Can the Democrats Save Our Democracy?
The Democratic Party must fend off extremes and hold on to responsible, center-left politics.
Ideologues of all stripes are perennially frustrated with America’s two-party “duopoly.” They say it stifles voices of radical reform, fails to offer voters meaningful choices, and delivers only tepid incrementalism. Many yearn for the doctrinal coherence and discipline shown by parties in Europe, where multiparty systems are the rule.
Whatever the merits of these complaints, it’s true that America’s two-party system seems immutably entrenched. Third parties come and go; but except for the Republicans in the 1850s, none has succeeded in supplanting either of the two major parties—and it took the Civil War to make that happen.
Most U.S. voters reasonably figure that if they want their vote to count, they’d better line up with Democrats or Republicans. As duopoly critics note, that arrangement doesn’t give the public an ideological choice, since both parties normally offer variations on America’s classically liberal creed. But party allegiance isn’t strictly a matter of intellectual conviction; it’s also influenced by sectional, family, ethnic, class, and religious ties.
Historically, the two major parties have been broad, loose, and shifting coalitions. That feature has given them a pragmatic bent, since today’s political foe could become tomorrow’s convert. It’s reinforced by a presidential system designed to diffuse and share power rather than alternate one-party rule.
To prevent untrammeled majority rule, the Founders created structural incentives for compromise so that minority interests get taken into account. But heterogeneous and pragmatic parties don’t suit Americans with more dogmatic dispositions. These Americans demand adherence to fixed principles, typically expressed as moral absolutes. Not for them the tedious drilling of hard boards; they want the romance of revolution.
“In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party; but in America, we are,” lamented Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who calls herself a democratic socialist, during the 2020 campaign. She’s quite right. But her insistence that Democrats would thrive if only they had the courage to fully embrace her brand of leftism is dead wrong.
That Democrats still make room for viewpoint as well as other kinds of diversity is not, as AOC supposes, a sign of weak convictions. On the contrary, it shows a healthy respect for liberal pluralism, which is a precondition for both managing social conflict and winning elections in our multi-ethnic democracy. To see what happens when a major U.S. party instead adopts a more narrowly sectarian orthodoxy, look at the Republicans.
Under Donald Trump, the Republican Party jettisoned traditional conservative precepts and adopted a combative cultural populism rooted in the grievances of white working-class voters and evangelical Christians. Trump’s voluminous lies, slurs, and all-round incompetence drove many GOP suburbanites to vote Democratic in 2018 and 2020, cracking a longtime pillar of the Republican coalition. What Trump and his party gained in intensity of support from resentful white voters could not compensate for losing breadth of support across an increasingly diverse electorate. Trump won thirteen million more votes in 2020 than in 2016, yet still lost to Joe Biden by more than seven million votes.
A new study by the Pew Research Center confirms that Biden cinched the 2020 election in America’s suburbs. He won 54 percent of suburban voters, where Hillary Clinton won only 45 percent in 2016. Biden also did much better with traditionally moderate and conservative voters, especially white men, veterans, and independents. These defections from the Republicans are a measure of how dismally Trump’s strategy of racial polarization failed, as his party successively lost control, on his watch, of the House, the White House, and the Senate.
Yet GOP voters remain in thrall to Trump. Apologists like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insist that the party that couldn’t win with him now can’t win without him. More than half of Republicans say they believe Trump’s hallucinatory claims that he won reelection in a landslide. Nearly two-thirds want him to run again. More than a dozen red state legislatures have passed laws making it harder for urban and minority citizens to vote. As they sink deeper into minority status, Republicans have evidently decided that rigging elections is justified to save America from liberals, socialists, and critical race theory.
Strikingly few GOP leaders have shown the courage to stand up to Trump’s overt coup attempt against a lawfully elected President or to contradict the deluge of lies, conspiracy theories, and partisan demonology pouring out of right-wing media outlets. The Republicans’ mass capitulation to unreason and extremism has left our country, for the moment, with a one-party system.
A Real Party—If You Can Keep It
In contrast, Democrats still look and act like a normal political party capable of governing. Despite deep ideological and generational differences, they rallied with impressive solidarity behind Biden to deny Trump a second term. Now we’ll see whether the Biden coalition can avoid being consumed by its sectarian furies. The President knows his top job is to convince doubters that our democracy can deliver for all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him. A big question is whether his party’s imperious left will let him.
