Given their party’s almost uniform leftward drift, Democrats appear to be laboring under the impression that it was progressivism that triumphed in 2018. Indeed, a casual observer of politics might be under the same impression.
The Democratic Party’s most visible members are its fringiest. The ubiquitous freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spent the weekend lecturing an audience of well-heeled software developers and media moguls at the annual South by Southwest conference that “capitalism is irredeemable,” and her fellow Democratic Socialists won’t settle for “ten percent better than garbage,” which is how she described the present state of American affairs. The Democratic Party’s 2020 aspirants rushed to defend Rep. Ilhan Omar, who successfully forced her fellow Democrat to abandon a resolution condemning her latest in an ongoing series of anti-Semitic comments. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has made countless headlines in her push to introduce articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, generating far more traction in the process than Rep. Al Green ever did even though he’s been on the same quixotic crusade for the last two years.
Democrats even went so far as to elevate Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to serve as the face of the party by selecting her to deliver the response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address. There’s just one problem: Stacey Abrams lost.
And Abrams wasn’t the only progressive to go down to defeat. The progressive track record in 2018 was a relatively dismal one when compared with the hype surrounding their candidacies. Arizona’s avowed progressive candidate in the race for governor, David Garcia, lost to incumbent Doug Ducey by over 17 points, even as Blue Dog Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the race for U.S. Senate. Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous lost the race for governor in bright blue Maryland against a Republican incumbent, also by double-digits. The last great hope for Texas Democrats, the fundraising sensation and media darling Beto O’Rourke, is using his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz to springboard into a race for the White House.
In the House, too, many of the candidates who proudly wore the progressive label lost their key races. Scott Wallace, the grandson of Vice President Henry Wallace, cost Democrats a winnable swing district in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ammar Campa-Najjar managed to lose a race against a Republican incumbent facing a criminal indictment. Liz Watson was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and raised nearly $2 million before she lost her race to a first-term Republican. And so on.
All these candidates benefited from varying degrees of outsize media coverage that bore no relation to their chances of victory. That phenomenon has gone national. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez represents a congressional district in the Bronx with a 29-point Democratic lean. Omar’s district is similarly liberal and was formerly represented by Keith Ellison. Tlaib took over for the disgraced John Conyers in her deeply Democratic district in the heart of Detroit.
Democrats have all but abandoned the localized tactics that won their party the House last November. Most of the 40 Democrats who unseated an incumbent Republican in 2018 were not radical progressives, and there is almost precisely the same number of progressives Democrats in the 116th Congress as there are members of the fiscally moderate New Democrat Coalition (with some overlap).
The Democratic field of declared 2020 candidates does not even remotely reflect this rough ideological parity within the party. The candidate with the biggest crowds, the most small-dollar donors, and the biggest lead in the polls, Bernie Sanders, is an avowed socialist. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is similarly wary about being labeled a “capitalist.” Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have both endorsed the effective nationalization of the health-insurance industry and look favorably upon a guaranteed universal basic income. Though she calls herself a “capitalist,” Elizabeth Warren has advocated constitutionally dubious plans to break up major firms that participate in their own marketplaces and to simply expropriate private property based only on the government’s perceived need of it.
The rise of progressive populism has finally led some squeamish centrist Democrats to squeak timid murmurs of dissent, and they look to Joe Biden as their potential champion. But Biden may not be all that interested in playing savior if it means standing up against his party’s young pioneers.
The former vice president has spent the last six months apologizing for much of his past. He’s apologized for his conduct in the Anita Hill hearings—specifically, it seems, for being present in the room while his Republican colleagues questioned her. He’s apologized for supporting tough-on-crime legislation in the late 1980s and early 1990s—a time when violent crime rates were double what they are today—because those bills are now believed to be responsible for the disproportionate rates of incarceration among African-American men. He has even walked back his comments about Vice President Mike Pence being “a decent guy,” a genial comment that was designed only to soften the political criticism of the Trump administration that followed. Even that was unacceptable to the new vanguard of the left.
Biden is 76-years-old. He would not endure this humiliation if he wasn’t running for president. Biden seems to have calculated that groveling before the cultural revolutionaries dominating the Millennial wing of his party is the price of admission. And it may be the pathway to the party’s presidential nomination, but is it also the road to a victory in a general election? It’s a risky bet, but the Democratic Party seems to be going all in.