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What the Center Can Learn From AOC
Risks to American democracy require an entrepreneurial response. What can those seeking to win the middle learn from the far-left’s success?
“Couldn’t this be a moment when entrepreneurs could bring supply, demand, and the moment together in the political marketplace to create an expanded pro-democracy, governing majority party?”
Bill Kristol posed this question last June as part of two articles in The Bulwark proposing three theses in search of political entrepreneurship and then seven entrepreneurial paths toward a Democratic majority (of which the WelcomePAC model was one).
When it comes to the highly inefficient political marketplace, opportunities for entrepreneurship abound — for good and for ill. And in recent years, the most dynamic entrepreneurial activity has taken place on the far-left.
In his initial galvanizing article in the Bulwark last year, Kristol laid out three core theses for entrepreneurs seeking to build a Democratic majority:
1. There is a pool of ex-Republican voters (and conceivably, office holders) available to the Democratic party.
2. Many current Democratic voters are open to including these future former Republicans in their coalition.
3. It would be good to move the relative strength of the two parties off the current knife’s edge, and for the Democrats to become the nation’s majority party as quickly and as decisively as possible.
To discern how and where we can act upon these theses, we’ve looked at what we can learn from successful entrepreneurs on the far-left. In a post two weeks ago, we explored the far-left’s meteoric rise and made the case that the movement seems to be running out of steam. In last week’s post, we meditated on Saul Alinsky’s prescient forecast of how today’s far-left entrepreneurs are breaking the rules activists must follow to maximize impact and avoid blowback.
This week, we’re breaking down why the far-left entrepreneurs had outsized impact the last five years:
Targeted unprepared incumbents, creating a shock that focuses (and scares)
Fed the media delicious bits of conflict, novelty, and interesting characters
Built a symbiotic relationship with the far-right, a vicious but profitable cycle to raise far-left profiles
Harnessed unprecedented energy after Trump’s 2016 victory with focus in deep-blue areas
Defined the post-2016 election lessons to set terms of debate in 2020
We’ll explore these tactics in greater detail below — with an eye for what the center-left can (and can’t) replicate. First, a few things our team was reading this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Thomas Edsall in the New York Times on how Democrats are making life too easy for Republicans:
“What we can be sure of is that the Democrats can’t go on forever with this much of a gulf between what the majority of progressive party activists think the party should stand for and what the majority of Americans think it should.”
2. Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post on why who votes first in the Democratic primaries matters:
“Democrats may also want to reward states that have a good record of picking the eventual presidential winner. That would keep South Carolina (where both Joe Biden and Barack Obama won) in the mix. If Democrats want to check more boxes (e.g., a state that the party recently reclaimed or with a big metropolitan center), then Georgia would be a solid choice.”
3. Ruy Teixeira in The Liberal Patriot on the Democrats’ common sense problem:
“The Democrats are bleeding voters, particularly working class voters of all races. There are lots of reasons for this and I’ve written about some of them. One important throughline here is what we might call the common sense problem. As in, Democrats seem to have abandoned it in many areas. This helps explain why there hasn’t been a ‘Trump disenchantment dividend’ for the Democrats as the former President’s popularity has fallen and for that matter a ‘nutty GOP politicians’ dividend as various Republican pols do and say fairly crazy things. Voters just aren’t sure the Democrats are that well-grounded either.”
Copying the Far-Left Playbook (Where Possible)
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign was more than just an election effort: it galvanized a new ecosystem on the far-left that connected a new generation of talented entrepreneurs and provided the motivation and coherence necessary to accelerate the development of new organizations.
Last year in NBC News, we described how the ex-Bernie entrepreneurs behind Justice Democrats differentiated themselves “not only through electorally questionable dogmatism, but also through Silicon Valley-like disruption that embraces risk: ‘Move fast and break things’”. As we wrote then, Justice Democrats is just one component of a vast far-left ecosystem that includes a mix of other organizations such as Our Revolution, Middle Seat, and Progressives Consulting:
“In just a few short years, an interlocking group of political entrepreneurs has launched more than a half-dozen related nonprofits, PACs, LLCs, think tanks and polling outfits aimed at mounting primary challenges against mainstream House and Senate Democrats and influencing local races. As outlined in their ‘Future of the Party’ report, they believe the Democratic Party ‘simply cannot move to the center’ on policies and must win without the ‘mushy middle.’”
The far-left took enormous risks that, while pushing the Democrats further to the left, have jeopardized the party’s stance with too many voters in the mainstream. Let’s examine their tactics and how they can inform a center-left entrepreneurial ecosystem that welcomes, rather than alienates, voters in the middle.
Here’s the playbook.
1. Target unprepared incumbents
Justice Democrats’ power came from a handful of successful primary challenges to establishment incumbents in the 2018 and 2020 cycles. At the time, many of these incumbents were unprepared and largely unresponsive to shifting dynamics among the primary electorate.
What doesn’t translate: As POLITICO wrote at the time of AOC’s upset victory over a high-ranking member of the party establishment, “Crowley missed the political groundswell happening in his district.” On the Democratic side, many incumbents are now far more responsive to rumblings on the ground than they were in 2018. This isn’t surprising: the political scientists Elaine Kamarck and James Wallner have demonstrated that even the perceived threat of a primary challenge is enough to cause incumbents to “adjust their behavior proactively to better defend against potential challengers”.
What can translate: As demonstrated in our Conceding Democracy analysis from the last two quarters, far too many Republican incumbents are getting a free pass in winnable congressional districts across the country. These Republicans include Lauren Boebert (CO-03) and Doug Lamborn (CO-05), both of whom have sided with Trump over our democracy and neither of whom had a challenger with more than $100,000 on hand by the start of the year. By diligently recruiting and supporting brand-differentiated candidates tailored to these districts, an ecosystem of center-left organizations have an opportunity to surprise GOP incumbents unprepared for a serious challenge.
