The fundamental proposition before Democratic primary voters in 2020 was not what America’s pundit class seems to have wanted it to be. Voters were not deciding what the Democratic Party would look like. They were not determining what the party’s value proposition would be. Nor were they rendering a verdict on the trajectory of its ideological evolution. Voters were asked to choose between two fundamentally distinct electoral strategies.
One approach, represented by Joe Biden, was to reconstitute as much of Barack Obama’s coalition as possible and take back the Obama-supporting states Donald Trump won in 2016. The other, to which Bernie Sanders subscribed, involved sacrificing that coalition in favor of a hypothetical one that would remake the electoral map. Voters resoundingly rejected that proposition, but the implications associated with that choice are far-reaching. If his strategy is to work, Biden will have to conduct a campaign that will be hard for the progressive wing of his party to stomach.
An analysis conducted by the political scientist John Sides and written up by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira for the Washington Post frames the matter rather starkly. To be successful in November, Biden will need to target the 9 percent of voters—about 6 million Americans—who cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2012 but were transformed into Trump voters by 2016.
When it comes to pocketbook issues, these voters certainly qualify as progressives—at least, in theory. A majority would support increasing taxes on incomes above $600,000 annually, making college tuition a debt-free proposition, and creating a federal mandate guaranteeing Americans a job. The structural, organizational, and prudential impediments to realizing this wish list should reassure conservative voters that policies like these aren’t likely to materialize within a President Biden’s first 100 days (if ever).
Even more reassuring, this is, by and large, where these voters’ progressive sympathies end.
Fewer than half of Obama-Trump voters support Medicare-for-all. A plurality opposes family-based chain migration in favor of a more merit-based system. They believe the federal government should provide vouchers to families so they can opt out of the public-school system. These voters oppose reparations for slavery. They insist that there are only two genders. They oppose blanket firearm bans. Nearly eight-in-ten believe the federal government should promote “traditional family values.” A full 60 percent think the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public spaces like schools and courthouses.
Progressives would be mistaken for thinking that Biden would be pandering by courting this constituency. The progressive ascendancy within the Democratic Party seems likely in the long-run. There is, however, precious little evidence that this is a dominant faction within the party as it is currently constituted. For all the coverage of the Democratic “Squad,” the four freshmen congresswomen who captured the press’s attention after the 2018 elections were the survivors of what was otherwise a rout for the Democratic Party’s left flank. Biden’s victory only provides more evidence that the progressive program’s appeal is far narrower than this faction’s stranglehold on the nation’s center-left airwaves would lead you to believe.
Accordingly, progressives are in despair. At least, that’s the impression Politico’s Alex Thompson was left with after a recent survey of the landscape on the left. This faction is currently lobbying for a consolation prize in the form of a progressive vice-presidential pick—an effort that includes both incentives and veiled threats. But if Sides’ data is accurate, Biden would be foolish to acquiesce to their demands.
It could be argued that the left’s anguish is premature. Joe Biden has not campaigned on a vision that competes in a substantive way with what his progressive colleagues are offering. Their time will come soon enough. For now, though, the Democratic Party’s task is only to avoid scaring prospective Democratic voters—that means avoiding commitments to the radical reformation of American society. Such a project would be anxiety-producing enough in a time of tranquility, to say nothing of this present period of pandemic-induced anxiety and tumult.
This dynamic will generate a lot of frustration within the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, but progressives’ capacity to swallow their pride may mean the difference between a moral victory and a real one. By November, most within their ranks won’t find that a hard choice to make.