The collapse of American progressivism

9 November 2020

7:19 PM

9 November 2020

7:19 PM

In the early hours of Wednesday, with Joe Biden appearing to trail Donald Trump in the key states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, the continuity-Corbyn campaign group Momentum sent out an email on the other side of the pond declaring that ‘today, it is clearer than ever that moving to the political centre is not a winning strategy.’ It’s easy to imagine their sheer delight that a moderate, centrist Democrat – with a platform similar to that famed reactionary Barack Obama – seemed doomed to go down in flames for the second election in a row. Like almost all of the organisation’s prognostications, however, it has not aged well.

Had it not been for the polls predicting a landslide, Joe Biden’s victory would look very respectable – both in terms of the popular vote and electoral college margin. At the start of the year, when the economy was strong and Trump’s favourability was rising, most Democratic strategists would have bitten their hand off for such a result.

They view their results in Congress, however, as a great disappointment. Countless Democratic incumbents fell in the House where they had expected to gain seats and the party may only make a net gain of one seat in the Senate.

Biden’s victory on a centrist platform and his refusal to accept the more extreme parts of the progressive agenda has left the American equivalents of Momentum, such as organisations like Justice Democrats, in a bind. Many had predicted that only the likes of Bernie Sanders could mobilise enough voters to achieve victory.

They instead seized on the Congressional results with glee, listing the names of defeated moderate Democrats who had opposed ‘Medicare for All’ and ‘Defund the Police’, while pointing out that progressive champions like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won. In particular, they highlight Katie Porter, an energising progressive and law professor, who defeated a Republican in 2018 and won again this year.

There are no controlled experiments in electoral politics. Every race is different: candidate quality, fundraising, length of service and opponents all play a role – as do, of course, policy positions. Comparisons, however, can be made. And while, yes, the vast majority of strong progressives won re-election, they are almost always in dense, urban, heavily-Democratic districts, where a party primary won by running far to the left is the only election that matters. If voters in conservative districts took the same positions, they would never have been elected in the first place.

Comparing Joe Biden’s performance to congressional candidates is illuminating. He outperformed Democratic candidates nationally: a three-point popular vote win, compared to close to parity for Republicans and Democrats in the House. Looking at the precinct data, the swing to Biden was greatest in moderate, highly-educated suburbia, where many Republicans voted for him to remove Trump, but couldn’t stomach voting Democratic down the ballot.

The Nebraska Second District (Omaha and its surrounds) is a case in point: voters backed Biden by 52 to 46 per cent, while choosing a Republican congressman over a progressive Democrat by 51 to 46 per cent. Indeed, it’s hard to find a left-wing champion who outran Biden in their district: while ‘Squad’ member Ilhan Omar won the Minnesota fifth by 39 points, Biden did by 62.

On the other hand, Omar’s colleague in the Minnesota delegation, Collin Peterson – first elected to represent the rural conservative seventh district in 1991 – ran significantly to Biden’s right, espousing pro-life and pro-gun positions in line with his electorate. While Peterson (the last true conservative Democrat in the House) was defeated, he lost by a mere 13 points, compared to Biden’s 29 point trouncing in his district. Right across the country, moderates tried to carve out particular positions to suit their district: from Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, who criticised Biden’s stance on fossil fuels in her oil and gas-heavy district, to Max Rose, who ran to the right on law and order in cop-loving Staten Island. Both lost, but both did so by less than Biden.

These patterns are highly inconvenient for many on the far left, whose prognosis has always been that victory could only be achieved through mobilisation around an inspiring, radical agenda – rather than the compromises required by a strategy of persuasion. While the civil rights movement of the 1960s cared deeply about popular opinion and presented their arguments in a way appealing to Middle America, many of its would-be successors seem to feel no such compulsion. Nothing more exemplifies this than the ‘Defund the Police’ slogan, a proposition supported by just a quarter of Americans. House whip Jim Clyburn, the most senior African American in Congress, believes the slogan may have cost the party countless seats, telling Andrew Marr yesterday that he believed its proponents on the left were more interested in making ‘headlines’ than ‘headway’.

America is a conservative-leaning country, and the rural bias of the electoral college and Senate – and the packing of liberal Democrats into dense urban districts – pushes its political centre ground further right still. There are ways to win as a progressive in a swing state – as the likes of Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio have shown – but these are almost always based on populist, and indeed popular, positions on issues like trade, minimum wage legislation and labour unions.

Momentum’s influence on Britain’s Labour Party, and the electoral results of it, serve as a warning of what happens when an activist base moves too far from the voters they need to win. The idea that moderate Democratic candidates in conservative districts would have performed better had they only pursued a more radical agenda would seem to come straight from Jeremy Corbyn’s handbook on election victory. Democrats must resist such delusions.

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