In the months leading up to the election of former Vice President Biden to the United States’ highest office, it seemed most American progressives put their legitimate concerns about his record aside and get down to the work of ensuring that the much more dangerous current Commander in Chief wouldn’t win reelection. Rather than being thanked for these efforts, which probably helped the President Elect in states like Michigan where he needed to win, the left was quickly blamed by the dominant center right of the party for losses at the state and federal level, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives.
One obvious reason for some of the disappointing results in 2020 as opposed to the midterms in 2018 was that Donald Trump was not on the ballot then, so many voters who wanted to send him a message did so by voting against his party. Since this wasn’t the case in this presidential election year with the country facing multiple crises, Democrats at all levels needed to do and offer more to win over non-affiliated voters, especially in swing states.
As opposed to investing in their candidates through expensive ad buys in dying mediums like television and radio, it might have been better to move a little bit with the times and spend some of this money trying to connect with voters themselves, something which is relatively easy to do through the internet and app based communications channels.
When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on Twitch to live stream a game of ‘Among Us’ with a number of the progressive voices there, she drew the largest audience in the outlet’s history and delivered her ‘get out the vote’ message to an audience of mostly young potential voters the mainstream of her own party usually ignores.
Although impossible to prove, efforts like this one probably helped to propel a surge in voting by the young that overwhelmingly favored Biden, with participation by those aged 18-29 in eleven close states up by as much as 10%.
While it’s understandable that Biden’s campaign and those of many other candidates down ballot scaled back their efforts due to the pandemic, and most would argue that he and others on the Democratic side acted responsibly in comparison to their opponents, any serious postmortem needs to learn from the example set by progressive candidates like Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, who, despite the difficulties and the fact that both were almost certain to retain their seats, found ways to connect with voters.
One of the keys to this in these and other important states like Georgia was outreach: online, on the phone and (masked and socially distanced), in person. As some commentators have noted, party insiders and the well to do consultant class that arranges ad buys and mailers, usually before lobbying those they helped get elected, are mostly in the business of looking out for each other’s interests and seem to churn money rather than doing the job of turning out voters.
As reported by Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy on the Intercept, “In Minneapolis and Detroit, Omar and Tlaib both rejected the advice of the Biden campaign and instead sent volunteers to persuade people not just to come out to vote for their member of Congress — after all, they had effectively no GOP competition in their general elections — but to do their part in ousting Trump by voting for Biden.”
These efforts were ignored by the party’s slowly receding center right majority in the wake of Biden’s victory, as they and some of their media allies began making arguments about progressives who’d advocated for Medicare for All during the primaries and unrelated activist calls to defund the police that came out of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
In terms of universal healthcare, looking at poll numbers over the past year, it’s clear that Medicare for All was a winning issue for Democrats even prior to the pandemic. Why someone as respected as Jim Clyburn, who was key to Joe Biden’s victory in the primaries and now insists that M4All could cost Democratic candidates in upcoming Senate runoffs in Georgia, would argue against it is a mystery that might be solved by looking at the donors who have his ear.
In a conference call to discuss the results of the election with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, some of the centrists that dominate the party, most notably Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia’s 7th district, who previously worked in the CIA and was one of a number of candidates from the country’s national security establishment who ran as Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms, blamed progressives for about half a dozen losses in swing states.
“We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again,” Spanberger reportedly said, “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. It does matter, and we have lost good members because of that.”
In terms of ‘socialism’ as an attack line, as many commentators have noted, Democrats are always called this by their Republican opponents regardless of their stated politics. Candidates like the Clintons, Barack Obama and now Joe Biden have all faced accusations of supporting vaguely defined left wing ‘authoritarianism’ despite their neoliberal, pro-business records and rhetoric.
As for the Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police, as reported by Bloomberg on Thursday, the data suggests that they were a major factor in bringing African American voters, especially in cities the former vice president needed to win, to the polls.
More disheartening for those on the progressive left in the U.S. who hoped for a united Democratic party until the President Elect is installed were those like Claire McCaskill, who lost her Missouri senate seat in 2018 after repeatedly running as an old school Republican with a D beside her name and was soon hired by MSNBC as a commentator seemingly dedicated to disparaging the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
McCaskill offered this pearl of wisdom in a panel discussion before the election had even been called, “Around cultural issues, the Republican Party, I think, very adroitly adopted cultural issues as part of their main theme. Whether you’re talking guns or issues surrounding the right to abortion in this country or things like gay marriage and the right for transsexuals and other people who we as a party have tried to look after and make sure that they’re treated fairly.”
While she apologized for the remarks, there is so much wrong with this statement that it would require an entire article to unpack it all in terms of its mix of cluelessness and disrespect. Looking out for (and referring correctly to) marginalized communities is what a party of the working class should do, something that is lost on well connected people who always seem to fail upward like McCaskill.
Representative Ocasio-Cortez, talked about some of these issues in two interviews, one in the New York times and a second on CNN with Jake Tapper. In the former she said that she seriously considered not running for a second term, citing the way she‘s been treated by some of her colleagues, telling the paper, “Externally, there’s been a ton of support. But internally, it’s been extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive.”
Addressing the attacks that had come out of the call with Pelosi, she said, “Before the election, I offered to help every single swing district Democrat with their operation. And every single one of them, but five, refused my help. And all five of the vulnerable or swing district people that I helped secured victory or is on a path to secure victory. And every single one that rejected my help is losing. And now they’re blaming us for their loss.”
She later addressed some of what Spanberger and others had said in the conference call with Pelosi in her conversation with Tapper, “If you look at some of the arguments that are being advanced like arguments about ‘defund the police’ or arguments about [how] socialism hurt, not a single candidate that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defund the police in this general election and these were largely slogans or demands from activist groups that we saw in the largest uprising in American history around police brutality and so the question that we have is: how can we build a more effective Democratic organization that is stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks?”
Rather than attacking AOC and other progressives as they’ve been doing for a week now, it’s about time the centrists in the Democratic Party stop talking and start listening to them. They might just learn a few things that will help them in future elections.