How did the political left squander the opportunity that was the 2020 primary campaign?
The Trump presidency has created tremendous energy among progressives. More than half of Democratic voters now identify as liberal. Most favor “Medicare for All.” A growing number are unhappy with American capitalism.
This year’s campaign offered the prospect of transformational change, with a Democratic nominee who was more liberal than any in more than a half-century. Instead, the nominee now seems likely to be a moderate white grandfather who first ran for president more than 30 years ago and whose campaign promises a return to normalcy.
True, Bernie Sanders could make a comeback, but it would need to be a big one. Among people who voted on Super Tuesday itself — rather than voting early, before Joe Biden won South Carolina — Biden trounced Sanders. The race would have to change fundamentally for Sanders to win.
If he doesn’t, the obvious questions for progressives is what went wrong and how they can do better in the future. I think there are some clear answers — empirical answers that anybody, regardless of ideology, should be able to see. I’d encourage the next generation of progressive leaders to think about these issues with an open mind.
The biggest lesson is simply this: The American left doesn’t care enough about winning.
It’s an old problem, one that has long undermined left-wing movements in this country. They have often prioritized purity over victory. They wouldn’t necessarily put it these terms, but they have chosen to lose on their terms rather than win with compromise.
You can see this pattern today in the ways that many progressive activists misread public opinion. Their answer to almost every question of political strategy is to insist that Americans are a profoundly progressive people who haven’t yet been inspired to vote the way they think. The way to win, these progressives claim, is to go left, always.
Immigration? Most Americans want more of it. Abortion? This is a pro-abortion rights country. Fracking? People now understand its downsides. Strict gun control? Affirmative action? A wealth tax? Free college? Medicare for All? Widely available marijuana? Americans want it all, activists claim.
This belief helps explain why so many 2020 candidates hoping to win the progressive vote — including Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — embraced ideas like a ban on fracking and the decriminalization of the border. The left persuaded itself that those policies were both morally righteous and politically savvy. To reject any one of them was to risk being labeled a neoliberal sellout.
The thing is, progressive activists are right about public opinion on some of these issues. Most Americans do favor higher taxes on the rich, marijuana legalization and additional gun control. But too many progressives aren’t doing an honest analysis of the politics. They are instead committing what journalist Matthew Yglesias has called “the pundit fallacy.” They are conflating their own opinions with smart political advice. They are choosing to believe what they want to believe.
They often do so by pointing to polls with favorably worded, intricate questions — and by ignoring evidence to the contrary. Affirmative action, for example, typically loses ballot initiatives. Polls show that most Americans favor some abortion restrictions and oppose the elimination of private health insurance.
By designing campaign strategies for the America they want, rather than the one that exists, progressives have done a favor to their political opponents. They have refused to make tactical retreats, which is why they keep losing.
I think Warren may have been the person most damaged by this dynamic in 2020. (And, yes, she was also hurt by sexism.) She could have positioned herself as the candidate who excited much of the left but was more acceptable to the center-left than Sanders. Instead, she mimicked Sanders, making many Democratic voters who were rooting for her worried that, like him, she couldn’t win a general election.
Or look back at the 2018 midterms. In competitive districts, candidates backed by progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution were shut out. They lost in either the primaries or the general election. There isn’t a single Sanders-like member of Congress from a purple or red district. There are dozens of moderates.
Remember: The policy positions of Sanders, Warren and other progressives — on Medicare for All, for instance — are often closer to the views of most Democratic voters than the moderate position is. Yet many Democrats spurn the progressive candidate. These voters care more about winning than about perfect policy agreement, and they support the candidate whom they (correctly) see as more in tune with the full electorate.
The progressive wing of the party has still had a good few years, pushing the party left in multiple ways. Even Biden’s platform is strikingly liberal. But if progressives aren’t satisfied being influential runners-up, I would suggest three broad principles.
First, don’t become PINOs (progressives in name only). Decide on a few core ways in which you think moderate Democrats are wrong, and stake out different positions.
Second, stop believing your own spin. Analyze public opinion objectively. Acknowledge when a progressive position brings electoral costs.
Finally, start testing some new political strategies. A single break with orthodoxy can send a larger signal. It can make a candidate look flexible, open-minded, less partisan and more respectful of people with different views.
Maybe the new approach should involve economic progressivism and cultural moderation, which happens to reflect American public opinion. Maybe it involves a different approach on immigration — insisting on a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally but also a slowdown of future immigration. Maybe it means announcing that fracking and nuclear energy are crucial to fighting climate change. Or maybe it involves finding more progressive candidates who hunt or talk about their relationship with Jesus Christ and have some related policy positions.
I realize that political compromise usually feels unpleasant. But I’d ask: How does losing feel?
As luck would have it, the Democratic Party has a loyal group of voters who, though hardly monolithic, tend to be more pragmatic and less wishful than progressive activists. They also tend to be culturally moderate, as many swing voters are.
This group, of course, is black voters, especially those middle-aged and older. They just swung the 2020 nomination away from Sanders and toward Biden. Until progressives figure out how to do better with black voters, they are going to have a hard time winning. And the same strategies that will help progressives win more black voters in the primaries are also likely to win over more swing voters in a general election.