As the dust settled from the 2020 election, it became clear that there was no blue wave. Democrats will likely fail to take the Senate, and the party actually lost seats in the House of Representatives. After months of an expected Democratic sweep, these results are a disaster. The finger-pointing began almost immediately, and the blame was laid on a familiar target: the progressive wing of the Democrats.
Two days after the election, House Democrats held a conference call. Centrists came out gunning for the progressives. The most prominent attack came from Abigail Spanberger, a freshman congressperson from Virginia. She claimed that the slogan of “defund the police” was a toxic phrase that almost cost her her reelection. She demanded that Democrats never “use the words 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again.” Broadly, she attacked the left as the reason why Democrats failed down-ballot races. Spanberger was not alone, either. Many Democrats attacked progressives throughout the call.
The centrists were handed potentially hundreds of thousands of voters on a silver platter, but they immediately started attacking the very people who won those voters. That’s not just bad strategy—that’s self-sabotage.
It’s an interesting hypothesis: progressive hardliners dragged the image of the party too far left, and their so-called radicalism forced voters to abandon the Democrats. Here’s the problem, though; Spanberger and the centrists have no leg to stand on. They are dead wrong.
First, let’s tackle Spanberger herself. She first won office in 2018, winning by less than 7,000 votes and with 50.4% of the electorate. In 2020, she won by over 8,000 votes and with 50.9% of the electorate. Contrary to her claims, she did not almost lose her seat; she won by an even bigger margin than before. Granted, her lead was a bit smaller on the day of the conference call (less than 6,000 votes), but what exactly did she expect in a close district? I’ll assume Spangerger has the basic math skills to understand all this. She knows she’s misconstruing the data, which means she is trying to push an agenda. As a politician who has spent her first term distancing herself from the left, it makes sense that Spanberger, along with many other centrists, is trying to force the Democrats to abandon the rising progressive base.
The overall problem with the centrist’s claims is that progressives did not cost the Democrats their big victory. Left-wing Democrats did great on election day; it was the moderates who lost the key races.
None of the 112 co-sponsors of Medicare-for-All lost their reelection. Only one of the 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal lost their race. Justice Democrats, the campaign group behind the “Squad,” got three more candidates into Congress: Jamaal Bowman from New York, Marie Newman from Illinois, and Cori Bush from Missouri. This election brings the number of elected Justice Democrats to 10. Remember, this group did not exist until 2017, and it already has a double-digit number of congresspeople. Other progressives also advanced into the House this year.
These victories are not limited to safe blue districts, either. A number of the Medicare-for-All supporters ran in very competitive and even GOP-leaning districts; they still won. Representatives Jared Golden, Katie Porter, Matt Cartwright, Mike Levin, and Ann Kirkpatrick won in districts rated Republican by the Cook Partisan Voter Index. Peter DeFazio and Josh Harder won in districts rated even—the perfect swing districts. Susan Wild won in a district that only leaned Democrat by one point. Progressives proved this election that they can win in competitive races. The left-wing platform is a winning platform.
Progressives are not a drag on the party—they are the lifeblood of it. Centrist Democrats love to claim that they can win over swing voters and independents, but the truth is that they can’t—or at least not any better than left-wingers can.
Contrast the progressives’ success with the centrists' utter failures. As of writing, Democrats lost 8 house seats. One of them was Collin Peterson, the most conservative Democrat in the entire House. 5 of the losers had ideological ratings that were the same or more conservative than Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Leader; these 5 were in the top 20 list of the most conservative Democrats. All but two losers (Florida’s Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell) were more conservative than the median Democrat. Those last two came under fire for more than just “socialism.” Shalala was attacked for alleged corruption and self-enrichment. After being fined for improper stock sales, Shalala's opponent claimed she used insider information and CARES Act money to rack up huge stock gains; this attack was pushed more than claims of leftist radicalism. Murcasel-Powell was also attacked for alleged corruption; her opponent claimed that she funneled CARES Act money to her husband’s business. The record shows that the Democrat’s losses came from the centrist wing of the party, and the more liberal losers had bigger problems than the progressive wing.
All of this ignores the fact that centrists like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are incredibly toxic. Pelosi’s favorability is -6% (compared to AOC’s +7%) and she has been the target of Republican attack ads all over the country for over a decade. Centrists like Obama presided over the decimation of the Democratic party; under his tenure, the Democrats lost over 1,000 seats in Congress and state governments. To write 2020’s losses off as the result of progressives pushing too far ignores too much data and too much history. The record is clear: strong progressives win tough races, and centrists lose them. If the centrists’ argument was correct—if progressive politics really made Democrats lose swing districts—then the left would not be picking up purple and red seats. If progressives are so toxic, why can they expand their caucus and win competitive elections? The answer is pretty simple, really. Progressives are not a drag on the party—they are the lifeblood of it. Centrist democrats love to claim that they can win over swing voters and independents, but the truth is that they can’t (or at least not any better than left-wingers can).
