Are Democrats Really Going Left?

Are Democrats Really Going Left?

Political observers spent last week trying to wrap their heads around the primary loss of 10-term New York Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley, a rising star and potential future Speaker of the House, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political novice.  

The consensus? This was a signature moment in the churning ideological struggle between left-leaning progressives (i.e., Bernie Sanders supporters) and more centrist moderates (i.e., Hillary Democrats) for supremacy in the Democratic Party.  So Crowley’s loss ostensibly showed that the liberal end of the party was gaining the upper hand in energy and momentum, and hence more moderate Democrats, especially budding presidential contenders, should start hitting the panic button.  

To top it off and to add a confirmatory historical parallel, analysts pointed to the strife between right-wing TEA Party insurgents and establishment Republicans that played out in the 2014 loss of 2nd Ranking US House Republican Eric Cantor to newcomer David Brat.  Ideological civil war had rocked the Republican party and toppled its leaders, and now, the same thing is happening to the Democrats.

This is a pretty compelling narrative. It’s also wrong.

To understand why, take a step back and look at the two parties.  The Republican Party defines itself around ideology.  And if you want to quickly test that idea out, shout out what the Republican party stands for, or maybe just say it in your head if you’re in a crowded room. Pretty easy, right? Chances are, your answer was something along the lines of low taxes, small government, social traditionalism, or strong defense.   That’s why the competition in Republican primaries is usually about who is the truest reflection of conservative orthodoxy.

By contrast, the Democratic Party represents a coalition of constituencies.  There is much less core ideology. And to test that out, now quickly shout out what the Democratic party stands for (and here’s where it’s actually helpful if you happen to be in a crowded room, because if you challenge the people around you to do the same thing at the same time, here’s betting you get a bunch of different answers).

This subtle but significant difference between the parties leads to a classic error: glomming Republican party dynamics onto the Democrats, and vice versa.  Republicans see a result like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and say it happened because Crowley was insufficiently liberal.  Why?  Because that’s the way it plays out in Republican primaries as each candidate tries to define themselves as the most ideologically pure, while defining competitors as Republicans in name only.  But that doesn’t mean the same thing is true of Democrats.

And in fact, Republicans have more than a little vested interest in portraying the Democratic Party this way.  Just look at Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction to the Crowley race: “The energy in the Democratic Party is self-avowed socialists, open border... I think the Democrats are going hard left. ... [it’s] a real drag on the party in terms of appealing to American voters who I don't think want us to turn into a European socialist country.”  

Republicans justify their movement to the right ideologically, and improve their chances of electoral victory, by portraying the Democratic Party as moving just as sharply to the left (it’s a strategically sound messaging move: the more Republicans can portray the Democrats as “going hard left,” the more it muddies the waters and obscures their own shift right).

But, the problem is, that’s just not true. It’s been well documented by political scientists and scholars (check out the work of Norm Ornstein and Charles Mann for a compelling rundown) that it’s the Republican Party that has moved to the right, while Democrats have shifted very little to the left.

And the energy in the Democratic Party is not really around moving left on policy issues or consolidating around the most progressive candidates, it’s around opposing and defeating President Trump. The Burlington Free Press pointed out that the across the eight states that held primaries on June 5, only 7 of the 31 candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders’ political group, actually won their Democratic primaries.  And the pattern has been the same throughout the 2018 primaries—it’s hardly been a lefty ideological wave sweeping the Democratic Party.

The bottom line is that it is tempting to think that election results like this are about ideology. They’re not…and the “war” over ideology in the Democratic party is vastly overblown. The Crowley/Ocasio-Cortez race wasn’t about left vs. center; it wasn’t really about policy or ideology at all (check out the two candidates’ policy positions and voting records—not exactly a chasm between them). It was about identity and change.  Mr. Crowley is a middle-aged white man in a district that is only 18 percent white, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a 28-year-old Latina woman whose campaign slogan was “it’s time for one of us.”  She ably made the case that she was a better representative of the interests of the people of the district not only because of who she is, but also because it was time for a change.  And change can be a pretty powerful argument in elections: Mr. Crowley was in Congress for 20 years and is raising his kids in Northern Virginia, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is still carrying student loans and made much of the fact that she lives in the district full time.  

And by the way, Mr. Crowley is not the first prominent member of Congress to lose to the force of that kind of generational, time-for-a-change argument: when the Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas Foley lost his seat to a political newcomer in what was seen as an all-time stunner a quarter century ago, the NY Times quoted one of his former supporters saying “he’s a Washington, D.C. man, not a Washington State man.”   As much as incumbency is an advantage in American politics, the perception of joining the swamp or simply hanging around too long still hurts. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez deftly made a winning argument.

So by all means, recognize that Democrats who define themselves as highly liberal are meeting with some success (though far from universally). And celebrate Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s individual accomplishments, which are impressive: she earned her win with intelligence and guts.  But don’t misapprehend them. There’s a risk to attaching the “ideological battle” trope to Democrats — perpetuating some of the false narratives that have come to define the Trump era, at a time when embracing truth is at a premium.  

The long term trends in American politics are clear, and haven’t changed much: Republicans are moving to the right, and their internal battle is over ideology.  Democrats are ideologically fairly stable, and the internal battle remains over how to meld different constituencies in a diverse coalition. 

Crashing Through the Median Barrier

Crashing Through the Median Barrier