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Progressives Are Not Why Democrats Are Struggling

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Bouie’s been on fire lately and I wanted to highlight his column from Friday about how the moderates have won the conflict within the Democratic Party and they need to stop whining about progressives and get down to business.

There was a battle for control of the Democratic Party, and the moderates won. They hold the power and they direct the message. But despite this victory, moderate Democrats and their allies can’t seem to take responsibility for the party’s fortunes. When faced with defeats — as they were last month when Terry McAuliffe fell to Glenn Youngkin in the race to succeed Ralph Northam as governor of Virginia — they blame the left. It’s the same song, each time. If progressives would just stop alienating the public, then they could make gains and put power back in Democratic hands. Somehow, the people in the passenger’s seat of the Democratic Party are always and forever responsible for the driver’s failure to reach their shared destination.

Writing for his newsletter, the journalist Osita Nwanevu made a version of this point earlier in the year. Progressive politicians and activists may be occasionally off-message but in the main, “The simple truth is that most of the things moderate liberals tend to argue Democrats should be doing and saying are, in fact, being done and said by the Biden administration, Democratic leaders in Congress, and the vast majority of Democratic elected officials.”

If, despite their influence, moderate Democrats are not satisfied with the state of their party, then they might want to turn their critical eye on themselves. What they’ll find are a few fundamental problems that may help explain the party’s current predicament.

After all, 2020 was not the first year that Democrats fell short of their expectations. They did so in 2010, when moderates had an even stronger grip on the party, as well as in 2014 and 2016. Here, again, I’ll echo Nwanevu. Despite pitching his administration to the moderate middle — despite his vocal critiques of “identity politics,” his enthusiastic patriotism and his embrace of the most popular Democratic policies on offer — Barack Obama could not arrest the Democratic Party’s slide with blue-collar voters. For the past decade, in other words, “the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects have been in decline for reasons unattributable to progressive figures and ideas that arrived on the political scene practically yesterday.”

Perhaps the problem, then, lies less with the rhetoric (or existence) of progressive Democrats and more with any number of transformations in the material circumstances of American life and the response — or lack thereof — from the Democrats with the power to do something. What was the Democratic Party’s response to a generation of neoliberal economic restructuring? What was its response to the near-total collapse of private-sector unions? What was its response to the declining fortunes of American workers and the upward redistribution of American wealth?

Those are….pretty good questions! The answer to all of them is not a damn thing and that was the era when moderates ruled the party unquestionably. In any case, as Bouie states:

Read in this light, the frequent focus on progressives as the cause of Democratic woes looks less like hard-nosed analysis and more like excuse-making. And my sense is that this excuse-making will only get worse as Republicans weaponize the institutions of American politics to entrench their power and lay the conditions for durable minority rule.

Right now, the moderate Democrats who run the party have a narrow and slipping hold on Congress against an opposition that relies on structural advantages, which could be mitigated, or at least undermined, with federal power. They have failed to act, and there’s no sign, so far, that anything will change.

If and when Democrats lose one or both chambers of Congress — and when we all face the consequences of their failure — I am confident that we’ll hear, once again, how it’s everyone’s fault but their own.

What makes Bouie a rare exception in the media is that he doesn’t just go along with the rest of the centrist punditry and happily throw all the blame on Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie. Moderates have basically failed as policymakers for thirty years. But rather than own up to that in any way, Abigail Spanberger and Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer and Kurt Schrader just whine and whine and whine and do nothing useful about the current situation, either in terms of the policy problems we have today or in fighting back against the rise of fascism in the Republican Party.

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