Why Democrats Fold On Everything

It’s laughable to think the party is at risk of being too progressive or too ambitious. But we can expect to see them continue to capitulate and fail if we don’t escalate outside pressure on elected officials.

The New York Times editorial board has warned that the reason Democrats lost the recent Virginia gubernatorial election is that the party is trying to do too much to solve the country’s problems. Its excessive ambition, the Times says, is off-putting to voters who prefer a government that does less, one that simply presides in quiet dignity rather than overstepping its role with such grandiose goals as ending poverty or providing paid family leave. 

I am not kidding. The paper cautions that “polls show that many independents already think that the government is trying to do too much to deal with the nation’s problems,” and says that Joe Biden was elected “because he promised an exhausted nation a return to sanity, decency and competence,” not because he promised substantive policy agenda. The Times quotes Democratic representative Abigail Spanberger, who says “nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” The Times criticizes the more ambitious parts of the “Build Back Better” agenda, saying that parts of the “electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party, including on priorities like Build Back Better.”

The Times editorial should offer pretty definitive proof that the basic ideology of the U.S. media is right-wing, not left-wing. Here we have the great liberal Paper of Record taking the position that the Democratic Party is too aggressive in trying to pass transformative public policies, a position I cannot believe anyone really holds. In fact, the party has spent months scaling back its ambitions. It has failed to pass voting rights and police reform legislation. It has dropped attempts to add dental and vision coverage to Medicare, and dropped Biden’s clean power plan. Joe Biden has resisted pushes to cancel student loan debt. If there is one thing I rarely hear anyone accusing the Democratic Party of, it’s that they’re trying too hard. 

The Times editorial is strange, actually, because even though it warns that Moderate Factions Of The Electorate (i.e. the New York Times editorial board) need to be appeased through further scaling back of the party’s legislative efforts, it also encourages Congressional Democrats to “focus on—and pass—policies with broad support.” But if that was the goal, then Democrats should be way more ambitious than they actually are, since there is broad support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. (Notably, the Times does not discuss what it means by policies with broad support.) Data For Progress polled the public on support for the provisions of the Build Back Better plan and found that all of its components were popular:

“Investments in long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities are backed with a margin of +67 points. Modernizing K-12 school buildings, modernizing the electricity grid, and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices are all supported by margins of at least +55 points. Creating a Civilian Climate Corps, lowering the Medicare age, universal pre-K, and tuition-free community college are all supported by margins of at least +25 points. A pathway to citizenship is backed by a margin of +22 points. Expanding child tax benefits is supported by a +9-point margin.”

It should be obvious that what voters object to is not progressive policies, which always poll well, but the fact that Congressional Democrats haven’t actually passed any progressive policies. It is inaction, not ambition, that makes people upset about “Build Back Better.” Voters hear constantly about intra-party squabbling and provisions being dropped and whether the bill will be 1 trillion or 3 trillion, but they don’t hear much about what they’re actually going to get and when they’re going to get it. This is in part the fault of Democrats, who have not learned one of the crucial lessons from the failure of the Obama administration, which is that you need to engage and inform the public about policy rather than just having the Very Smart People go off and negotiate it for months. But it is also the fault of the press, who are more interested in reporting on the “who’s up, who’s down” aspect of negotiations than in trying to inform the electorate about what is actually under consideration and what it would do. 

But while it’s maddening to look out at all the problems in the world and hear elected members of the “left” party like Spanberger say that the party’s job is to be “normal,” not to do things, we also need to remember that one reason Congressional Democrats fold on things is that they are not under sufficient pressure not to fold. Here is a piece of analysis from Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times that I think is utterly wrong but hints at something important: 

“There are lots of reasons why Biden’s presidency is ailing. But the core of it is that he has overestimated the clamour for change. A man who was elected for narrow purposes — retire Trump and give Americans a breather — has strived for too much more. Democrats blame their right-leaning senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, for the delay and dilution of his spending bills. But the party failed to win the clear Senate majority in 2020 that would have made their intransigence moot. That should have been an early clue as to the less-than-revolutionary state of the national temper.”

