The Moment of Truth for Progressives Has Come
(Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
Rather, it comes in the chance to hem in the escalating bids of Democrats to out-woke each other that are leaving Donald Trump grinning and creating the biggest chance that Democrats will blow it.
To see why, look at the two current dominant theories of Democratic politics.
The first is that Democrats must do more to inspire base progressive activists, African Americans, Latinos, and young voters whose anemic turnout and infidelity to the Democrats doomed Hillary Clinton. There is some compelling evidence here. Clinton lost the election-tilting electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by a percentage point or less; Jill Stein’s votes would have erased the difference. Clinton also performed 2% to 7% worse among black and Latino voters vs. Obama in 2012. In Wisconsin, that disparity in just 10 majority-black zip codes cost 24,000 votes in a state Trump won by 23,000.
Of course, the flaw in this argument is that it assumes that these voters (who are not monolithic, though all part of “the base”) must be inspired by a set of “bold” liberal policy positions. This is questionable at best. In polling, reparations shows up last on African American voters’ economic priorities list, while the relatively moderate Joe Biden is tops among candidates. On immigration, only 46% of Hispanic voters support the idea of changing border crossing to a civil infraction, which 9 of 10 Democratic candidates supported on their debate stage (despite 70% of Democratic voters rejecting open borders). Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that the base is not vital.
The competing theory is that Clinton lost in 2016 – and conversely Democrats won in 2018 – due to the relative effectiveness of their appeal to middle and working class non-college educated white voters. These voters make up half of the 13% of Americans who seem to be truly get-able swing voters, and “favored Democrats in the 2018 midterms by 11 points after favoring Trump by 6 points in 2016.” There are weak points to this argument too, notably the demographic trends in emerging swing states that strongly suggest that Democrats should skate to where the puck is going (young and non-white voters), not where it has been.
But the simple reality is both an inspired base and a strong showing among middle class, non-college educated white voters will be needed. If the Democrats emphasize one and turn off the other, which is what they are risking right now, they are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the winner will be Donald.
It’s really not that hard to do both – there is actually a core set of middle-class economic issues that Democrats strongly support and that appeal to both sets of voters (there’s also likely more cultural alignment than is generally realized, which Saturday Night Live brilliantly pointed out in their second-most YouTube-viewed segment ever). For example, a wealth tax that 90% of Democrats favor is supported 59-25 by white working class independents. And frankly, if Democrats elect virtually any of the major declared presidential candidates, they will get 90% of the loaf they are seeking across the policy spectrum.
But to get there, they have to win, and this is where the need to exercise just a modicum of discipline comes in – which brings us to the moment of truth for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who would aspire to be progressive leaders. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez drives some people nuts, and perhaps with good reason. But, to be intellectually honest, those who criticize her should also acknowledge her brilliance: the undeniable and almost unrivaled social media savvy, the connection to young, activist progressives, and ability to drive the news. As she said last week, the power to shift public sentiment “…is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country.”
To be sure, Twitter sentiment is definitely not public sentiment, it’s not even Democratic sentiment. But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has real power to move opinion among progressive activists via her 4.71 million Twitter followers. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar may carry a somewhat smaller stick, but also wield influence.
The moment for that influence, for that leadership, has come.
Democrats should ask them to show the kind of maturity, long-term strategic thinking, and patience that true leaders have. Only Nixon could go to China, and only you have the ability to pull Democrats back from the edge, and chill the liberal arms race that leads to Armageddon. If you say “it may be my preferred policy, but we don’t need to go all the way to decriminalizing border crossings to have a compassionate and sane immigration policy,” many progressives will listen, and that creates vital political breathing room for others. If you proclaim that you prefer “Medicare for All,” but could support answers that include keeping private insurance, you unload Donald Trump’s gun. Push for what you believe, but pull together with the people who are, at the end of the day, on your side.
Politics is the art of the possible, and now is the time to step boldly into the Democratic divide as a consensus builder. Democrats need you. America needs you.