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Democrats swing from naivety to bitterness
Democrats are on the brink of catastrophe in 2022. We must discern what is in our control and do something about it.
Doesn’t it feel like Democrats are refusing to accept the things they cannot change? President Obama’s favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote the Serenity Prayer a century ago, and his biggest takeaway was to avoid “swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism” — a phrase that could serve as an unfortunate mantra for today’s Democratic Party.
More on that below, but first here is what our team was reading, mulling, and acting on this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
Mandatory read from Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic on the origins of a new center-left movement with important framing of the present and future from Ruy Teixeira, Will Marshall, and Elaine Kamarck (whose Brookings paper on primaries has shaped our view of what’s possible)
Thomas B. Edsall on how and whether the Democrats can pry America back from Donald Trump, including some real talk from Theda Skocpol, and unfortunate framing of “minoritarian rule” by the GOP (the party with the last three presidents to get 53% of the popular vote — a threshold Democrats haven’t hit since 1964)
Podcast from Aliza Astrow and Matt Robinson on why Democrats are losing ground with reasonable voters in critical battlegrounds
Study with more data on how political elites are to the left of voters
Democrats’ inability to discern between what can be changed and what cannot has never been more apparent — or more dangerous. As we noted in our recent Slate interview, the far-left has created an alternate reality where even historic investments are considered cuts, and where a messaging bill drafted long before threats posed by January 6th is the only acceptable step for preserving democracy.
The odds were never in the Democrats’ favor heading into the 2022 midterm elections, driven by dynamics largely outside of immediate influence — the Four Horsemen of the 2022 Apocalypse:
Decennial Reapportionment: The 2020 census counts disproportionately benefited red states at the expense of blue ones. Solidly Republican states like Texas, Florida, and Montana gained seats while Democratic strongholds like California, Illinois, and New York lost them.
Decennial Redistricting: Not only does the GOP hold more states, but it is more willing to aggressively gerrymander them, too.
Independent Redistricting: A growing number of Democratic-led states across the country embraced independent redistricting commissions to draft their new Congressional maps — a decision that has cost the party somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 seats that it could have claimed through gerrymandering.
Midterm Penalty: The American electorate has a “reflexive instinct to check the party in power.” As a result, post-presidential year midterms have a well-documented track-record of delivering substantial losses to the party in the White House.
And yet alongside these systemic — and now unchangeable barriers — there are many things Democrats can change, and in time to win in 2022. One of the concrete lessons to be learned from the swings against Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey is that the party is clearly losing what Derek Thompson calls “the vibes war,” and lacks an effective brand to win over the less-polarized, less-partisan voters who still swing close elections (even in our hyper-polarized era).
Additionally, there are a disproportionate number of departing Democratic representatives — as seen on the House’s regularly updated and cheekily-titled “Casualty List.” This time around, however, that name is an understatement: the extent of the 2022 list makes the Democratic Party’s already-unfavorable 2022 prospects look less like a “casualty” and more like a “catastrophe.”
The good news is that there is not a lack of turf to compete on: as WelcomePAC co-founder Lauren Harper wrote in NBC News last month, there are dozens of Congressional districts where Trump won in 2020 but where a brand-differentiated candidate could credibly challenge an anti-democracy incumbent while welcoming in new voters and improving the party’s brand.
Time to apply the AOC business plan to the problem in the middle
Combine the Democrats’ mounting casualties with the party’s current razor-thin majority in the House, and it would seem that they have no choice but to begin thinking differently about next year. And that different approach will not — and, given political and organizational dynamics, probably cannot — come from the House Democrats’ official campaigning arm. The DCCC recently updated its “Frontline” list of priority candidates bringing the total number of targets down from 32 in March to just 26 today. As noted in Roll Call, the updated list further reflects “House Democrats’ strategy of focusing their resources on defending incumbents, rather than seeking to expand their majority.”
This strategy should not be viewed as a disappointment — as we noted last week, such long-term, high-upside approaches are now best operationalized by outside groups. Building a faction of big-tent Democrats who can authentically create a differentiated brand as members of a burgeoning of a big-tent party is something that must be done within an organized ecosystem outside the formal party structure, a path demonstrated by Justice Democrats and the Bernie and AOC left-wing bloc.
As Elizaebth Warren has noted, such organizing is more like a muscle than a battery: the more we use it, the stronger it gets. We must actively welcome in the skeptical middle, the pro-democracy conservatives, the former Republicans — both as voters and as candidates. These are the kinds of candidates who can win in the right-of-center districts that are often uncontested; places where continued losses are all but assured without candidates who can overcome the current Democratic brand.
Documentaries to inform the future
If you have some free time over holiday break, consider watching two documentaries on Democratic upsets in the midterms:
Knock Down The House on far-left primary challenges to incumbents in 2018 and
Housequake on Rahm Emanuel’s work to recruit brand-differentiated candidates like Tammy Duckworth in 2006
Emanuel once advised that the key to achieving durable success was to “be idealistic and ruthless.” In their electoral politics, the far-left ecosystem has taken that to heart - inspiring millions while striking fear in the minds of incumbents overreacting to the primary losses of their peers.
Yet in broader policy and communications, the far left — with talk of adding Supreme Court justices or overhauling our entire political system — isn’t ruthless, it’s ridiculous.
Members of the big-tent majority of the Democratic Party must apply similar electoral idealism and ruthlessness, with programming and rhetoric that both inspire potential allies in the center and build the on-ramps necessary to make that bloc electorally powerful. Uniting all defenders of democracy can put dozens more seats in play (and they must) democracy cannot survive the fracturing of this potential coalition.
It will take a lot of courage and wisdom for Democrats to discern what we cannot change — and follow through on changing what we can.
Luckily, it doesn’t need to be all Democrats or even the formal Democratic Party apparatus. We simply need enough of us to ensure a party that respects democracy remains in power.