Ganesh thinks the public does not want change. That is wrong, because if you tell people about various different changes, they indicate that they do, in fact, want them. What is true is that we don’t have well-organized social movements pressuring our politicians to act. Significant transformative pieces of legislation come about because members of the public push for them. Change does not come from Washington. It’s notable that one of the areas of the current spending bill that still has some pretty robust provisions is climate change, a policy area where there is an actual organized movement making demands (and sometimes blocking Joe Manchin’s Maserati or planting themselves in Nancy Pelosi’s office). Ganesh is wrong to imply that the public likes the status quo, but it is the case that if we are to get more out of the Biden presidency, we need more revolutionaries. If we just expect Democrats in Congress to work things out and deliver for us, we should not be surprised when they slowly capitulate on everything we hold dear. There will be no labor legislation without a labor movement, no climate legislation without a climate movement. Outside popular pressure is what gets the goods. 

The election in Virginia absolutely does not show that voters want “moderate” Democrats. In fact, the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, was the exact sort of corrupt uninspiring centrist that those of us have spent years warning Democrats not to run, because they do not have a good answer to the question of what they will do to make people’s lives better. McAuliffe was the ultimate “swamp creature,” the son of a county-level Democratic official who spent his whole life as a party fundraiser, a man who has few convictions except that it’s better to elect a D than an R. He was a former DNC chair who used his political connections to make himself rich through shady business deals, and was the embodiment of everything vacuous and corrupt about the party. As Ezra Klein noted in 2007, “McAuliffe’s use to the party has long been that he was better at doing this—better at hanging with rich people and getting them to like him enough that they donated money—than anyone else.” The shocking thing to me was not that Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia’s governor’s race, but that he had successfully won the governor’s race once before. He was a man with zero appeal, the embodiment of everything everybody hates about politics. The good news is: if Democrats decided to run real candidates with appealing agendas, rather than Clinton cronies whose contribution to the party is that they are personal friends with billionaires, they would probably be able to recapture Virginia.

But that won’t happen if they take the wrong lessons here. There will, of course, be those who argue (as they always do) that a victory for Republicans shows that Democrats need to abandon progressive values entirely and run to the right. Those who do not wish to change the status quo always have an explanation for why progressivism was responsible for Democratic electoral losses, even when the candidate that lost was not in any way a progressive. I hope these people will be laughed out of the room, because the one thing that will really seal the Democrats’ fate for 2022 is if they decide the solution here is to do less and further scale back any attempt to be a party that delivers real material benefits for people.

At the moment, the “Build Back Better” spending proposal is not entirely gutted. The White House is currently proposing a framework that includes universal free preschool, extends the monthly child tax credit for poor families, subsidizes child care and clean energy, invests in new climate resilience projects, cuts prescription drug costs, increases Medicaid coverage, expands Medicare to cover hearing, and invests in new affordable housing. These are policies that the New York Times claims have “broad support,” and so the party should get the hell on with enacting them into law, so that Democrats who face voters in the midterms will at least have something to say when their constituents ask “What have you done for us while in office?” 

But as much as I love beating up on Democratic politicians, and as much as they deserve it, we still need to remember that they act in response to political pressure. Establishment senators like Charles Schumer and Ed Markey have run to the left in recent years, because the left has made it politically advantageous for them to do so—Schumer fears a primary challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Markey found that a progressive brand helped him fend off a Kennedy heir in his reelection bid. We can exert some level of power, but it has to be built. 

There was some good news in the recent elections. My home state of Florida now has its first socialist city council member, Richie Floyd, who has been interviewed before for this magazine. Boston elected a promising progressive mayor, Michelle Wu, so we will hopefully see free transport on the MBTA soon. The message here should be: keep going, rather than “pull back.” Being “normal” is not enough. Democrats need to deliver, but for that to happen, there will have to be sustained popular demand for change. Otherwise, they will fold again and again, on the theory that this is “pragmatism,” even when their most “pragmatic” candidates go down in flames on Election Day. 

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