2. Feed the media the conflict and novelty it craves
The most effective far-left candidates were able to harness a sensationalistic media environment to amplify their message. By providing the media with a fresh injection of conflict and novelty, savvy candidates like AOC were able to catapult themselves to stardom and build strong and devoted fan (and donor) bases.
What doesn’t translate: The far-left sucked up much of the oxygen in the room with its loud and extreme slogans such as “Abolish ICE,” “Defund the Police,” and “Medicare for All”. Not only were those slogans well fitted for the Twitter era of American politics, but they were so far outside of the mainstream as to pique the country’s curiosity — and concern. Candidates and organizations seeking support from voters in the middle will not likely find success in extreme rhetoric.
What can translate: Voters have demonstrated an eagerness to support candidates who can build authentic brands distinct from their national parties. While this formula is more complicated than adopting out-of-the-mainstream policy positions like “Free This” or “Abolish That”, there are clear demonstration points and a major need for investment in raising the profile of candidates (and organizations) who do not comply with the current hyperpartisan political narrative. A more coherent and dynamic “Squad” in the center would certainly create conflict and, at this point, be novel.
3. Build symbiotic relationships with the alleged adversaries
The far-left and far-right play off each other to generate fodder for their respective audiences. By invoking the specter of the other, each side is able to fire up its base and raise gobs of small-dollar donations. Anyone whose email address has been sold to far-left candidates sees plenty of “CAN YOU BELIEVE what FOX NEWS said about ILHAN OMAR???” in their inbox.
But the far-left takes it a step further: they also attack moderate Democrats — especially in earned media and digital fundraising — without a reciprocal positive effect for the center-left. Both the far-left and far-right win when they pick high-profile fights with each other (e.g. MTG and AOC battling it out on Twitter), but only the far-left wins in the tussle with mainstream Democrats. The far-left’s success in clearly defining their dual enemies (Trump Republicans and mainstream Democrats) allows the center-left to now do the same.
What doesn’t translate: The symbiotic relationship between the far-left and far-right works through each side highlighting extremism at the opposite fringe of the political spectrum. By virtue of being more reasonable in both temperament and substance, most center-left candidates and issues receive less attention and cannot build a clearly symbiotic relationship with the extremes.
What can translate: The good news for those in the center is that the far-left and far-right are both alienating and unpopular to voters in the middle. And the dynamics of a more constructive debate between entrepreneurial entities on the far-left and center-left is ready to be harnessed. There is clear demand from voters and mainstream Democrats activated post-Trump, but the benefit is currently mostly flowing one way. The far-left was not as well-defined or prominent five years ago, which would have made a strategy of defining candidates and organizations as distinct would not have made much sense. But far-left success and brand-building and changing the conversation has shifted that reality — Democrats can now run against the far-left, because people know what it is.
4. Harness unprecedented energy after Trump’s election
Far-left entrepreneurs harnessed the incredible Democratic energy unleashed by Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 to bolster their movement. In the aftermath of the election, ex-Bernie staffers spun up a handful of new groups such as Justice Democrats and Our Revolution to operationalize the aims of the 2016 campaign in elections across the country.
What doesn’t translate: There is not a Trump-winning-the-first-time shock event on the horizon (that we can predict), and even something as vivid and horrifying as January 6th does not compel the same upswing in energy.
What can translate: The political marketplace has grown (more than doubling to $14.4 billion from 2016 to 2020) and shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to loads more money, this means more people and more attention invested in politics — and likely invested for the long haul. Entrepreneurship can flourish in a market doubling every four years.
5. Define post-2016 election lessons to shape 2020 terms of debate
In the aftermath of 2016, the far-left leveraged its growing momentum and public stature to define the issues and purity tests that would drive the 2020 Democratic primaries. Most candidates for president signed onto Bernie-esque policies, buying into the far-left groupthink that gripped the debates. But while the candidates might have swung left, the voters went with Biden and sent a clear message.
What doesn’t translate: In the words of the writer Upton Sinclair, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Both the far-left staffers (whom Rahm Emanuel referred as “the professional left”) and the media stand to profit from overstating the power and popularity of the far-left. The fact that the far-left remains fringe and lacking in mainstream appeal will not totally change that.
What can translate: In the electoral viability tussle between center-left and the far-left, the facts fall squarely in the center-left’s court. With each passing election (Biden clinching the 2020 nomination, Eric Adams winning the NYC mayoral race, Nina Turner losing in deep-blue Cleveland, etc.), it becomes clearer and clearer that the far-left has maxed out its limited public appeal and that the center-left holds the key to a Democratic majority. As Ruy Teixeira and the team at The Liberal Patriot explain week after week, the fringe stances of the far-left are way out of sync with the sensibilities of the median voter — and that will cost Democrats if we don’t find a way to speak authentically to them. With the facts on our side, we just need to do a more rigorous job prosecuting the case.
The entrepreneurs who powered the far-left’s rise to prominence benefited from fortuitous timing. But they were ready to take advantage of these trends.
As the midterms approach with democracy itself on the line, it is unclear if there will be a Bernie-like catalyst for center-left entrepreneurs or a massive event like Trump’s election that accelerated the 2016-2020 growth of the far-left.
But we do know that strong lessons, sufficient ingredients, and market demand exists for entrepreneurs on the center to “create an expanded pro-democracy, governing majority party”.
It's time to move fast and fix things.