Are progressives responsible for the Democrats’ political troubles?

Predicting the future is hard, but right now things look bad for President Biden and congressional Democrats.  Their agenda is stalled in Congress, the pandemic continues to kill people and disrupt normal life, prices are rising, and perceptions of the economy are bad.  No one is surprised that the President’s approval rating keeps hitting new lows.

Naturally, the search for responsible parties is proceeding apace. 

One common view is that progressives are to blame for the current problems.  Kevin Drum makes the case:

Every other headline these days is about Joe Biden’s disastrous approval rating and the chaotic shape of the Democratic Party. How could Democrats have done this? What’s wrong with them?

Let’s cut the crap and acknowledge the obvious answer. First off, the progressive wing of the party insisted on pushing voting rights laws that had zero chance of passing. Biden knew this from the start and said so. Then Bernie Sanders insisted on an insane BBB bill that would have been unprecedented in the history of the country—and doubly unprecedented with a 50-50 Senate. But he insisted, and every time it got cut back it gave progressives another chance to moan about how they were being betrayed. Eventually it died.

For some reason, after an election that was razor close, progressives managed to delude themselves into thinking we were on the cusp of a revolution. How they did this is as big a mystery as how millions of people deluded themselves into thinking that Donald Trump really won the election. It’s inexplicable.

But that’s what happened.

There is something to this view.  Progressive voters and activists often have unrealistic expectations, and progressive politicians sometimes either genuinely share these expectations or at least encourage them for political advantage.  I think this is a real problem.

But not all the blame for the party’s current troubles lies with progressives.

To a considerable extent the challenges the party faces are due to the ongoing pandemic, and to the well-known difficulties of governing a polarized country.  And even if we focus on the choices of Democratic actors, it is not clear that progressives deserve an outsized share of blame:

  • Biden could have done a better job managing the pandemic, calming fears and setting reasonable expectations, and holding Republicans responsible for encouraging vaccine resistance. 
  • There may have been a bipartisan path open on voting rights, but Biden and more mainstream congressional Democrats seem to bear at least some responsibility for rejecting it.
  • The case for blaming progressives is strongest on the Build Back Better legislation, but even here mainstream Senators share responsibility. 

It’s worth going through these cases separately to see what we can learn from the past and to identify paths forward.

Pandemic mismanagement is largely on Biden

Let’s start with the pandemic, which is arguably the single biggest cause of public dissatisfaction. 

Biden did a good job on the vaccine rollout.  He set clear, achievable goals and met them.  Unfortunately, he declared victory over the virus too quickly, and much too unequivocally, and then failed to do even the most elementary contingency planning for new variants or waning immunity.  He failed to fix the communication problems that have plagued his leading science advisors.  (I’m not sure better communication would have done much good, but he should have tried.)  He was shockingly optimistic about omicron, to the point of being dismissive, and he failed to put the omicron wave in perspective for Americans battered by two years of pandemic life. 

Finally, Biden failed to set reasonable expectations for what the President could accomplish, and what individuals and state governments needed to take responsibility for.  And he failed to hold Republicans accountable for encouraging vaccine hesitancy and prolonging the epidemic. 

Biden has repeatedly missed opportunities to reframe the narrative on covid.  He has correctly emphasized that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.  But he needs to go further and shift responsibility for the lack of vaccinations to Republican elites.  At his recent press conference on the pandemic he could have thanked Trump for endorsing the vaccine.  He could have recognized that many Republican officials have been responsible and encouraged vaccination.  At the same time, he could have noted that some Republicans have played politics with vaccination, and he could have asked every Republican in Congress to do the right thing and record a public service message encouraging their constituents to get vaccinated.  He should also ask Republicans to join with Democrats to prepare for new variants:  to provide funds for research on vaccines, to expand vaccine production capacity, to stockpile masks and tests, etc.  If the Republicans refuse, at least Biden would be able to deflect responsibility if there is another damaging variant.

Are progressives responsible?

The pandemic is the biggest source of disapproval for Biden and the Democrats.  To some extent this was unavoidable.  On the other hand, serious mistakes were made, and in this case it’s not clear that progressives bear much responsibility.

The voting rights mess

The decision by President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer to force a losing vote on the filibuster and ambitious voting rights legislation was certainly unusual, and it may have been a mistake, but it was not inexplicable.  Some Democrats believed that a high-profile push on voting rights was needed to keep voters and activists from becoming demoralizedConsistent with this view, Biden’s speech on voting rights was partisan in tone and appeared primarily directed at motivating Democratic voters.  (In his speech Biden emphasized voting rights and invoked the history of Jim Crow, an approach that seems designed to appeal to Democrats.  Alternatively, he may have been laying the groundwork for a push to restore the Voting Rights Act, which many Republican senators have previously supported.  I find it unlikely that Republicans will agree to give up on voter suppression.)

