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A Word to My Fellow Progressives: Lessons of the 2020 Democratic Primary

This year feels to many progressives like a lost opportunity. With Donald Trump in the White House and anger among disaffected groups running high, it should have been possible to nominate a very progressive candidate to be the Democratic standard bearer this November. In the face of such Republican overreach, latitude existed to move the center of American politics leftward, compelling the electorate to accept a slightly more liberal candidate than would usually be tolerated, in deference to the catastrophic dearth of competence and probity in the Oval Office.  

As the nominating contest heated up, moderates invoked the precedent of the McGovern campaign of 1972 in warning against the dangers of a progressive candidacy. Drifting too far to the left would alienate the middle class voters that are foundational to any winning coalition. But the similarities between 2020 and 1972 were always tenuous. Few people had heard of the Watergate office complex as voters went to the polls in the fall of 1972. The nation was polarized by the Vietnam War, and for all that McGovern floated many progressive proposals, his was effectively a single-issue campaign seeking to channel anger over the war. Since the war had been started by successive Democratic administrations, and Nixon himself was promising a policy of “Vietnamization,” the election was less a referendum on progressive politics in general than it was over “gradualist” versus “subitist” models of military disengagement.

The closer parallel to 2020 was arguably the election of 1932. In that year, four years of perceived mismanagement of Depression fiscal policy by Herbert Hoover created widespread disaffection, not merely with the Republican party, but with the policy “status quo” more generally, paving the way for the nomination of Franklin Roosevelt to head the Democratic ticket over the more moderate Al Smith.  Though (before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit after the Democratic nomination had largely been decided) we today have not suffered an acute crisis comparable to the Great Depression since 2008, Donald Trump and his administration had intensively alienated large swaths of the electorate as the Democratic primary got underway. In numerous polls, voters registered their fears over growing wealth inequality, climate change, the costs and availability of education and health care, and a growing sense of insecurity in a rapidly changing world riddled with unpredictable bad actors. Many African-American, Latinx, female, and Muslim voters felt that the US government was manifesting hostility not seen from federal authorities since the 1950s or 1960s. The spreading disenchantment, the sense that government is failing to provide needed leadership in urgent times, was reminiscent of the national mood at the end of Hoover’s first term. It was a moment in which progressives might have “turned the ship of state” and opened a course toward robust reforms like those of the New Deal era.

Now that Joseph Biden, the embodiment of the Democratic Party’s moderate wing, is all but sure to win the nomination, that chance has passed. What, then, can progressives learn and apply to the future from the experience of 2020? I would propose the following items:

1) The Primary’s the Thing. The American electoral system works along very particular lines. One of its idiosyncrasies is that, given the reality of the two-party system, each election has two phases which are strategically alien to one another. Winning the Democratic primary requires fundamentally different tactics, and the building of a fundamentally different coalition than does winning the general election. If progressives want to get onto the ballot, they must strategize intensively to compete in the primary contest. In other words, they must mobilize to defeat Democratic moderates in a contest among Democrats, state by state. 

This may seem like a truism, but it is a principle that is roundly ignored by members of all parties in all election cycles-it is one of the blind spots that helped propel Donald Trump to the Republican nomination in 2016, and that has helped him maintain control over the GOP ever since. As an example of things progressives might do differently if they were following such advice: campaign as Democrats. While it is true that Trump came in as an outsider and effected a kind of “hostile takeover” of the GOP, he did not do so while disavowing membership in the Republican party altogether. If you want to lead the party, you have to be willing to join the party.

