There was palpable exasperation among political observers following the publication of the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Despite all the criticism that conservative opinion-makers and Republican officeholders leveled at Donald Trump following his bungled press conference with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s standing among self-described Republicans actually improved.
Democratic pollster Fred Yang speculated that this could be explained by the Republican impulse to rally around the president whenever he faces criticism in the press, but that isn’t particularly satisfying. The criticism of Trump in this instance wasn’t coming from the usual suspects but from his allies in Congress and in right-leaning media venues. More compelling, perhaps, is another finding in this survey that received less attention. Only 33 percent of respondents said that Democratic candidates for Congress are “in the mainstream.” And 56 percent said the party’s office seekers were “out of step with most Americans’ thinking.” That’s a 14-point hike from 2016.
As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt noted, the leftward drift of the Democratic Party’s activist wing has coincided with a spike in Democratic turnout in off-year and special elections, a new crop of talented candidates seeking elected office, and a dramatic increase in fundraising for both Democratic candidates and committees. Some will even challenge the validity of the public’s perceptions. The Huffington Post’s Kaitlin Byrd argued that the Democratic Party needs to embrace “radicalism” insofar as radicalism amounts to supporting the kind of regulatory and welfare-state policies common to Western Europe.
But Byrd’s argument didn’t end there. She noted that what is rapidly becoming boilerplate Democratic politics extends beyond support for ludicrously profligate wish-list items such as a government-backed health insurance monopoly, student-debt forgiveness, and a federal jobs guarantee. She also recommended getting behind Representative Maxine Waters, who was recently chided by Democratic leadership for contending that Americans who serve their country in this White House should be harassed and shamed whenever they are in public. That isn’t political; it’s personal, and it’s increasingly common. More and more, deviation from progressive orthodoxy carries with it great personal risk.
These are radical positions regardless of the context, but there is more to this sentiment than just policy. After all, Democrats spent the better part of a year in 2015 and 2016 litigating the value of some rather radical policies. In the absence of any political authority, Democrats have looked to the party’s activist grassroots for energy and authority, and those activists have not shied away from the kind of behaviors that were once deservedly stigmatized.
Casual observers could be forgiven for perceiving the modern Democratic Party to be a collection of uniquely censorious scolds. It is the home of the “no-platform” movement, which ostensibly limits the ability of overtly bigoted speakers from having access to a microphone. In practice, it is a justification for denying mainstream conservatives such as Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from fulfilling speaking engagements. Not infrequently, censorious students have even targeted their skeptical professors with the “no-platforming” treatment and marched them right off campus.
This behavior isn’t limited to the campus left either. In the effort to justify the public berating of Trump administration officials as a form of “resistance,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg excused the activist left’s excesses because they are a product of perceived impotence. “Liberals are using their cultural power against the right because it’s the only power they have left,” she wrote. If Democrats take ownership of their political allies with cultural cachet, they are going to find themselves burdened by their baggage, too. In Hollywood in particular, the cultural left’s aggressive efforts to stamp out heterodoxy are becoming more pronounced by the moment.
The first time that many casual observers learned, for example, of the “controversy” involving Scarlett Johansson having been cast to play a transgender character was when she backed out of the production amid an outcry driven by a loud and engaged minority. We have skipped over the part where the aggrieved are kind enough to explain their grievance to the general public—in this case, why it is suddenly inappropriate for a performer to play a role outside his or her demographic. From software engineers with conservative views about same-sex marriage and gender roles to liberal actors (and those who come to their defense) who find occasion to praise conservatives, those who would deter transgressions against transient liberal dogma are upping the ante. Democrats cannot embrace the Hollywood left, appearing alongside actors at rallies and feeding lines to late-night hosts, and expect to avoid association with its most indelicate elements.
Democrats can take heart in the fact that none of this seems likely to overtake their advantages ahead of Donald Trump’s first midterm election. Voters hate one-party government, and they appear set to punish the GOP even though they are voting for a party they admit has lost touch with mainstream America. That’s cold comfort. A Democratic wave in November will propel to Congress a new cast of liberals who are beholden to ideological rigidity and constituencies that will punish aisle-crossing. Those who lament the decline of civil discourse and compromise in Washington haven’t seen anything yet.