If the GOP’s Trump cult is hopelessly marooned on Fantasy Island, the American Left harbors its own grand illusions. The cardinal myth, propagated by millennial activists who flocked to Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) as well as older upscale liberals in coastal metropoles, is that Democrats are moving inexorably toward European-style social democracy and welfare statism. As it happens, social democratic and labor parties in Europe, flummoxed by the rise of right-wing nationalism, are out of power almost everywhere; but the irony is lost on America’s progressive triumphalists.
It’s true that Democrats have moved left since 2001, especially on social issues and government spending. But the party still is about evenly balanced between self-identified liberals, on the one hand, and moderates and conservatives on the other. The political media’s lazy habit of labeling the activist left as the party’s “base” ignores the Black and Hispanic voters who tend to be more religious and socially moderate.
Even before Trump’s election, mostly white progressives were arguing that only by embracing “bold, structural change” could Democrats “energize the base” and win elections. Yet progressive pretensions to historical inevitability, based on America’s changing demographics, keep colliding with the expressed preferences of U.S. voters.
In 2018 Democrats won back control of the House when a crop of mainstream candidates flipped forty-one swing districts from red to blue. Sanders-style progressives fared badly. The midterm lesson, however, was soon forgotten as the 2020 presidential nomination race got under way. The media was riveted on candidates vying to claim the “unabashed progressive” mantle—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris, Corey Booker (D-NJ), Julián Castro, and Bill de Blasio. Most endorsed Sanders’ call for nationalizing health care (“Medicare for all”) as well as a litany of activist demands, including government-guaranteed incomes and jobs, free college, an expansive Green New Deal and swift death to fossil fuels, defunding ICE, and decriminalizing illegal immigration.
Biden, who refused to echo the new progressive catechism, was dismissed in the progressive Twitterverse as the ultimate Washington insider and a throwback to the supposedly bad old days of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “For numerous reasons, Joe Biden is the least electable Democrat that we could possibly nominate,” declared Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a Warren supporter. “We’re in a new moment. This is not Joe Biden’s moment.”
After an inauspicious start, however, Biden rallied in South Carolina thanks to strong support from Black Democrats and thereafter steamrolled Sanders and Warren on his way to the nomination. It turned out that the old, unfashionable career politician had a better feel for his party’s center of political gravity than the activist left and their credulous media allies. Democratic primary voters not only saw the former Vice President as the most electable challenger to Trump, but preferred his positions to those of his rivals.
While Sanders won young, college-educated whites and independents, Biden amassed huge margins among self-identified Democrats. Some no doubt took umbrage at Sanders’ harsh attacks on the “Democratic establishment.” Nor did Sanders’ business-bashing and class-warfare rhetoric seem to move blue-collar workers. Instead, it was “Joe from Scranton” who built a multi-ethnic working-class coalition.
In the general election, Biden’s temperate and pragmatic persona was vindicated again. He ran well ahead of Democratic candidates down ballot, trouncing Trump in the popular vote even as Democrats lost thirteen House seats and, until January’s special elections in Georgia, failed to take the Senate. Biden flipped five states that went for Trump in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia.
Pragmatic Democrats also are winning in deep-blue states. In July progressives were gobsmacked by Eric Adams’ victory in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary. In ranked choice voting, the relatively centrist Adams edged out liberal Kathryn Garcia and far outdistanced progressive favorite Maya Wiley, who won AOC’s endorsement. The New York Times reported it this way:
In a contest that centered on crime and public safety, Eric Adams, who emerged as the leading Democrat, focused much of his message on denouncing progressive slogans that he said threatened the lives of ‘Black and brown babies’ and were being pushed by ‘a lot of young, white, affluent people.’
Adams’ victory again illuminated the cultural and generational faultlines within the Democratic coalition. “Social media does not pick a candidate; people on Social Security pick a candidate,” he quipped. Stanford political scientist Hakeem Jefferson adds, “The median Black voter is not AOC and is actually closer to Eric Adams.”
Progressives and the Working Class
Social justice activists insist that Democrats can win back working-class voters with a left-wing populism hostile to capitalism, big corporations, and the wealthy. In reality, class warfare clichés get more traction with highly educated white elites, academic theorists, college students, and New York Times readers. Working- and middle-class voters are aspirational; they don’t obsess about economic inequality or despise market competition. What they want are more jobs and opportunities for upward mobility, higher wages, less expensive health care, affordable housing and education, and help in saving for retirement.
