Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
the national interest

The Democrats Remembered How Politics Works Again

An end to a decade of magical thinking.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Not long before the polls closed on Election Day, progressive activists Jeff Hauser and Max Moran circulated a memo explaining what had gone wrong for the Democrats. Titled “AGAINST AGGRESSIVE MUNDANENESS: Why Democrats’ Message Failed in the 2022 Midterms, and the Corporate Crackdown That Could Save Them,” the memo blamed the Democrats’ strategy of reassuring swing voters — which one article dubbed “aggressive mundaneness” — for its presumptive defeat. “The main supposed advantage of ‘aggressive mundaneness’ is that making no enemies means alienating no potential allies,” they argued. “But if a candidate never stands up to anything, they effectively stand for nothing, and all voters will rightly find them untrustworthy at worst, and boring at best.”

While the memo’s widely shared assumption that Republicans would register large gains in the election proved incorrect, it did accurately convey that, in most races, Democrats ignored the left’s preferred strategy. That strategy is what activists have demanded forever: giving voters a stark ideological choice in the belief that this would redound to their own side’s benefit by firing up their own base. Conservatives, of course, have their own version of this polarize-and-win strategy, and Republicans followed it in far more races than Democrats did.

Hauser and Max expected Democrats would suffer a rout, hence the memo’s subtitle, “Why Democrats’ Message Failed in the 2022 Midterms.” Instead, its logic would seem to imply the strategy succeeded.

And indeed, the election results, both in the aggregate and in many of the particulars, vindicate the belief that voters tend to punish rather than reward parties and candidates they associate with radical ideas. To be sure, a tendency is not a rule. The largest factor driving election results is external world events: economic prosperity (or its absence), rallying around the flag in the event of a foreign attack, or widespread disgust with a failed war or major scandal. Midterm elections generally have large swings against the president’s party. One reason 2022 defied the pattern is that the Dobbs decision made Republicans, not Democrats, the party carrying out radical change. Candidates and parties seen as safe and moderate have an advantage — one that may not always override other factors but which matters quite a bit.

This is a fairly uncontroversial finding among political scientists. Yet in recent years, many influential figures in the Democratic Party had come to disbelieve it. A series of mistakes followed from this belief that Democrats would pay no penalty or may even benefit from moving farther away from the center. There are also signs in the recent election cycle they are coming to grips with the fallacies in their assumptions. A decade of magical thinking may be coming to an end.

Twenty years ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which argued that the Democratic coalition of racial minorities and educated cosmopolitan white voters was growing into the basis for a potential majority coalition. It took another decade, around the time Barack Obama was running his second presidential campaign, for many liberals to embrace this logic. I was one of the liberals who believed the theory. I touted it in the wake of the 2012 election, and I gave an interview to Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer in 2015 in which he unspooled an even more aggressive version of the idea.

Pfeiffer told me that the shrinking number of persuadable voters had weakened the traditional incentive to appeal to the center:

“The incentive structure moves from going after the diminishing middle to motivating the base.” Ever since Republicans took control of the House four years ago, attempts to court Republicans have mostly failed while simultaneously dividing Democratic voters. Obama’s most politically successful maneuvers, by contrast, have all been unilateral and liberal. “Whenever we contemplate bold progressive action,” Pfeiffer said, “whether that’s the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, or coming out strong on power-plant rules to reduce current pollution, on immigration, on net neutrality, you get a lot of hemming and hawing in advance about what this is going to mean: Is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states?” And yet this hesitation has always proved overblown: “There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it.”

This all seemed reasonably persuasive to me. Analysts subsequently discovered these views of the electorate were predicated on exit polling that systematically uncounted white voters who lacked a college degree (and therefore underestimated the party’s reliance on maintaining competitive levels among this cohort.) And it is fairly plausible that this analysis was at least somewhat correct at the time — the political center perceived by conventional wisdom was out of whack with the real political center, and Democrats had room to adopt positions seen as “extreme” without paying any price.

But by the end of the Obama administration, many progressive activists, commentators, staffers, and even candidates had internalized the belief that ideological moderation had no political benefit at all. “If more and more voters are either on your side or the opponent’s side, that means winning elections is simple: You have to get your people more excited, and get the other side less excited,” explained an article in Vox. The New Republic asserted that “energizing and expanding the base will bring in far more votes than moving right to grab a vanishingly small psychographic.”

