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Lessons for the center from the front lines of the Far Left’s rise and fall (2018-2023)
In 2018, every mainstream Democrat was looking over their shoulders in fear of the Far Left, egged on by the media and Twitterati.
Five years later, we are back to reality.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the most liberal state in the country. One year ago this week, a progressive firebrand turned pragmatic consensus builder walked unopposed into the Massachusetts Democratic nomination for governor – after refusing1 to even fill out the policy questionnaires of those same Far Left groups who had scared incumbents four years prior. The bubble had burst.
This is the story of how and why that happened – and the lessons for strengthening a pragmatic faction that powers Democrats to win and govern effectively.
Welcome to Centrist School.
From Resistance to a Rejected Revolution
Five years ago, the opposition to Trump had lost its way. Nationwide, niche progressive influencers had shifted “the Resistance” into “Revolution.” People with one foot in the normal world could see the hype was overblown. But the political class – upscale, isolated from non-elites, and influential in campaigns and media – went all-in on the confrontational brand of puritanical progressivism emanating from Brooklyn and Jamaica Plain. Media outlets asked “When Did Everyone Become A Socialist?” and claimed that a single congressional primary would permanently re-shape the Democratic Party.2 Presidential primary candidates ran from the popular Obama legacy into the arms of the Sanderistas.
That mirage has now evaporated. The Far Left fell far short of its vision.3 Its main organizations are falling apart.4 And the party is left to pick up the pieces without a broad base of support to hold off an authoritarian movement.
Who fills the vacuum is a vital question for both the Democratic Party and our democracy. For both concerns, the best answer is a pragmatic faction within the Democratic Party that can win the middle and govern effectively.
For the last five years, we have been studying the Far Left around the country, with a special focus in Massachusetts.5 We have worked to reveal the reality of voters in the middle, elevate their role through research and analysis, expose the head-in-the-sand political science deniers, and take action in the most devastating way possible to both the Far Left mirage and authoritarian threat: simply practicing democracy.
Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll share the most vital lessons to understand what happened, why it happened, and where to go from here. This is a national story, with Massachusetts as the case study.
Massachusetts Epitomizes the Problem: Massachusetts has long been synonymous with liberalism. It has the highest share of Democrats and the weakest state GOP in the country. During the post-Trump Far Left surge, Massachusetts had one of the highest-profile primary upsets (Pressley over Capuano), the hottest presidential pick (Elizabeth Warren), and a cornucopia of Far Left entrepreneurs pledging to overhaul state politics – along with a media that mostly cheered along. Massachusetts has often been a canary in the coal mine for Democratic overreach (see: Scott Brown, 2010) but also for pragmatic Democratic ascendance (see: Dukakis’s Massachusetts Miracle, Kerry turning back Dean in 2004).
Proves the Reality: As the Far Left has fallen nationally, its drop was even more precipitous in Massachusetts. Humiliated in the 2018 general election (Baker got more votes than Warren on the eve of her presidential launch), shut out in 2020 primary challenges, and then completely ignored by presumptive Gov. Maura Healey in 2022 as the candidates endorsed by leading progressives groups lost every statewide primary.6 The state’s Democratic Socialists have had more officials kicked out or arraigned in court than elected over the last four years. After the initial success knocking off Capuano, leftist primary challenges fizzled embarrassingly against Representatives Richie Neal and Stephen Lynch. On policy, the pragmatic, coalition-minded centrism of Governors Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker have continued apace under Maura Healey: rejecting antagonism to business, embracing market-based housing solutions that override local control, continued high performance of public charter schools, expansion of early college programs, etc.
We Analyzed & Played The Game: Through Priorities For Progress and The Welcome Party, our network analyzed and researched the dynamics demonstrating how unrealistic the 2018 proclamations of “Revolution” were. But we also shaped the results, publicizing not only electoral commentary but polling, predictive analysis of election results, randomized control trials, policy proposals, etc. When the Politico headline is “Moderate Massachusetts” or the Boston Globe headline says a leading elected official “Moves from progressive left to center,” the data links back to us. And not because the data is complicated – it is straightforward, both to acquire and to explain. There just is not a national network dedicated to doing it in the same way there is, in spades, on the Far Left.
Massachusetts Was Moderate All Along
In September 2018, it appeared on the surface like the bold predictions made after AOC’s victory might just come true. Ayanna Pressley ousted longtime incumbent Mike Capuano.7 Her victory was hailed in the media as representing “generational change” and fueled the idea that “Democratic machines” were “grinding to a halt.”
But, as the media was breathlessly ushering in the “socialist” future of the Democratic Party, a small group of Massachusetts Democrats sought to understand how the chattering class could be so wrong – and how to reveal reality.
Our goal was to correct the political narrative and, eventually, political reality. We analyzed polling and electoral data, developed frameworks to capture the challenges facing the center, learned from the Far Left, and made predictions that mostly came true.
2018 would be the zenith of left-wing power in the Democratic Party, not the ushering in of a new age. Here are some of the key themes:
The Left Decile: We predicted8 that the threat of primaries, far from remaking the Democratic Party, would be concentrated among a small group of very, very left-wing districts we dubbed the “Left Decile.” This proved correct, both in Massachusetts and nationally; no one outside the Left Decile lost. There were no more Justice Democrats victories, only Baker Democrat victories – so much so that the congressional candidate who most invoked9 Ayanna Pressley literally lost to a former Charlie Baker campaign staffer. After victories in 2018 and 2020, Justice Democrats had their first cycle without taking down an incumbent congress member in 2022.