Blue-collar whites turned out in huge numbers last November for Trump, while Biden outperformed Clinton among them. Politics is a game of margins, and Democrats must cut their losing margin with these voters. That requires engaging them directly and grappling with their profound sense of cultural alienation. Democrats should also oppose, more emphatically, the Left’s unpopular ideas for defunding the police, punishing successful businesses, giving affluent kids a free ride to college, creating new government entitlements divorced from work or reciprocal obligations, and, disrespecting the nation’s founding ideals as nothing more than a fig-leaf for misogyny and racism.
Democrats should also pay close attention to Trump’s worrisome 2020 gains with the non-white working class, particularly Hispanic voters. Biden won these voters handily, but his margin was seventeen points below Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. Democrats also lost ground with Black voters lacking college degrees, though the decline was small. These trends suggest that racial and ethnic polarization may be diminishing while educational polarization is growing.
Why is this happening? David Shor, a left-leaning political analyst, offered a perceptive explanation to New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz:
Over the last four years, white liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party.… And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment.’
Biden’s Balancing Act
Political activists tend to be ideologically motivated. Progressive militancy and strong social media presence have distorted Democrats’ public image. Rank-and-file Democrats are more moderate or moderately liberal than very liberal. Even if Biden wanted to, he couldn’t embrace the Left’s dreams of a post-capitalist, democratic socialist America without splitting the party and putting its slender majorities at risk.
But he doesn’t want to. Instead, Biden has offered a governing agenda that manages to be both thoroughly pragmatic and remarkably ambitious. It entails spending trillions of dollars to beat back the pandemic; speed economic recovery; narrow racial and class inequities aggravated by the Covid recession; accelerate the nation’s clean energy transition; invest in infrastructure, science, and technology to ensure the United States can outcompete China; and rebuild trust and solidarity with other liberal democracies.
These priorities appeal broadly across the Democratic Party, though the scale of spending and tax hikes proposed by the White House is giving pause to some. To the Left’s chagrin, Biden has already slimmed down his infrastructure proposal to win Republican backing. Will progressives jump ship if the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social investment package gets similarly whittled down in the legislative souk? Moderates are pleased that the President has promised to pay for his big spending initiatives by raising taxes rather than borrowing. But will they actually vote for an unprecedented $4 trillion tax hike even if the increases mostly target corporations and the rich?
Biden’s proposals for “delivering for the middle class” have a high degree of difficulty and thin margin for error. He can’t afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate; therefore, he has no choice but to govern in a way that keeps his polyglot coalition intact. And to buck the midterm trend that usually sees the incumbent party lose seats in Congress, Biden will need to keep faith with the pivotal suburban voters who saw in him a President who would work to unify rather than divide the country.
Democrats will succeed only if Biden succeeds. Therefore, the parties’ factions need to keep their disputes within reasonable bounds. That will be especially hard for the activist left, which fancies itself the party’s conscience and the enforcer of progressive orthodoxy. It leans toward imposing purity tests on Democrats and funding primary challenges to those deemed insufficiently “progressive.”
Still, “Most voters are not liberals,” Shor warns. “If we polarize the electorate on ideology—or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology—we’re going to lose a lot of votes.”
Now is not the time to fold the Democrats’ big tent. The Republican Party, led by a deranged sore loser, bereft of any positive governing vision, and stewing in paranoia and irrational hatred of its political competitors, is unfit to govern the country. Not one Republican voted last March for Biden’s $1.9 trillion bill to control a pandemic that has killed over six hundred thousand Americans and spur a broad economic recovery. At a recent conservative gathering, the audience lustily cheered the news that the government has fallen short of its vaccination targets. Is this a political party or a death cult?
The two-party system is failing, and it has put our experiment in self-governing at risk. America urgently needs at least one party grounded in objective reality, committed to defending democratic values and institutions against those trying to vandalize them, and capacious enough to reflect the nation’s diversity—political, demographic, and geographic.
The ideas and policy positions that find favor in AOC’s indigo Brooklyn district can’t be the same as those on which Rep. Conor Lamb runs in blue-collar Pennsylvania or even Sen. Mark Kelly in purple Arizona. For patriotic reasons, the activist left, cosmopolitan liberals, rank-and-file Democrats, and the party’s oft-derided “establishment” need to dedicate themselves to peaceful co-existence rather than sectarian power struggles.
If Democrats can do that, they just might save our democracy.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. He helped found the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985 and served as its first policy director.
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