s legislative strategy has closely hewed to Shorist principles. Biden has tried to keep the political conversation framed as closely as possible around issues in which he and his party have an advantage: handling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy. His economic program has carefully avoided any controversial social debates and focused on a highly popular combination of raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and redistributing the proceeds to the working and middle class through programs like universal access to child care, community college, and a child tax credit.

Building Back Together, a pro-Biden group, sent out talking points describing the president’s plan as “popular, popular, popular.” The whole message seemed to be aimed at moderates in Congress who felt burned by left-wing rhetoric and needed assurance that this president would avoid putting them crosswise to their constituents.

In one sense, the strategy has worked perfectly. Biden’s program has avoided generating the kind of angry public backlash that rose up against Obama (and Bill Clinton before him). Indeed, Biden’s agenda has proved so uncontroversial that Republicans have barely roused themselves to denounce it at all, instead focusing on whatever culture-war chum floats across Fox News, from Dr. Seuss to COVID-vaccine mandates. Even the expected grumbling from progressives has largely failed to materialize because the agenda included an ambitious list of progressive economic priorities that no less a left-wing eminence than Sanders described as “the most consequential piece of legislation for working families since the 1930s.” Democratic pollster Sean McElwee told CNN he detected no divide between liberal and centrist Democratic voters, all of whom supported Biden’s program.

Yet divisions among congressional Democrats remain bitter. In a leaked conference call after the 2020 elections, Democrat Abigail Spanberger lambasted progressive Democrats for allowing unpopular slogans like “Defund the police” to define the party, and she blamed those errors for the defeat of several moderate Democrats. The moderates’ anger at the left wing is well grounded, but, perversely, they have taken out this anger on Biden.

Those divisions erupted into view again in early November. After Democrats suffered a defeat in normally blue Virginia and a near defeat in deep-blue New Jersey, the party’s centrist wing had a ready explanation: They had veered too far from the center, catering to their activists rather than the people who had elected them. “We can’t go too far left,” warned Joe Manchin. “This is not a center-left or a left country. We are a center — if anything, a little center-right — country; that’s being shown, and we ought to be able to recognize that.”

The news media, after years of covering the party’s sharp left turn, were primed to accept this interpretation. “Tonight really empowers Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema,” a Democratic strategist told Politico. “Joe Manchin’s wing of the Democratic Party will seem much more crowded today,” observed the congressional tip sheet Punchbowl News.

But this seemingly intuitive response had its diagnosis backward. Rather than helping to correct the Democrats’ problems with the electorate, Manchin, Sinema, and their centrist House allies have compounded them. The story of Biden’s domestic agenda is that it was crippled by a small but crucial faction of Democrats who came to be persuaded by the C-suite view of the world. And all the while, those Democrats persuaded themselves that they were the authentic voices of the people.

One recent poll asked voters to identify the features of the Build Back Better plan that most appealed to them. The top five were, in order, adding dental and vision benefits to Medicare, home health care for the elderly and disabled, letting Medicare negotiate prescription-drug prices, Medicare coverage for hearing, and free community college. Democratic centrists in the Senate eliminated three of them from the bill completely and gutted a fourth. “Bizarrely,” observed Democratic pollster William Jordan in September, “the parts of Biden’s agenda that are most popular seem to be most at risk right now.”

The centrists did not, for the most part, object to the spending. What they ruled out was the policies Biden had come up with to pay for the spending. Most of the money would come from tax hikes on corporations and people earning more than $400,000 a year, cracking down on tax cheats, and letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for pharmaceuticals, which cost Americans more than twice as much as in peer countries. All those measures actually made the popular spending plans even more popular. Raising taxes on the rich commands near two-to-one support. And pollsters have said negotiating drug costs is literally the most popular idea they have ever tested.

Nor was the problem that Democratic policy experts had doubts about these crowd-pleasing ideas. Other elements of Biden’s agenda had drawn dissent from Democratic-affiliated economists — Larry Summers, for example, warned that the economic stimulus Biden signed in March would exacerbate inflation. But even moderates like Summers and Robert Rubin considered Biden’s plan to redistribute income from the rich to the poor and working class highly practical.

The problem, instead, is that these policies would make rich people less rich. And they didn’t like it.

It was not quite as simple as wealthy people showing up in Washington with suitcases full of cash. But in some cases, at least, it wasn’t that far from the truth. Former North Dakota Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp was lobbying against changes to a notorious tax loophole permitting capital gains to escape taxation if the owners passed it on to their children — a loophole she had not long before called “one of the biggest scams in the history of forever.” Former Arkansas Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln, who had once campaigned on a promise to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, was lobbying against it on behalf of Big Pharma. And former Montana senator Max Baucus was writing op-eds arguing against various tax hikes for the rich while refusing to tell reporters who was paying for his consulting business.

The Reverend Al Sharpton called at least one member of Congress to convey his fears that eliminating the carried-interest loophole — a tax-avoidance scheme cooked up by Wall Street that Bloomberg News called “one of the most reviled loopholes” in the tax code — “would hurt Black businesspeople trying to build wealth,” as Politico reported.

How you view this process is a matter of your perspective on psychology and human nature. A cynic would see it as simply corruption. A more nuanced view of human psychology would assert that people find their way toward matching up their convictions with their interests. The more money you stand to make by believing an argument, the more persuasive it sounds.

Over the summer and fall, item after item in the Biden agenda was suddenly plagued by a handful of Democrats expressing quiet doubts. Many of these doubts seemed new. When Sinema ran for Senate in 2018, she made reducing prescription-drug prices a core promise. And yet by 2021, she had turned sharply against her previous position.