Simply put, progressives have the most popular policies. Polls show that Medicare-for-All is consistently supported by most Americans, even independents. The Green New Deal wins overwhelming support from Democrats, Democratic leaners, and even GOP-leaners. Importantly, these are ideas that really only entered the public consciousness in the past five years, and they have already won the battle of public opinion. Raising taxes on the rich and instituting wealth taxes are practically bipartisan issues; even Republicans support these policies. This election’s ballot measures proved the success of progressive policy even more. Four states just legalized recreational marijuana by ballot initiatives—including deep-red states like Montana and South Dakota. As a reminder, Joe Biden has rejected legalization. Florida voted for a $15 minimum wage with over a 60% margin, and that state went solidly for Trump. More and more Americans are turning more and more progressive. The centrist Democrats need to catch up with the leftward shift and stop trying to suppress what is obviously the national mood.
The so-called moderate Democrats are nothing like their label implies. They are just as extreme and uncompromising as any other politicians; they just like to pretend that fence-sitting makes them more palatable and appealing to swing voters. This election exposed that fallacy.
Centrist badmouthing of progressives is even more despicable because it was left-wing activism and organizing that helped elevated Biden to the White House. Democratic voter registrations consistently trailed the Republicans this year, until the George Floyd protests started and Democratic registrations skyrocketed (these were the same protests that featured the “defund the police” slogan). The DNC and the Biden campaign resisted door-knocking and other outreach efforts, even as the GOP went full-ahead with their programs. The Squad and progressive grassroots organizations picked up the slack. Representatives Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and contacted hundreds of thousands more, and their areas saw explosive growth in voter turnout. In the Philadelphia area, progressive local politicians and groups also pursued door-knocking and outreach. Remember, the urbanized areas of Pennsylvania and Michigan were critical for Biden’s victory in these states, and Trump was desperate to flip Minnesota. The centrists were handed potentially hundreds of thousands of voters on a silver platter, but they immediately started attacking the very people who won those voters. That’s not just bad strategy—that’s self-sabotage.
The so-called moderate Democrats are nothing like their label implies. They are just as extreme and uncompromising as any other politicians; they just like to pretend that fence-sitting makes them more palatable and appealing to swing voters. This election exposed that fallacy. And even worse, the lines that centrists keep repeating aren’t even new. They like to pretend that progressives lead the GOP to use the labels of “radical” and “socialist,” but those are the terms the right has always used and will always use. Barack Obama was called a socialist many times way before the Squad was around. The trend goes back over a century. It was Harry Truman who famously said, “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years… Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports... Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
There is no getting around the right’s smear attempts. Kowtowing to the GOP will not stop them from attacking you, it will just signal that the conservatives are right. Centrists who go along with the “radical, crazy left-winger” narrative set themselves up for failure. Why would anyone vote for a candidate who says their own party is going off the rails? Joe Biden’s campaign proves the utter uselessness of badmouthing progressives perfectly. He has explicitly condemned socialism and bragged about how he beat progressives in the primary, but the right still smears him as a radical Marxist sleeper agent. The strategy of condemning the left doesn't win swing voters, it just convinces the progressive base to stay home. If the Democrats are going to win in the future, they need a bold platform. The party needs to listen to its grassroots base and support the popular policies progressives bring to the table. They need a campaign and a vision that inspires people—one that excites voters and brings them to the polls. I’ve got news for you. Centrists like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer don’t excite anybody outside the beltway.
As a final note, I’ll leave you with another Truman quote:
“I've seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn't believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don't want a phony Democrat. If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don't want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.
But when a Democratic candidate goes out and explains what the New Deal and fair Deal really are--when he stands up like a man and puts the issues before the people--then Democrats can win, even in places where they have never won before. It has been proven time and again.
We are getting a lot of suggestions to the effect that we ought to water down our platform and abandon parts of our program. These, my friends, are Trojan horse suggestions. I have been in politics for over 30 years, and I know what I am talking about, and I believe I know something about the business. One thing I am sure of: never, never throw away a winning program. This is so elementary that I suspect the people handing out this advice are not really well-wishers of the Democratic Party.”
The Democrats knew this lesson 70 years ago; it’s time for them to learn it again.
Katharine Sciackitano is a third-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She is the Editor for Economics at the Agora.
Image courtesy Julio Obscura, Creative Commons