“Hillary Clinton, concerned that she needed to inspire the base, positioned herself to the left of Obama’s campaign four years before, both rhetorically and substantively. “Clinton has moved considerably to the left on a number of issues in response to movements for change. In the first debate, when the stakes were at their highest, she talked about her commitment to affordable college, Medicare for all, and combatting institutional racism,” gushed Katrina Vanden Heuvel. The Nation credited Clinton with “the most progressive platform in the modern history of the Democratic Party.”

Democrats did not see Clinton’s defeat as a rebuke to her decision to move to Obama’s left. Instead, the compounding shocks of Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly robust primary challenge, followed by Donald Trump’s election victory, convinced many of them that the old rules of politics did not apply at all. If one looked carefully, there were conventional explanations for both these phenomena: Sanders had actually relied heavily on conservative-leaning voters casting protest votes against Clinton, and Trump, by positioning himself rhetorically in the center on issues like health care, taxes, and trade, was actually seen by voters as more moderate than Clinton. But progressives instead took the rise of Sanders and Trump as proof that the best strategy was to shock the voters to life with promises of radical change.

By the 2020 election cycle, the fever was running rampant. Democratic candidates kept trying to outflank each other in what progressive pundits gleefully called a “policy arms race.” (The metaphor was inadvertently revealing: An arms race is a negative-sum dynamic in which two adversaries harm themselves.) Seeking to curry favor with progressive interest groups, Democratic candidates adopted a series of highly unpopular positions, promising to eliminate private health insurance, decriminalize the border, subsidize health care for people crossing the border illegally, and provide reparations for descendants of slaves. And even where they held popular positions, Democrats began describing their plans in academic jargon that alienated voters — in particular, depicting even race-neutral liberal ideas as anti-racist despite evidence showing this framing backfires.

The dynamic was unfolding in an atmosphere in which progressive nonprofit organizations were grappling with internal dissension by young staff, driving their public-facing position to the left. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of progressives assumed that the stances of activist organizations represented the authentic beliefs of racial minorities and therefore treated any criticism of their positions as racist, or at least deeply improper (this was scorned as “punching down” at “black and brown activists”). Journalists covering the race assumed the left was ascendant and graded the candidates, either implicitly or explicitly, on how much praise progressive NGOs lavished on them.

The result was a frantic flight away from the center. “Responding to a Democratic electorate that has been radicalized by Donald Trump and is still smarting from the 2008 recession, Warren and Sanders have yanked the conversation — and the party — sharply to the left,” The Nation’s Jeet Heer wrote joyously.

Biden’s triumph in the primary was in part a paradoxical response to this dynamic. The former vice-president was the only candidate who opted out of the race to the left and had enough name recognition to win anyway, and the primary had cleared out so much room in the party’s center that he was able to run practically unopposed in its widest lane.

The most revealing indication of the progressive wing’s dominant status is that even after the party’s voters rallied to Biden, his campaign was forced to make policy concessions to his defeated opponents. Biden adopted a “unity platform” designed jointly with advisers to the Bernie Sanders campaign, reversing the normal dynamic in which a candidate tacks to the center for the general election. “The goals of the task force were to move the Biden campaign into as progressive a direction as possible, and I think we did that,” Sanders told NPR. “On issue after issue, whether it was education, the economy, health care, climate, immigration, criminal justice, I think there was significant movement on the part of the Biden campaign.” By mid-summer, the public’s perception of Biden’s ideology had moved well to the left.

If you subscribed to the traditional, now-unfashionable political-sciencey view, the effects of this shift were predictable: Democrats shed support among their most moderate voters. What is ironic is that these voters were disproportionately non-white:

So moving left in response to pressure from activists who claimed to represent racial minorities had the effect of depressing the party’s support among those very constituencies.

The fallout from this period has hung over the Democrats. Their erosion among non-white voters has continued in the 2022 cycle, with Republicans registering levels of support among Latinos and African Americans that would have until recently seemed impossible. They have also seen localized erosion with other constituencies — in New York City, where progressives have tried to change test-based magnet schools that are an aspirational foundation for Asian American children, Asian American voters have swung sharply to the GOP. (If Democrats allow themselves to be defined by the left’s suspicion of educational achievement, that trend could well extend nationally.)