Moderates Would Win Generals AND Primaries: Even Republican moderates, like Baker, proved more popular than the lefty firebrands. The progressive choice for Governor in 2022 dropped out more than two months before the primary10 while trailing badly in the polls to Healey, who has cast herself as an extension of the Baker tradition.11 Nationally, the most moderate choice won the Democratic Party nomination (Joe Biden). Research conducted on the 2022 elections shows that the Squad and MAGA Republicans both performed significantly worse than Blue Dog Democrats and Main Street Republicans.12 Voters still wanted candidates who engaged the center.
The Far Left Issue Fade: The Far Left was structured to both hold disproportionate power and wield it across issues that were far out of step with the public, a dynamic that inevitably led to the dissipation of those priorities on the national agenda. The excitement around initiatives like Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and “defund the police” faded from the agenda and were replaced by more mainstream ambitions: prescription drug pricing, an all-of-the-above energy policy and economic competitiveness. Lefty hobby horses yielded to the need for real governance.
Left Overreach Still Plagues Democrats: The damage done by the wild-eyed impracticality of the “Revolution” has lingered. Just as MAGA Republican views have done damage to the GOP brand nationally over the years, overreach in blue cities and states continue to damage Democrats across the country by creating a narrative that the party does not concern itself with crime and governance. Data from CNN shows that after 10 years of holding an advantage on which party is more extreme, Democrats lost it following the 2020 election. Voters mostly think Democrats are focused on the wrong things and stand for extreme policies.
Independents Are the Path To Victory: 2022 was the election cycle of the independents. Rumors of their demise greatly exaggerated, independent voters decided control of swing districts, rejecting extremists. We predicted that Split-Ticket Voters Could Save Democrats in Swing States, and they did. Prognosticators who assumed Trump districts would be safely Republican because of the strength of partisanship were shocked to see Marie Gluesenkamp Perez upset Joe Kent, Mary Peltola crush Sarah Palin, and Adam Frisch come within 600 votes of unseating Lauren Boebert. In Maine, moderate Jared Golden pulled off a massive overperformance in a district Trump won by 6 points, while Oregon progressive Jamie McLeon-Skinner lost in a district Biden won by 9 points. Such volatility would be impossible if independents and swing voters had gone extinct.
Maura Healey is only the latest manifestation of the new “Massachusetts Miracle” – the disciplined, voter-driven resistance to the Far Left’s siren song, which seduces with gauzy and clickbaity promises of Marxist utopia but ultimately collides with political and practical realities. Healey’s pragmatic ascendance was dominant but quiet, refashioning the state’s political landscape not just in her image, but in that of the voters – resulting in a durable model for Democrats everywhere, one that wins a clear majority and governs effectively.
This is not to say that the center has won - only that the Far Left has lost. In order for the Center Left to win – sustainably, long-term, and everywhere – candidates, campaigns, and those who support them would benefit from learning the lessons of how the Far Left once punched so far above its weight.
We need a “we” – a community that integrates insights like those we have learned from Massachusetts, and has fun doing it.
Across the next nine posts, we will cover what we believe happened over the last five years, and what it means for the future. We’ll cover what we did and saw in Massachusetts, what it means for the party nationally, and how the Center Left can seize the Far Left’s moment of weakness to build a durable coalition to win and govern effectively.
We still have a lot to learn, but one thing we know is it’s way more fun and effective doing this alongside others. As part of this project, we invite you to share what you have learned, what we get wrong, and how we can be part of a community of happy warriors for pragmatic progress.
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“PASS — State Attorney General Maura Healey declined to seek the endorsements of two major progressive groups in another sign she doesn’t plan to run a gubernatorial campaign tailored to the left.”
Same outlet that pitched “Socialism is … a new way to date in Brooklyn” now blames the failure to end capitalism in the United States on AOC simply not trying hard enough.
The state that brought you, in no particular order and in several cases due to center-out coalition building: Affordable Care Act forerunner RomneyCare, same-sex marriage, public education, the abolition of slavery, Thanksgiving, the fluffernutter sandwich, and the American Revolution. You’re welcome.
“Progressives’ Bad Night” had its own section in the POLITICO Playbook following the 2022 Massachusetts Democratic primary
It’s worth briefly exploring how strange it is that Pressley’s victory over Capuano was seen as marking an ideological shift. Pressley had been a mainstream Democrat who stood up for Israel and endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Capuano was on the left of the Democratic Caucus, consistently voting against the Iraq War, in favor of Medicare For All, etc. Contemporaneous leftist reporting actually suggested that Capuano was the more left-wing choice. The Intercept summarized the prior history with: “As Sanders stumped for universal health care and tuition-free college, Pressley declared at a Clinton campaign press conference in Boston that ‘plans without price tags are simply pandering.’”
“They’ve been best friends for so long now that their lives seem like they’ve always been intertwined.”
The Boston Globe’s campaign announcement article for the Far Left candidate for governor ended up with our prediction that her progressive brand would hurt her in the primary: ““Being someone who will compromise, who’s pragmatic, focused on management, less partisan — that’s not just a general election strategy, that’s actually the most effective primary strategy.” She dropped out before election day.
The Healey campaign launch at the end of the Baker Administration began with “Continue what’s working”
Extremism penalty found yet again from Stanford research on Election-Denying Republican Candidates Underperformed in the 2022 Midterms and Split-Ticket on Electability, Ideology, and the 2022 Midterms