Mysteries of the Democrats

Jonathan Chait on the Israel debate and left-wing antisemitism
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“Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze” represents a big effort by @jonathanchait and I sincerely appreciate the thought and work that went into the article even though I disagree with much of Chait’s perspective. I especially value Chait’s detailed discussion of the Democratic Party and the minimum stereotyping in which Chait discusses Democratic voters. Chait’s article reminds me of the thorough work by @Edsall on Biden and public opinion and perhaps represents a trend toward more diligence and realism in covering the Biden administration and Democratic voters.

My main issue with “Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze” is framing analysis of the Democrats in terms of moderates vs progressives. There are a number of basic questions concerning the mod v prog dichotomy and the answers to all of them suggest a need to at least adjust the frame. To what extent do “progressive” and “moderate” mean the same things over time, to what extent do they apply across the multicultural Democratic spectrum, and to what extent are those who identify or are identified as moderates or progressives wield decisive influence in the Democratic Party?

Starting first with influence of progressives. Chait identifies progressivism with the Sanders and Warren campaigns, donors to activist organizations, and a variety of prison reform, anti-police, immigration, and climate activists. However, Sanders lost to a lackluster and flagging Biden campaign when Biden was rescued first by Jim Clyburn’s endorsement and then by black Democratic voters in South Carolina. Black voters rejected progressivism but were not “moderate” in the sense that Manchin and Sinema are moderate. This seems to be a mystery to Chait and other journalists who view black voters as “more moderate” because they did not accept “defund the police,” “abolish ice,” “billionaire tears” or other progressive slogans. Black voters are civil rights oriented, supported Biden because of his long involvement with the Black community, and believed Biden had the best chance of beating Trump. But this combination of motivations is neither moderate or progressive according to current understandings of the terms.

The problems of viewing Black voters in terms of the mod/prog dichotomy can be seen further with Minneapolis and police reform. Interestingly, Chait mentions that the “Defund the Police” slogan that emerged among progressives was a compromise between activists who wanted to reduce police budgets and those who wanted to abolish police departments altogether. But the activist campaign in Minnesota mirrored the Sanders campaign in being a dismal failure that never received more than 25% support among Minneapolis Democrats.

But does this mean that the other 75% of Minneapolis Democrats had any relation to “moderation” in the sense of supporting “stop and frisk,” “listening to both sides,” or believing justifications of police shootings as reasonable responses to threats?

Not at all as can be seen from Chait’s further comment.

Black voters have consistently registered support both for reforming police to crack down on racism and abuse and increasing the level of protection for residents of high-crime areas. As longtime Minneapolis police-reform activist Nekima Levy Armstrong lamented, most Black Minneapolis residents wanted serious police reform: “Instead, what we got was progressive posturing of a kind seen throughout the country and a missed opportunity to bring about real change and racial justice.”

That’s not quite the same as Elizabeth Warren’s demand for “big structural change” but “serious police reform,” a “crackdown on racism and abuse,” and “real change and racial justice” would all be large-scale reforms. Black voter wanted big change in the sense of BOTH eliminating police racial abuse AND “increasing the level of protection for residents of high-crime areas.” In this sense, black voters rejected “progressive posturing” while pretty much forgetting about “moderation” altogether which raises the question of the extent to which moderates are a relevant force in Democratic politics. One question is the extent to which white Democratic voters agreed more with black voters than progressives. White voters were certainly among the 75% of Minneapolis Democrats who rejected “Defund the Police” but it’s impossible to tell about the extent to which they were thinking about reform in the same way as black people.

At this point, the possibility arises that most Democrats reject what they view as the overblown sloganeering and posturing of progressives. As the progressive standard bearer, Bernie Sanders received 26% of the vote in the 2020 Democratic primaries and that might be the ceiling for progressive Democrats. Otherwise, progressive policies (MM4A, decriminalize border crossing, reduce police funding, etc..) and rhetoric (“billionaire tears,” “Defund,” “Abolish Ice,” “Pack the Courts, etc.) are a turn off to Democratic voters. Progressive activists may have energy, passion and funding, but they also had a long record of failure during the 2020 electoral campaigns and beyond.

And the Biden people seem to be highly aware of progressive failure. Chait has an interesting formulation concerning Biden’s “Build Back Better Program.”

Biden has tried to keep the political conversation framed as closely as possible around issues in which he and his party have an advantage: handling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy. His economic program has carefully avoided any controversial social debates and focused on a highly popular combination of raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and redistributing the proceeds to the working and middle class through programs like universal access to child care, community college, and a child tax credit.

But Chait misses the fact that the Biden Administration was still proposing a big change in American domestic policy. “Raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and redistributing the proceeds to the working and middle class” is a “big bleeping deal” in American politics. The same is the case with the investment in a green economy infrastructure which speeds up the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s almost exactly the kind of “big structural change” Elizabeth Warren was advocating without the inflammatory attacks on the wealthy that are common among progressives and activists. In fact, Chait’s own comments on the ultra-wealthy are more provocative than anything coming out of the Biden administration.

Much of the nation’s elite resides within a bubble nearly as remote from the perspective of the average American as the hothouse atmosphere of any left-wing Twitter feed. Within this bubble, the equation of the perspective of the wealthy with that of the country as a whole is simply a casual background assumption. Much of the news from Washington is unintelligible, or even absurd, unless it is understood as a transmutation of the C-suite vantage point into the vox populi.

A pertinent observation. But Chait also misses the many ways in which the Biden administration’s approach to Build Back Better has been genius in the sense that Build Back Better is big change legislation whose support reaches far beyond the confines of the progressive wing. In fact, many of the main items in Build Back Better have more than 80% support among Democrats and the only question about Democratic support for the legislation has been whether voting Democrats are maintaining enthusiasm as the bill is whittled down to gain support from “centrist” senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

If progressives are about 25% of the Democratic Party voting base, Build Back Better is big change legislation whose support is more than 50% higher than would be the case if its support than just progressives. Like black voters in Minneapolis, Democratic voters as a whole seem to be a big change constituency whether they’re progressives or not. How and why most Democrats support big change but not big change rhetoric is one of the mysteries of the Democratic Party and a mystery that won’t be addressed until journalists like Jonathan Chait give up on the moderate vs progressive dichotomy.

Why give up on the moderate side?–mostly because Democratic moderates are sliding into irrelevance just like their Republican counterparts. Sinema and Manchin are the only two committed moderates or centrists in the Senate Democratic caucus and they only have influence because of the razor thin 50-50 split between the parties. Likewise, the Blue Dog caucus in the House has been shrinking and shrinking since the 2008 election with membership sliding from 59 in 2009 to 14 in the current Congress Chait chastises Democratic Party centrists in both the Senate and House for being so open to the corporate lobbying campaign to cut back the most popular provisions of the bill. But I’m not sure that Democratic moderates have much of their own base outside corporate money. If one assumes that Democratic voters opposed to the original Build Back Better legislation would be concerned about “big government,” the dangers of higher taxes, expanding welfare, and other centrist priorities, the polling on Build Back Better poses problems for centrists. If less than 20% of Democratic voters are in tune with centrist priorities, then most Centrists are walking targets for primary challenges by more mainstream Democrats.

Going back to the beginning of this post, this is a very good article by Jonathan Chait. However the Democratic Party will remain a mystery as long as journalists frame their writing about Democrats in terms of the opposition between moderates and progressives.