The left needs to get its priorities straight. Case in point: the ostensible rift at the core of Democratic electioneering. Media coverage of the 2018 midterms (and indeed, the 2020 primary) sought to set up a no-holds-barred death match between passionate progressivism and establishment centrism, between a socialist revolution and the status-quo-loving careerists holding them back. We saw the emergence of the Squad and the second speakership of Nancy Pelosi, inter-party hostility and a wave of fire-breathing challengers, and one would be forgiven for thinking the party was on the brink of collapse.
Such is not the case today. The fight for the nomination resolved with less blood than any in recent memory. Sanders endorsed Biden with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, and the lion’s share of the anti-Trump electorate — including the vast majority of Sanders’ supporters — is assembled around the most liberal platform in generations. Hardly a party embroiled in civil war, and indeed, the modern left has rarely been more unified. To be sure, the Democratic détente is likely an acknowledgment of the danger posed by the president rather than some permanent shift in the way our politics functions. But I would argue it also represents an important lesson about what matters to the American people.
Take, for instance, the example of the ultra-progressive political action committee (PAC) known as Justice Democrats, whose stated goal is to run “a unified campaign to replace every corporate-backed member of Congress” and rebuild the party “from scratch.” Justice Democrats found themselves thrust into the national spotlight with the upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime congressman Joe Crowley, and they haven’t looked back since. Their leadership is endlessly quoted, their endorsements endlessly discussed, their escapades endlessly detailed. They are undeniably the most prominent PAC in Democratic politics, which is surprising, because they’re also one of the least effective.
Justice Democrats endorsed 79 candidates during the 2018 midterms. Of those, only seven were elected, including just four non-incumbents (you guessed it; the Squad). They lost every Senate race, every Governor’s race and every swing-district race they participated in. By all accounts, it was an abysmal showing, and this cycle isn’t looking much better. So what are they getting wrong?
In a word, priorities. I don’t think factional opportunists like Justice Democrats are entirely misguided. They saw a niche in the market, a well of untapped outrage, and they filled it: such is the nature of the political ecosystem. But the premise on which they and their ideological allies operate represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the priorities of the American voter. The left didn’t win back the House by railing against corporate lawmakers and their big-money donors. The left won back the House by focusing on temperament, restraint, kitchen-table issues. Identity politics and economic populism flipped no seats. The people who put liberals back in power were purple-state moderates, Affordable Care Act advocates and attention-shy non-partisans, the kind of politician a Justice Dem might rant about on Twitter.
This reality holds true for the recently concluded primary. Voters made it clear they didn’t want the smoldering revolutionary, the self-described socialist. In the time of Trump, they weren’t on board with more change, more uncertainty, more anger. And so they choose Biden. Boring? Sure. Safe? That’s the whole point. Yet his policies are progressive and his politics are forward-looking; he just doesn’t talk about tearing the system down. There is plenty of legislative capital for such a platform, the kind of reform most of us want and the kind of reform the country desperately needs. Universal opt-in healthcare, mandatory background checks, even a wealth tax: all progressive ideas, all broadly popular. Liberals don’t have to default to the most extreme, disliked position on every issue, and what’s more, they shouldn’t. The left wins when its priorities align with those of the American people, not those of NY-14. In the most important election of our lives, it’s a lesson Democrats can’t forget.
Contact Sean Casey at spcasey ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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