Expect to read a lot over the next two years about the fight between the center left and far left of the Democratic Party. This battle will be waged on many fronts, but it’s important to keep in mind that its most essential argument is about the size of the party — and that those seeking to build a bigger Democratic Party have the stronger electoral case after the 2020 elections, just as they did following 2018.
Keeping the party’s “big tent” staked firmly in the ground is the only way to achieve policy progress in the years ahead.
More important, keeping the party’s “big tent” staked firmly in the ground is the only way to achieve policy progress in the years ahead. Democrats barely recaptured the presidency and on net lost ground in the House. Not much will get done on health care or the environment, however ambitious, without a Democratic president and swing-district legislators, and trying to narrow the party to represent just a few of the most extreme factions and the purest of the orthodoxies they champion is tantamount to waving the white flag on the entire party platform.
Joe Biden went from former vice president to president-elect because he cast a wide net for Democratic support, repeatedly seeking votes from independents and what former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg frequently referred to as “future former Republicans.”
The success of this strategy was apparent in key states he won back from President Donald Trump — and not just the “blue wall” states Democrats held from 1992 through 2012, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Biden made significant inroads in gaining back voters across education levels in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, as well, expanding support from high-education coastal cities into diversifying suburbs, along with the white working-class voters who had shifted support from Barack Obama to Trump.
Furthermore, 6 percent of 2020 voters who backed Trump four years ago supported Biden this time, a significant number when you consider these vote-switchers helped make the difference in close races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and most likely Georgia and Arizona, as well. Overall, Biden won moderates — by some counts the largest ideological group — by a wide margin, 25 points, including winning 16 percent of moderate Republicans.
Those seeking a smaller Democratic Party are not backing down, however. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most dynamic leader of the new progressive wing, has been explicit in seeking a more exclusive Democratic Party, saying that “Democrats can be too big of a tent.” While she admirably served as a vital Biden supporter through the presidential election after endorsing democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the primaries, she didn’t abandon her smaller-tent stance.
Within two hours of the networks calling the presidential election, Ocasio-Cortez was back on offense criticizing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and arguing that the approach of her allied groups, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, was better even though they have not yet added a single seat to the Democratic caucus since bursting onto the scene in 2018.
The only candidate Ocasio-Cortez’s alliance backed in a competitive general election against a Republican on Nov. 3 — rather than in a primary for a safe Democratic seat earlier in the year — lost by more than 4 percentage points in a Nebraska district that Biden won. Ocasio-Cortez and and her partners helped the candidate, Kara Eastman, win over a primary challenger who was backed by past Democratic senators and governors. In other words, the small-tent Democrats picked a high-risk district that, because Nebraska awards presidential electors by congressional district, could have cost Biden an elector if those who went to the polls didn’t split their vote among the parties.
Several other candidates who endorsed far-left policies also didn’t fare well, including New Green Deal supporter Rep. Debbie Muscarsel-Powell of Florida. Ocasio-Cortez erroneously told her 10 million Twitter followers that no candidates who supported the expansive plan for the environment and economy lost re-election — despite the ouster of Muscarsel-Powell, one of the few swing-seat Democrats to co-sponsor the Green New Deal in Congress.
Backers of the other hashtag policy of the far left, Medicare For All, also failed to make significant inroads in current swing districts. Though Ocasio-Cortez highlighted alleged swing district members who support the plan that would abolish private health insurance as part of government-funded health care, in actuality just two of the 20 Democratic-held seats in the current Congress rated as “toss up” or “Lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report did so.
Moreover, far-left candidates didn’t just fail to rack up wins: Swing districts members of Congress, including Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won re-election, blamed them for dooming other races. As those who focus on swing districts saw in polling last year, Ocasio-Cortez’s brand is potentially harmful in the districts that went from red to blue in 2018, and Ocasio-Cortez was repeatedly featured in attack ads against these candidates in 2020.
And the electoral success of more moderate Democrats is not just an anecdotal or one-time phenomenon — political science research has consistently demonstrated that moderate candidates do better at the polls. This was certainly true in the presidential primary, both on its outcome and impact on the general election. The far-left discourse in the primaries turned off voters in the middle, with one study showing that even brief exposure to the Democratic debates reduced independent support for a generic Democratic nominee by 6 percentage points, without a significant uptick in energy from the base.
What this moderate, rather than far-left, support for Democrats does is allow the party to pass policies that everyone in the big tent wants. In most significant areas — the environment, health care, social issues — mainstream and far-left Democrats share values on policy. No Democrats deny climate change, or want to reduce the government role in health insurance. Sanders has compared Biden to FDR and far-left groups called his platform “the most progressive” in the party’s history.
The fight, instead, is over control, as extremist power is inversely correlated to the size of the team. The smaller the Democratic Party, the proportionally stronger the far left.
The magnification of the influence of the extremist wing is clear on Twitter, whose discourse is dominated and distorted by this fringe. Analysis has shown just how different online progressives are from the majority of Democrats. Democrats on Twitter are far less likely to be Black, moderate, concerned about political correctness, lack a college degree or attend protests.
While subtraction may benefit some, Democrats should hope to remain the party of addition.
Luckily, the Biden campaign understood that. “We turned off Twitter,” CBS quoted a campaign aide saying. “We stayed away from it. We knew that the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest.”
The struggle within the Democratic Party will likely be framed as left versus center in the coming months. In reality, the struggle is between the exclusive online bubble and the welcoming big tent that is Joe Biden’s America: focused on the real world, healing the country and restoring our progressive trajectory. While subtraction may benefit some, Democrats should hope to remain the party of addition.