Democrats have been getting a lot of good advice and seeing a lot of good examples about how their party’s progressive moralizing on cultural issues and radical economic proposals are bringing their party down.
Too bad for them that in politics, the bad advice—the flattering advice that says you can win by being even more preachy and extreme—is always right there for the taking. Win without sacrifice, you say? Eat french fries and lose weight, is it? A monorail, eh? Tell us more!
Whether Democrats get spanked or steamrolled this fall may depend on the capacity of party leaders to take some hard truths to heart and to know the difference between strategy and flattery.
Starting with Joe Biden’s rally to win the nomination over far left rivals with the help of black voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, there has been lots of evidence that mainstream liberals and moderates are able to team up to cope with a progressive wing that once seemed on the cusp of capturing the party. The very fact that Democrats avoided Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as their nominee in 2020 was proof of rational self-interest.
But so deathly afraid of young progressive activists was Biden that he squandered much of his first year in office trying to push through a radical agenda. Biden and his party acted like he had just won a mandate, not like he had done only slightly better than his predecessor, Donald Trump, had in a squeaker four years before. Biden 2020 was just two electoral votes better than Trump 2016. Indeed, everything Democrats needed to know about the precariousness of their new majority last year was in the overperformance of Republicans in 2020 House races. And in a year in which a Democrat unseated an unpopular incumbent, the blue team actually lost ground in state legislatures and governors’ mansions.
But Democrats didn’t know how unsure their footing was, so the new administration wasn’t able to ignore the grandiose demands of progressive radicals and social-justice kooks. Team Biden is so obviously terrified of the Democratic base that he managed to jeopardize the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure spending bill, maybe the most significant legislative accomplishment for a president in two decades. Then when the popular legislation did pass, instead of trumpeting this feat as evidence of his promise of unity and competence, Biden felt obliged to act disappointed—angry, even—because it wasn’t accompanied by trillions more spending on progressive pipe dreams and a higgledy-piggledy package of election legislation.
Most amazingly, after it was clear that the Everything Everywhere All at Once agenda was a bust, Biden was still talking about it, even as middle-class voters were making it very, very clear that high prices and incoherent pandemic policies were at the top of their list of concerns, almost to the exclusion of everything else. It took Russia invading Ukraine to finally get Biden to mostly lay off his script about his own stalled, unpopular agenda. While some of that may have been Biden’s pig-headedness, a lot was obviously in answer to the constant whining from the progressive left about Biden’s lack of action on ending racism and making cargo ships run on unicorn toots.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s easy win in an ill-conceived Republican recall election effort in September allowed Democrats to cling to the idea that they could be a permanent majority party. They figured if Republicans were still slobbering after Trump and parroting his crazy lies, swing voters would have nowhere else to go. But Democrats’ poor showings in gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey in November shattered that hope.
It made clear to all but the farthest gone that the party was facing a serious beating in this year’s midterm elections. Yes, there were many who said that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia victory was a product of racism, as if this were a wand that one could wave at a defeat and turn it into a victory. But mostly, Democrats seemed to get the fact that somewhere, they had lost the thread. They had not been greeted as liberators from the Trump regime but rather accepted the lesser of two evils, and probably only until midterms.
Another California recall, this time the overwhelming defeat of members of San Francisco’s school board for their obsessive identity politics, seemed to seal the reality of the party’s situation in the minds of most Democrats who were paying attention even a little. Fortunately for them, there has been lots of good, thoughtful advice on how to change course.
Opinion research wiz David Shor told Democrats to pull their heads out of Twitter and focus on real-world problems, not the laments of twentysomething Bernie Bros with woke stickers on their Nalgene bottles. Scholars William Galston and Elaine Kamarck explained that Democrats must move past “three persistent myths: that ‘people of color’ think and act in the same way; that economics always trumps culture; and that a progressive majority is emerging.” John McWhorter pointed out the excesses of an anti-racist movement that has become religious in its fervor and its inquisitions. Democratic demographic guru Ruy Teixeria warns that his party is “somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to many American voters who might otherwise be the party’s allies” on “culture, economics, and patriotism.”
Those are just four voices in a diverse chorus on the left calling Biden and Democrats back from the abyss. But there, paddling out near Niagara Falls calling them is John Della Volpe. Della Volpe, who runs polling for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, is Democrats’ favorite pollster on young voters. And according to an enormous piece of puff pastry in Politico, on a “myth-busting tour on young people and politics across the top levels of the Democratic Party.”
Della Volpe listed a handful of policy areas where potential executive actions from Biden ‘would very quickly capture the attention of [young] people.’ The list includes student debt, mental health, climate change and dealing with the rising cost of living.” While Shor and the others are telling Democrats to get back to mainstream issues—which now means inflation, Ukraine and not much else—and to appeal to the kinds of swing voters who will make the difference between Democratic losses and a bloodbath, Della Volope is suggesting the opposite.
The idea, he says, is to keep young voters, who showed up in huge numbers in 2018 and 2020, engaged. But while 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds did vote in 2018, almost double 2014’s rate, every age group saw big increases. There was a 28 percent overall increase in turnout, and while the 78.9 percent increase for the youngest voters looks huge, it’s because it was an increase from a far-lower baseline.
Think of it this way: In 2018 exit polls, 39 percent of voters were between the ages of 45 and 64. Thirteen percent of voters were under 30, unchanged from four years earlier. After an increase of almost 80 percent in that age group, they were still outnumbered by the 45 to 65 set by nearly 12 million votes.
The suggestion that Democrats should craft a midterm strategy around keeping low-propensity young voters engaged in the way they were in 2018 and 2020 reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Donald Trump’s effect on politics and the seriousness of the peril Democrats face this fall. But it sure sounds nicer than having to grow up and meet older voters where they are, which is not a happy space for Democrats right now.
I understand that Della Volpe is offering a both/and option, but the time and effort Democrats spend between now and November trying to coax young voters back will not only be time not spent on higher-propensity groups, but will often require messages and promises at odds with keeping the far more important suburban swing voters who will decide the scope of Democrats’ comeuppance.