Whether this strategy is justified is unclear.  For one thing, it is far from clear that having a handful of Democrats block reform will help to clarify the differences between the parties and motivate the Democratic base.  It may just create a perception that Democrats are inept, or that they have betrayed ordinary Americans and are fundamentally no different from Republicans.  (This kind of thinking is not uncommon on the left, you can find it among Naderites and at Jacobin, and it’s a huge problem.)  In addition, the cost of pursuing a losing messaging strategy depends on what a more bipartisan approach could accomplish, both in terms of policy and messaging. 

The most obvious alternative would have been for Biden to endorse a bipartisan effort to fix the Electoral Count Act.  There is some bipartisan agreement that the ECA is dangerously broken.  However, some Democratic commentators argue that a successful bipartisan effort to fix the ECA would not have done much to prevent election subversion at the state level, and it would have lulled people into thinking that the crisis of democracy is less severe than it really is. 

This may or may not be a convincing argument, but it artificially limits the range of alternatives available to Democrats.  In his recent voting rights speech, Biden could have tried to take a more bipartisan approach.  He could have emphasized that it is important for all Americans – Republicans as well as Democrats – to have confidence in elections.   To promote confidence, Biden could have proposed strengthening election processes, including security and audit procedures, as well as fixing the ECA.  Such a nuts-and-bolts approach – for example, requiring paper ballots and paper voter rolls, protecting poll workers, codifying audit procedures – would leave much electoral reform undone, but it would reduce the risk of election sabotage at both the federal and state levels. 

It seems to me that a bipartisan bill focused on the nuts and bolts of election security is very much worth pursuing.  Given the stakes, the limits on Congress’s ability to get things done, and the risk that a few deaths or party defections or even a shift in the political situation could end all hope for reform, it is not clear that it made sense to waste valuable time on messaging. 

Are progressives responsible?

To the extent that Democrats did waste time on messaging bills rather than achievable reforms, it is not clear how much responsibility lies with progressives in Congress, rather than with the Democratic caucus as a whole, or more narrowly with Majority Leader Schumer, or with President Biden.

In the aftermath of January 6, Democrats stuck with voting legislation they had drafted when they were in the minority, legislation that did not respond to the events of January 6.  This failure to recognize new threats and adjust priorities – if that is what happened – is far from a uniquely progressive failing.  However, it is possible that Biden and Democratic moderates in Congress were simply unwilling to fight with progressives over a bill that – rightly or wrongly – was not at the top of their agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Schumer is up for re-election and may have pursued a messaging strategy to ward off potential challenges from the left.  I mentioned this previously and Matthew Yglesias makes this case in detail on his substack.

In the case of voting rights, progressives may bear some responsibility for the Democrats’ strategy, but even if we assume that a narrow, bipartisan approach would have been better it seems that moderates and Biden are responsible for either accommodating their progressive colleagues or for pandering to progressive voters on their own account.

The Build Back Better fiasco

The case that progressive overreach has harmed Democrats politically is strongest in the case of the Build Back Better legislation, the Democrats’ large climate and social policy bill. 

Given the 50/50 party split in the Senate, it was clear that party-line legislation would be shaped by the most conservative Democratic senators, Manchin and Sinema, and that progressives had essentially no bargaining power.  Months spent fighting with Manchin and Sinema was self-defeating.  It did nothing to highlight Republican obstructionism.  Instead, the interminable infighting simply reminded people how much they hate politics and Congress, and the blame naturally fell on Democrats and Biden since they had control of the government and they were doing the fighting.

It seems clear to me that the Democrats would have been well-advised to take a scaled back bill last fall that met Manchin’s demands.  Of course, it’s not entirely clear that was really an available option, but I suspect it was, and the cost of delay has been large.

Where does this leave us?

Mid-term losses for the President’s party are the rule, not the exception, and approval of the President depends on factors largely outside of his control.  But even if we focus on policy and messaging choices within the control of Democratic actors, it is far clear that progressive members of Congress bear most of the responsibility for the Democrat’s current predicament.  President Biden has failed to challenge Republicans to work with Democrats on the pandemic and voting rights.  Senator Schumer may have led Democrats over a cliff on voting rights and BBB for his own electoral advantage.  You can say that Biden and Schumer felt pressure to appeal to progressive voters and activists, despite whatever doubts they may have felt about doing so, but they had choices.  So did Senators in the mainstream of the party.

Progressive voters and activists are sometimes unrealistic about the appeal of progressive values and policies and about how politics works.  This is a serious problem, but not every set back for Democrats is due to progressive naivete or overreach.