2) Consolidate Early. The failure of a crowded Republican field to back a single insider helped Trump win the nomination in 2016. Democratic moderates eventually took this hint and consolidated behind Joe Biden in March 2020. If Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Mike Bloomberg had not made timely withdrawals from the race, progressives might have captured the nomination. Conversely, if progressives had rallied behind either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders early on, outcomes might likewise have been different. Books like The Party Decides have raised awareness of the ways in which party power is institutionalized, such that systemic processes will generally favor moderates, whose donors consistently fund robust infrastructure. But Trump’s campaign demonstrated that the party “machine” cannot fully contain the energies of a consolidated movement. Progressives on the Democratic side only need to be able to achieve purposefully what Donald Trump did by accident in 2016. They do not need an operation as elaborate as the DNC, only a forum analogous to C-PAC in which progressive opinion and strategy can be deliberated.  The Center for American Progress tried to launch such a forum in this cycle with their “Ideas Conference.” Progressives should treat that event in future as an opportunity to achieve “movement discipline.”

3) Fight Astroturf Aggressively. Corporate interests will inevitably use their disproportionate power in the media to demonize progressive candidates and policy initiatives. We saw this early on with regard to Elizabeth Warren. A well-funded media blitz fabricated the self-fulfilling narrative that her “Medicare for All” plan was unpopular with voters and made her “unelectable.” Progressives must be ready for that kind of assault, and move to aggressively counter-message in defense. Obviously there are limits to how effectively such resistance may be mounted, but the leaders of progressive campaigns should not be above such tactics as circulating “talking points” to surrogates and allies, by way of cultivating “message discipline.” Some part of campaign war chests likewise should be earmarked for “anti-astroturf” use. Here Democrats might take a page from Donald Trump. Voters respond to a candidate who sticks to her guns, and Warren’s move to “moderate” her position may have contributed to the effectiveness of the campaign to discredit her, and costing her support among those on the fence between her and Bernie Sanders.

4) Engage Voters of Color. Failure in this regard is perhaps the key to the defeat of the progressive wing of the party in 2020. Bernie Sanders won the trust of many Latinx voters, but neither he nor Elizabeth Warren was able to garner robust support in the African-American community. The fundamental lesson here is that the campaign season is too late to forge relationships in communities of color. Any progressive Democrat who is planning to seek higher office must begin now, in whatever office they occupy or position they hold, to communicate with Latinx and African-American leaders (this includes candidates who are themselves African-American or Latinx, who may not presume upon the support of voters of color) and to partner with them on issues of urgent concern. 

This is a dynamic that works at the levels of both policy and politics. Latinx and African-American voters reserve their support for candidates who both address key problems (i.e. fighting against discrimination in education or credit markets, defending communities against racist violence) and demonstrate, in their public activities and communications, that they are comfortable with and respect communities of color. The success of Doug Jones in Alabama is perhaps the best object lesson in what this looks like. The fact that he took some risks to bring white-supremacist terrorists to justice as D.A. convinced millions of African-American voters that he might uphold his promises to them as a U.S. Senator. 

5) Build A Winning Coalition- Among DemocratsThis is a corollary of principle #1, “the primary’s the thing.” Progressives have a distinct advantage in the Democratic primaries, in that turnout in those contests is higher among progressives than among moderates. But 2020 shows that progressives still cannot win on their own--a higher percentage of self-identified “progressives” may turn out to vote, but progressives as a whole are still outnumbered in quantities sufficient to overwhelm their advantage in turnout. A progressive candidate must be able to win over some moderates in order to claim the nomination. Not all, some.Enough to make up the difference between the progressive plurality and a winning majority. Moreover, this imperative works hand-in-hand with #4, above: moderates are disproportionately represented among voters of color.

This does not mean that the left must settle for “progressives-in-name-only,” only that a degree of compromise will need to be tolerated. A Sanders candidacy seems to have been an exercise in progressive “overreach.” Powerful systemic forces draw the electorate rightward in the American political process, progressives will always need to thread the needle between fighting that tide and riding that wave.

As a progressive, I would like to see “our wing” of the party succeed in capturing the White House. A great deal might thus be achieved. Some of the disappointments of the “neoliberal” moderation of the Clinton and Obama years might be redressed: bringing a more robust approach to global warming; meaningful reform in health care and education; redress to wealth inequality, and much more. But for any of this progress to be possible, the riddle of the American ballot box must be confronted. If we can assimilate the lessons of 2020, perhaps in the future lost opportunities can be redeemed.