Democrats need to clearly embrace popular, progressive policies or they will continue to fail in down ballot elections

  • Joe Biden won the election, but Democrats didn't do well down ballot, leading to recriminations and anger and a familiar scapegoat—progressive policy priorities.
  • Polling and recent results paint a different picture, however, and indicate left-wing positions are broadly popular among the electorate.
  • Democrats need to stop ignoring the left and start winning — big.
  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Despite President Donald Trump's refusal to concede, President-elect Joe Biden's clear victory means that the focus of the election can shift from who will win the Oval Office to what happened beyond the presidential race. 

Instead of delivering a "Blue Wave" on the backs of a Biden win, Democrats saw their majority in the House eroded and failed to regain the majority in the Senate, likely setting up a divided government at the federal level (Alaska has not been called, though it will likely go for the GOP, and Georgia's two Senate seats will head to runoffs that could leave the chamber at a 50-50 tie). On the state level, Democrats failed to grab key state legislature seats, putting them at a disadvantage during the upcoming redistricting process.

Given the weaker showing down ballot, Democrats and liberal pundits are casting about for an explanation of just what went wrong on Tuesday. 

More right-wing members of the loose anti-Trump coalition — the Bush-era neocons and Reagan Republicans who have recently hitched their wagon to the Democrats — have found their boogeyman: baseless claims that accusations of "socialism" hurt Biden and down-ballot Democrats. Centrists and liberals, meanwhile, have settled into a narrative claiming Biden's moderate stances made him the only candidate who could have beaten Trump. And on the left, simmering anger over years of dismissiveness is reaching a boiling point. 

Challenges to a Biden administration beginning already 

With a steady but narrow edge in a number of key states, Biden is set to come into office under a cloud of chaos as the results are attacked by Trump's supporters and the president himself. Further complicating things, the GOP may well retain control of the Senate, stymieing the incoming administration's agenda before it starts. 

But there are signs that Biden can claim a mandate as he enters the Oval Office. First, the popular vote chasm stands at 4 million votes and the former vice president's lead will only grow from here. There is no way to spin this in Trump's favor — a clear and insurmountable majority of the country chose Biden as the president.

Trump, like his Republican predecessor George W. Bush in 2000, used an Electoral College victory that saw him lose the popular vote in 2016 as a mandate. For Biden to not take advantage of the nationwide numbers — and the fact that he has won more votes in a single election than any presidential candidate in US history — would be an act of major political malpractice. 

Second, polling from around the country shows majorities of Americans in favor of a broad swath of progressive policies and positions like racial justice, the need to address climate change, universal healthcare, and more. 

According to the New York Times, 66% of voters feel that climate change is a serious problem; 71% feel racism is the most or one of the most important problems in the US and 53% believe the criminal justice system treats Black people unfairly; and 54% of voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

In Fox News surveys, the numbers were even more striking. 72% of people asked by Fox were in favor of government-run healthcare, 71% in favor keeping Roe v. Wade in place as it is, 55% calling for more strict gun laws, and 72% want a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Hardly the makings of a right-wing nation.

The numbers show that support for these progressive positions outstrips support for Biden, the nominally left candidate. Presumably, a number of these voters cast ballots for Trump, despite the president's antipathy toward the priorities reflected in that polling. 

An opportunity that should not be ignored

There is an opportunity here for Democrats, and one they should not ignore.

As Alex Pareene wrote Thursday for The New Republic, voters appear not to associate the party with the progressive priorities they support. For example, Biden lost Florida but voters approved a $15 minimum wage, a long-time Democratic and progressive priority. This confusion over political ideology is going to continue to be a problem for Democrats, especially if Trump's brand of right-populism continues to dominate the Republican Party.

What Biden and congressional Democrats need to do is to hammer on the two main points here — the president-elect won more votes than any candidate in US history and the progressive platform that the party's liberal-left wing has made central to the conversation enjoys broad support. By taking this approach, the Democratic Party can make the case for a mandate and the will of the people, even as a possibly GOP-controlled or close Senate makes life difficult for Biden as he tries to make change. 

What Democrats should not do, however, is listen to the losers in their caucus and broader party structure who believe they have the answers. On MSNBC, former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill claimed Democrats needed to stop focusing on "cultural issues" like trans rights and focus instead on the economy.

The call is increasingly coming from inside the delegation as well. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate from Virginia who narrowly won reelection, unloaded on House leadership during a call among House Democrats on Thursday with claims that attacks about "socialism" and defunding the police nearly led to her defeat. 

That take was echoed by Whip James Clyburn, who is largely credited with delivering South Carolina to Biden during the primary. Clyburn told members that "If we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we're not going to win" in Georgia's two likely special elections for Senate. It was a take echoed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but belied by the actual exit polling from the Peach State showing broad support from voters for a universal, government run healthcare system.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing Democrat whose rise to prominence over the past two years has helped reshape the national political conversation, expressed skepticism over that charge on Twitter. Ocasio-Cortez suggested that candidates with poor showings should look "under the hood" to see what happened and said poor politicking, not ideology, was to blame. 

"Underinvestment across the board," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "Some campaigns spent $0 on digital the week before the election. Others who spent did so in very poor ways."

Successes to build on

As Data for Progress elections analyst Aidan Smith noted on Twitter, the national numbers also tell a different story than that coming from the party. At least seven of the Democrats who lost their races opposed those popular, progressive policies, but that didn't help their chances. 

"Sorry, you can't have it both ways," Smith tweeted. "These Democrats publicly opposed Medicare for All and defunding the police and lost."

By framing their campaigns using right-wing narratives, centrist Democrats can only react to progressive policies with a fear that those policies will allow for hits from the right. It's part of a longstanding pattern for politicians of both parties, who think their constituents are further to the right than they are.

It's long past time to reject this kind of thinking that has no basis in political reality. The Democratic Party's center and right wing have responded the same way to every electoral result for decades—by insisting that the party needs to tilt further away from its base and more in favor of the interests of its right-wing funders and donor class. 

After 30 years, the result of that Third Way strategy that Bill Clinton championed is clearer than ever. The Democratic Party is ideologically adrift, caught in a cycle of rejecting the desires of its progressive base in favor of an imaginary right-wing electorate that has delivered them fewer and fewer victories. Biden has a chance to reverse that — an opportunity that would require him running counter to much of his career.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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