The most spectacular success of this lobbying campaign was not merely that it persuaded a crucial faction of Democrats to ignore both the voters and their own policy wonks to side with organized business interests. It was that they managed to coat an agenda that was in its specifics as electorally toxic as defunding the police with the pleasant sheen of “centrism.”

To treat this all as simple graft is to dismiss the crucial channels through which this worldview reproduces itself into genuine belief. Much of the nation’s elite resides within a bubble nearly as remote from the perspective of the average American as the hothouse atmosphere of any left-wing Twitter feed. Within this bubble, the equation of the perspective of the wealthy with that of the country as a whole is simply a casual background assumption. Much of the news from Washington is unintelligible, or even absurd, unless it is understood as a transmutation of the C-suite vantage point into the vox populi.

Here is one example: “Mr. Manchin is also listening closely to his constituents,” reported the Times in September. “Earlier this month, the senator spent two days at the annual meeting of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, convened at the lavish Greenbrier resort, where ‘people were lining up to talk to him about this,’ said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and another old friend of Mr. Manchin’s.” Notice how Manchin’s constituents turn out to be business elites meeting at a lavish resort, and the friendliest one is the president of the state’s business lobby.

Here is another: That same month, The Wall Street Journal quoted the president of Arizona’s Chamber of Commerce asserting that Sinema was “going to stand up to special interests and I think she’s going to do what’s right.” This was an extraordinarily bizarre line. By any sane definition of the term, the Chamber of Commerce is a special interest. If the boss of the Lucchese crime family expressed his hope that the district attorney would fight crime, no newspaper reporter would simply pass on the quote without, at minimum, some arch commentary. And yet the Chamber’s president was able to embed his view in the news without any pushback because the Chamber of Commerce is considered a kind of nonpartisan force for good government.

The Democratic Party’s centrist wing has assimilated this worldview. It is not an altogether irrational choice. When you are running in politically hostile territory, and when Fox News has branded your party as the enemy of American values, you need some signal to your constituents that you differ from your colleagues. The paradox is that while the sources of the Democratic Party’s battered reputation in much of red America are largely cultural, the only recourse red-state Democrats have come up with is economic. It is telling that one group, Center Forward, which had emerged to run ads praising key Democrats who had broken with Biden, turned out to be a front for the pharmaceutical lobby.

Embattled Democrats have not staged any high-profile gestures to distance themselves from their party on policing, abortion, or guns. Manchin is not walking around toting copies of the lesser-known offensive editions of Dr. Seuss. Instead, moderate Democrats, noted Politico, “tout the Chamber’s backing to bolster their bipartisan cred in swing districts.” While Fox News is blaring constant coverage of cancellations in elite liberal milieus, centrist Democrats focus on blocking the cancellation of billionaire tax loopholes. The Chamber of Commerce has filled a vacuum where the shaping of a culturally moderate wing of the Democratic Party ought to exist.

An Axios story praised Sinema for defying the “woke politics” of her liberal colleagues. Woke has long since escaped its origins in the social-justice left to become a pejorative term that stands for a set of social and cultural norms. But what Sinema has broken away from is not any social-liberal shibboleths but the party’s traditional working-class agenda.

When Manchin dropped a bombshell by announcing he would oppose Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan and called for a “pause” into the next year, the forum he chose was not a local West Virginia newspaper, or even a conservative organ like Fox News that reaches many of his constituents, but the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. How many West Virginians read the Journal’s “Opinion” columns at all, let alone share its passion for regressive taxation and lax enforcement of white-collar crime?

Because of centrist opposition, Democrats have been unable to sell to their constituents the popular things they planned to do. A Democratic member of Congress may like to be able to tell her constituents that she is voting for access to child care or expanded Medicaid, but nobody knows yet what is in the bill. The only defining feature of their agenda is its size, and the centrists have pounded home the idea that the size is too big.

When Democrats were racing the $2 trillion, entirely deficit-financed American Rescue Plan to Biden’s desk in March, he was widely seen as both moderate and effective. Now that they are spending endless months bickering over a fully financed plan of roughly the same size, he is seen as liberal and ineffective. The independent variable here is not Biden moving to the left; it is congressional centrists counterposing themselves against Biden in a way that makes them look more centrist but also makes Biden look simultaneously more left wing and less effective.

A November Washington Post poll found Biden’s approval rating dropping to its lowest level ever. Sixty-three percent of respondents said Biden had accomplished “little or nothing” or “not very much.” Yet 58 percent registered support for a plan to spend $2 trillion to “address climate change and to create or expand preschool, health care and other social programs.” Americans see infighting and gridlock but endorse Biden’s specific goals. The implications could hardly be more obvious, yet it is far from clear the centrists have grasped them.

Biden’s travails likewise encouraged the left to return to its counsels of despair. “Democrats might not win the majority of white women, but they haven’t for a while,” raged Wajahat Ali in the Daily Beast after Virginia narrowly elected Republican Glenn Youngkin governor. “That ship has sailed. It’s time to court and win over women of color and a diverse coalition that can save this country from itself and its self-destructive addiction to white supremacy.” The hard work of compromising with the electorate had failed, and now would come divine judgment, condemning the great mass of the electorate to hell.

The dream of a Rooseveltian presidency was always grandiose, not least because Biden lacks FDR’s giant majorities in Congress. Yet it was a sensible ambition in its form. Biden’s goal was to demonstrate the concrete benefits of good government and, in so doing, to disprove the cynical Trumpian claim that Washington was merely controlled by wealthy elites. The Democrats can still come through on that promise, if they can prevent the left wing and plutocratic center from pulling the party apart. But time is running out, and Trump is waiting.

Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the November 22, 2021, issue of New York Magazine.

Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze