Normally, the political party that loses an election goes through a period of vigorous introspection and internal debate, while the winning party embraces sufficient certainty of its own inevitable multigenerational dominance. In 2021, however, the roles are reversed.
The widespread belief that Donald Trump was, in some sense, the true winner of an election he lost has succeeded in anticipating a Republican debate over why Democrats captured the White House last year. Meanwhile, Democrats, despite their control of Congress and the Presidency, are increasingly the ones arguing as if they are already in the wilderness.
The anxiety of the democrats seems to me a healthy development for liberalism. One problem with the emergency thinking Trump inspires in his opponents – and a reason to resist him – is that it prevents a real understanding of the political conditions that put him in power, and it could do it again. Here’s what you saw happen to Democrats after 2016: The feeling of being struck down sent the center-left wander through a maze of conspiracies, a haunted wood where villains like Vladimir Putin and Mark Zuckerberg were bigger than swing voters. that they had lost and savior characters like Robert Mueller were supposed to defeat Trump’s power for them.
Only the left of the party, his wing Bernie Sanders, fully developed a more normal theory of the 2016 defeat, trying to understand Obama-Trump voters in the context of globalization and deindustrialization as well as racism, fascism and dirty poutinists. But it created a fundamental imbalance in the party’s conversation: with the Sanders faction trying to sway the party towards social democracy and the establishment acting as if its main challenges were Russian bots and nefarious Facebook memes, there was nothing left. hardly anyone left to point out the ways Democrats might be in danger of going too far to the left – and the writers who did have been generally dismissed as dinosaurs.
It was therefore up to Democratic voters to exert pressure to the right on their party – first by saving the party from the likely disaster of the nomination of intelligentsia candidate Elizabeth Warren and finally by nominating a candidate Joe Biden, whose long career as a moderate has given him some distance from the “Great Awakening” that swept through liberal institutions in 2020.
Now, however, with the growing realization that Bidenism is probably not a long-term strategy, we finally get the fuller argument that should have come up after 2016 – about what Democrats can do, and how they can do anything, to win over the working class and rural voters alienated by the party’s increasingly rigorous progressive litmus tests.
A key player in this argument is pollster and analyst David Shor, whom my colleague Ezra Klein interviewed for a lengthy essay last week, and who has become – after a temporary cancellation in 2020 – the main spokesperson for liberal criticism. pragmatics of progressive zeal. .
This criticism starts from a diagnosis: Democrats misinterpreted the meaning of Barack Obama’s victory in 2012, believing it to prove that their multiracial coalition could win without rural white voters, when in fact Obama did. defeated Mitt Romney precisely because of his relatively resilient support from these demographics, particularly in the industrial Midwest. And this misinterpretation has been particularly disastrous because these voters have disproportionate influence in Senate and Electoral College races, so losing them – and then starting to lose culturally conservative minority voters as well – has left Democrats at a structural disadvantage that will cost them dearly through the next decade without some sort of clear strategic adjustment.
From this diagnosis comes the prescription, the so-called popularism, glossed by Klein as follows: and shut up on the unpopular stuff.
You will notice that this seemingly mundane wisdom is not an ideological litmus test: where leftist ideas are popular, Shor Thought would like Democrats to talk more about it. But where they are unpopular, especially with the type of voters who hold the key to contested Senate races, Democrats need a way to defuse them or keep them at bay.
So a ‘popularist’ candidate could be an outright centrist in some cases, and in others a candidate like Bernie Sanders in 2016, emphasizing the most popular ideas from the Social Democratic toolbox. . But in either case, these candidates would do everything in their power not to be associated with ideas like, for example, abolishing the police or suspending the application of immigration laws. Instead, they would emulate how Obama himself, during his first term, tried to sidestep issues such as immigration and same-sex marriage, sometimes using objectively conservative rhetoric and never getting ahead of the curve. ‘public opinion.
Which is easier said than done. On the one hand, Democratic Party activists have a different scale of power in the world of 2021 than in the world of 2011, and the hypothetical âpopularistâ politician cannot take away their influence and expectations. On the other hand, as my colleague Nate Cohn points out, Obama in 2011 was trying to keep white working class voters in the Democratic fold, while the popularist politician in 2022 or 2024 would try to win them back from the GOP – much more. difficult thing to achieve simply by gently settling vexatious problems.
At the very least, a democratic strategy in this direction should probably go further in two dimensions. First, it would have to openly attack the new progressivism – not on all fronts but on certain points where the language and ideas of the progressive clergy are particularly removed from ordinary life.
For example, Popularist Democrats wouldn’t simply avoid a term like “Latinx,” which is ubiquitous in official progressive discourse and alien to most American Hispanics; they would need to attack and even laugh at its use. (Obviously, that’s a bit easier for the ideal popularizer candidate: an unawakened minority politician in the style of Eric Adams.)
Likewise, an extension candidate – ideally a candidate – on the stump in a swing state might say something like: I want this to be a party for normal people, and normal people say mother, not “birthing person.”
Instead of reducing the importance of progressive jargon, the goal would be to increase its importance in order to be seen as rejecting it – much like Donald Trump in 2016 brazenly rejected the GOP’s unpopular positions on the rights of other Republican rivals were trying to just relax. .
But alongside this rhetorical fire directed at the left, extension workers should also go deeper into solving the real political issues surrounding the issues they are trying to defuse. Immigration is a major political issue for Democrats right now, for example, not only because their activists have taken extreme positions on the issue, but because the border is a major political issue: the effects of the globalization of people. travel and communication increasingly facilitate sudden surges of migrants to overwhelm the system, and liberalism’s abandonment of strict enforcement – or at least its stated desire to make this change – creates additional incentives for that these surges are happening under Democratic presidents.
So in the long run – especially given the likely effect of climate change on mass migration – there’s no way Democrats can have a stable, pro-immigration policy under the law without having first, a strategy to make the American border much safer than it has been. under the Biden administration to this day. How to do this humanely is a political challenge, but if you really want to woo voters for whom the problem is important, you have to take the challenge seriously – because the problem is becoming salient and it will not go away.
It’s worth noting that even this combination – attacking progressive excesses, showing Obama-Trump voters that you take their issues seriously – is still somewhat defensive. As Cohn notes, when Trump reoriented the Republican Party to win more working class votes, he argued in a radical and dramatic – and yes, demagogic – way that he would be better than Hillary Clinton for their interests and their values. Democrats have specific ideas that appeal to these voters well, but it’s not clear that even a “rebirth of the nation’s heart” message could actually reverse post-Trump change.
But even a strictly defensive strategy, which simply prevents more Hispanic voters from turning to Republicans and retains some of Biden’s modest rust belt gains, would buy Democrats time – time for a generational renewal that will bring them back. always fosters, and over time seizing the opportunities that are always available, in a way that no data scientist can predict, through unexpected events.
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]