Popping the progressive bubble

For Virginia Democrats like me, the odd-year elections earlier this month were like a gruesome coda to Halloween. Republicans swept the top three statewide offices, took over the House of Delegates and knocked the Old Dominion back into swing state status.

As painful as they were, however, the Democratic losses in Virginia and close shave in New Jersey have had one salutary effect: They seem to have popped the progressive bubble — the activist left’s claims, credulously accepted by many media commentators, to be the authentic voice and future of the Democratic Party.

Post-election analysis has highlighted the pitfalls for Democrats of heeding only that voice. The protracted battle in Washington over progressives’ big social spending demands has reinforced public doubts about President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE. Republicans also made notable gains among parents angry over school closures, falling standards and academic “antiracism” theories promoted by progressive social justice warriors.

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Now media powers that previously hailed the inevitable progressive ascendancy are warning Democrats to chart a more moderate course to staunch defections by independents, moderates and working-class voters from Biden’s winning 2020 coalition. 

Propelled mainly by millennial activists and boomer elites, the left’s stock has been rising in national politics since the 2008 financial crisis, which gave capitalism a black eye. After the anarchic Occupy movement fizzled, many activists were captivated by Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine Press: GOP freak show: Who's in charge? MORE’s historic presidential victory. 

But Obama, more analytical than utopian, and hobbled by Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer tees up key Thursday vote on debt deal House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE’s (R-Ky.) nihilistic stance of maximum obstruction, failed to deliver the “transformative change” the young left dreams of. Their disillusionment, fed also by the rise of tea party populism on the right, pushed them in a more radical direction. 

In 2016, they invested their hopes in Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill White House 'strongly opposes' Senate resolution to stop Saudi arms sale MORE’s (I-Vt.) throwback socialism. The irascible independent’s radical “authenticity,” in their eyes, stood in welcome contrast to the cautious incrementalism of “establishment” favorite Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBen Affleck: Republicans 'want to dodge the consequences for their actions' through gerrymandering Republican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema MORE. Misinterpreting her subsequent fluky loss to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE as the inevitable consequence of tepid centrism, activist groups confidently asserted that only with an unapologetically leftwing champion could Democrats mobilize the “progressive base” and win elections.

Among Twitter addicts, political journalists with a strong herd instinct and the deep-pocketed elites of the Democracy Alliance, a legend was born: The activist left was infusing youthful energy and idealism into a tired Democratic Party and leading it away from “neoliberalism” toward a brave new world of democratic socialism.

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The energy and idealism were real enough, but some spoilsports – namely, U.S. voters – disagreed about the direction. In 2018, Democrats won the House by fielding pragmatic candidates with crossover appeal in swing districts; progressives did poorly outside deep blue cities. The pattern repeated itself in 2020. While Sanders and a scrum of rivals vied for the “most progressive” mantle, Biden, the old party warhorse, won the nomination by rallying the real Democratic rank and file: working-class Blacks and Hispanics, suburban moderates, party regulars and blue-collar whites.

No one doubts that progressives, largely white, urban and highly educated, are an important force in the party. But they aren’t the dominant force, and their sanctimony and sense of political entitlement repels other Democrats, especially working-class Blacks and Hispanics. That’s why Biden and his party should reorient themselves around a more pragmatic governing agenda over the next year — one that can unite rather than split their diverse coalition and give them a fighting chance to dodge a midterm blowout.

What would that mean in practice? For starters, the just-passed infrastructure bill is far more popular than the nebulous social spending bill still under debate. Democrats should be relentless in connecting the dots for voters between this big economic investment and their hopes for better jobs, a sustained recovery and competitive success against China.

As they struggle to complete the reconciliation bill, Democrats also should pay greater heed to voters’ growing anxieties about rising prices and debt. The final bill should be simpler, better focused and credibly paid for, lest it feed inflation.

The White House also needs a new approach to immigration reform. The growing number of migrants thronging to our southern border conveys a double sense of failure — both the policy and its execution by government. Democrats need to get tougher in enforcing immigration laws (in workplaces as well as at the border) while widening the portals for willing workers to enter the country legally. 

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And Democrats should deescalate America’s culture wars, by giving a wide berth to leftwing enthusiasms such as defunding the police, teaching racially reductive theories in school, decriminalizing illegal immigration and politicizing gender.

Above all, the party needs to pay more attention to pragmatic Democratic leaders who know how to compete and win in competitive races. They are doing the difficult work of expanding the party’s appeal demographically and geographically. As Jacobin, a socialist magazine, admits, “progressives have not yet made good on one key promise of their campaigns: to transform and expand the electorate itself.”

As the White House and Virginia Democrats learned the hard way this month, Democrats ignore moderates, pragmatic liberals and independents at their peril. Fortunately, they have a year to rectify this mistake and get back on a winning path.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).