Sometimes, a political party needs to listen to the voters

Democrats’ troubles trace to wishful thinking on the appeal of the progressive agenda

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his supporters continue to drive much of the policy agenda of the Democratic Party.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his supporters continue to drive much of the policy agenda of the Democratic Party. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 17, 2022 at 6:30am

OPINION — If you haven’t read Ruy Teixeira’s “The Bankruptcy of the Democratic Party Left,” go and do it now.

In a post on "The Liberal Patriot," Teixeira, a political scientist and self-described “lifelong man of the Left,” blames the Democratic Party’s political leadership and progressive wing for most of the party’s problems. 

After looking at "Build Back Better," the infrastructure law, voting rights, crime, energy and other issues, he concludes: “The thread that runs through all these failures is the Democratic Left’s adamant refusal to base its political approach on the actually-existing opinions and values of actually-existing American voters. Instead they entertain fantasies about kindling a prairie fire of progressive turnout with their approach, despite falling short again and again in the real world. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work. Instead, what they need is a plan on how to win outside of deep blue areas and states (the average Congressional Progressive Caucus leader is from a Democratic plus-19 district). That entails compromises that, so far, the Democratic Left has not been willing to make. Cultural moderation, effective governance and smart campaigning are what is needed to win in competitive areas of the country. If democracy is in as much danger as the Democratic Left appears to believe, would not such compromises be worth making? And wouldn’t winning make a nice change of pace at this point?”

In other words, it’s certainly time — past time — for Democrats to address the political realities of the House, the Senate, and the Electoral College and to come up with a plan to reposition the party. 

After all, whatever the Democratic Party’s shortcomings, it is not the party of Republicans like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz and Elise Stefanik and former President Donald Trump — radicals and con men (and women) who don’t care much for democracy, checks and balances, honesty and the norms and institutions that helped make this country great — and free.

Nor have the Democrats rejected Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., because she wants to get to the bottom of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. Compared to the GOP, the Democrats are the “big tent” party.

But in their effort to make sure they don’t offend the most liberal elements of their party, Democratic leaders and strategists have made it easy for the GOP to paint them as weak on crime, favoring “open borders” and willing to sacrifice jobs to fight global climate change. The Democrats don’t even have the huge advantage they once held as the party of public education.

On crime, Teixeira notes that the combination of calls to “defund the police” and decisions by progressive prosecutors “who seem quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street” has turned the issue of crime into a “huge and debilitating issue for the Democratic party, leaving police reform as something of an afterthought.”

And President Joe Biden didn’t help himself when he failed to negotiate with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema to pass a scaled-down version of his "Build Back Better" plan. The president should have known that a half a loaf is better than none.

Purely from an electoral point of view, there is no problem with the Democratic Party standing for equal rights, addressing poverty and racism, promoting public safety and modern approaches to policing, addressing climate change, promoting immigration and supporting abortion rights.

The great majority of Democrats and many swing voters support those initiatives.

But party leaders, and those who advocate for the most progressive approach on each issue, need to understand that making it easier to paint Democrats as extreme undermines the party’s prospects and in turn makes it less likely that the country will adopt policies promoting equal rights, addressing poverty and climate change, and teaching tolerance in our classrooms. 

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t become the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, but he has helped define the Democratic Party for many Americans. 

My old friend and political analyst Charlie Cook has often noted that the Democratic Party’s razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate should have made it clear to Biden, Democratic leaders and the party’s grassroots that the incoming president didn’t have a mandate for dramatic change. Americans wanted to return to normal after four chaotic years of Trump, not embark on a progressive crusade.

Democrats can spend time complaining that the Senate is stacked against them, that redistricting has limited their opportunities in the House and that Manchin and Sinema haven’t supported everything the president has proposed. And they can whine about Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Or, they can figure out how to frame their agenda in a way that appeals to swing voters and yet also signals to progressives that party leaders share their overall goals and priorities.

There is one more thing the Democrats need — some moxie. 

They need more energy and better speakers when they call out Republican lies about “defund the police,” legal abortion until the moment of delivery and absurd GOP claims about how the 2020 election was stolen. And they need to get in more fights with Trump and his MAGA loyalists, branding them as the authoritarians and members of a personality cult that they are.