The overhang from the 2020 primary race to the left has continued to haunt the party, sometimes in strange ways. In the closing days of the Ohio Senate race, in which Tim Ryan had mounted a surprisingly durable challenge by distancing himself from the national party, J.D. Vance unleashed a surprise attack: Ryan was on the record in favor of taxpayer-funded gender-reassignment surgeries for incarcerated Americans and illegal immigrants. The thing about this crazy-sounding attack is that it was actually accurate. In 2019, when he was running for president, Ryan was given an ACLU questionnaire and checked yes when asked, “As president, will you use your executive authority to ensure that transgender and non-binary people who rely on the state for medical care — including those in prison and immigration detention — will have access to comprehensive treatment associated with gender transition, including all necessary surgical care?”

You can understand why progressive activists would want to promote medical care for prisoners and illegal immigrants, and you can further understand why they would want that care to include gender-transition treatment. But they almost surely gave no thought whatsoever to how such a proposal would play out politically if any candidates endorsing it had won the nomination.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest this position cost Ryan the race. But it illustrates the degree to which the 2020 primary had devolved into an almost monomaniacal race to the left with progressive groups pushing every candidate as far as they could be pushed with no effort made to consider the real-world effects.

The party’s message on crime has proven to be its most durable liability. Left-wing messaging on policing “branded the Democrats in ways that alienated them from key parts of their own base,” wrote Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg shortly before the election. “They conducted the research in the African American, Hispanic, and Asian American communities. All of those communities pointed to the rising worry about crime. And they worried more about the rise in crime than the rise in police abuse. Yet Democrats throughout 2021 focused almost exclusively on the latter.”

Greenberg also found that the only effective response Democrats could use against this liability was a message distancing themselves from the left (“Too many in my party thought it was not okay to talk about the growing violent crime problem in our community.”)

This was a message Democrats embraced in key races. John Fetterman said defunding the police was “always absurd.” Raphael Warnock and Catherine Cortez Masto introduced bipartisan legislation to increase police funding. Endangered House Democrats leaned heavily on this message and performed well. Measured relative to Biden’s vote share within their district, Blue Dog Democrats performed better than candidates affiliated with Our Revolution, who in turn performed better than members of the Squad:

Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout, but Democrats managed to hold key seats by winning independents, especially in the most contested races.

It can be difficult to tease out the contradictory effects of the Democrats’ left-wing messaging from before 2022 from their more recent efforts to counteract it. Every state and district has its own unique traits that make it difficult to reduce the outcome to a single characteristic. Even when you have multiple candidates in the same state, their opponents differ. In Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro ran a more moderate campaign than Fetterman but also benefitted from a more extreme opponent. Likewise in Georgia, Warnock put more effort than Stacy Abrams did into projecting moderation, but Warnock also faced a more extreme-sounding foe.

Wisconsin presents the closest thing to a clear test. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes and gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers both ran against Trump-aligned Republicans. But Barnes has closer ties to progressive activists and struggled to distance himself from a history of toxic left-wing positions he had taken before. Evers narrowly won, and Barnes narrowly lost. The difference between their totals was slight, but in a polarized state, the choices of a slightly higher number of cross-pressured voters made the difference between winning and losing.

Of the factors within the Democrats’ control, the single most important source of their midterm success was that Joe Biden did not do anything that alienated the opposition. As Julia Azari notes, Biden is the first president in 30 years who did not face an organized national opposition movement akin to the Tea Party or the Resistance. His low approval ratings weren’t fatal because Democrats managed to win over voters who slightly disapproved of him. The strategy was not to crank up the base but to avoid alienating persuadable voters. Normality — mundaneness — prevailed.

Of course coming across as normal and boring isn’t going to help the president if he’s saddled with a truly cratering economy or some other catastrophe. But there is a deeper lesson here in how politics works. The middle may be diminishing, but it still holds the balance of power. After years of talking themselves into disbelieving it, Democrats are reacquainting themselves with political reality.

The Democrats Remembered How Politics Works Again