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The 8% in 2020 and Today
Democratic voters & constituents rejected the Online Left in 2020, but there is little stopping the risk-takers
A year ago today, we caught a ton of flak on Twitter for our NBC op-ed laying out the data showing that “after all the hype about the progressive turn in the Democratic Party, voters aren’t signing up for revolution when they get into the voting booth.”
As of the Nevada caucus last Feb. 22, the prediction markets had not caught up to that reality. FiveThirtyEight gave Sanders a 2 in 3 shot at winning the most pledged delegates, and the RealClearPolitics betting average had the former vice president in the single digits.
The disconnect between the cozy Online Left world and the reality of Democratic primary voters was exposed a year ago, just as it was exposed in the 2018 midterms. And that’s a big reason Joe Biden is president today instead of the Former Guy.
But the gap between perception and reality only seems to be growing. As political scientist Matt Grossmann noted after the November 2020 election, while the results were interpreted by more neutral parties as bad for the Online Left, that faction is “stronger now in its insular bubble” and can resist facing that reality.
Ideological sorting - geographically, professionally, socially, and especially digitally - can leave the Left perplexed by election results. Many are shocked to realize conservatives constitute a plurality of the country and that just 1 in 4 Americans identifies as liberal.
That makes it possible for a well-intentioned person to credibly claim they don’t know anyone who doesn’t agree with progressives on everything - and then misinterpret the positions of mainstream Democrats based on the misinformation that characterizes the bubble.
Telling someone cocooned within the Online Left why Americans vote the way they do is like asking a fish how the water is. What’s water?
We tried to understand that water again last week. The news earlier this month that several far-left activists had launched a SuperPAC to run negative ads against Senator Joe Manchin (and recruit a primary challenger) was roundlyridiculed as a costly mistake and waste of progressive energy.
But this is dangerous because it is not simply a strategic blunder. It is the natural outgrowth of an expanding segment of the ideological left that embraces risk - and of weakened political party institutions ill-equipped to diminish the risk-takers. One year after forecasting the imminent crumbling of the Online Left ascendency, last week we returned to the NBC News opinion page to put these same challenges into the 2021 context.
The response was far different from a year ago, with frustrations that the term progressive has been ‘hijacked,’ and longstanding feelings that “the only people willing to burn down the house are those who know they will survive the fire.”
In their podcast launching their Manchin ads, a founder of the newest iteration of the Online Left clicks & cash cohort noted that “You can crank this stuff out, there’s no committee to get this through. It's literally just you have this idea … next thing you know this shit’s on the radio.” (9:40) As manypolitical scientists have noted, the weakness of political parties has contributed to political polarization. Yes, they have no Democratic Party committees to go through before launching their attack ads, none of the gatekeepers that were a hallmark of 20th-century politics. In short, there is no one to manage the risk that the startup actors present to the party -- and, by extension, the country -- as a whole.
Notably absent from the new PAC is the founders’ prior experience in their target state of West Virginia. This aggression towards Manchin is not new -- PAC co-founder Zack Exzley and Saikat Chakrabarti were featured in the New York Times in 2017 as having “their sights on Manchin” and endorsing his challenger. That challenger was Paula Jean Swearengin, one of the four Justice Democrats candidates heavily featured in the Knocking Down The House documentary. She lost the primary to Joe Manchin by 40 points in 2018, then won a primary in 2020 before losing the general election by 43 points.
In more than thirty minutes discussing this new PAC on their podcast, they make no mention of this experience in West Virginia -- which was not only ultimately fruitless, in two straight cycles, but also imperiled the senator who now underpins Democrats’ fragile majority.
When they first sought to challenge Manchin in March 2017, he said “If you want to go ahead and beat me up in a primary then go ahead. All it does is take the resources from the general.” Four years later, there is no mention of this type of risk intrinsic to challenging Democrats’ most electorally vulnerable senator. No mention of federal judges -- no mention of any downside at all, really, which seems odd for anyone touting an investment approach.
This attack group seeking clicks and cash is part of the 8% of Americans described as “Progressive Activists” by More In Common, a group working across several countries to combat the “similar forces threatening democratic societies.” Their in-depth study Hidden Tribes broke American voters down into eight sub-groups, one of which captures this subset marked by specific traits and attitudes distinct from other groups. They are:
The researchers note that “Their own circumstances are secure. They feel safer than any group, which perhaps frees them to devote more attention to larger issues of social justice in their society. They have an outsized role in public debates.”
The outsized role of this 8 percent drives the false narrative, and that ballpark figure is consistent across many aspects of our politics. Gallup’s most recent survey on the direction of the Democratic Party shows the Big Tent Party is in this moment almost perfectly evenly distributed on preference for Democrats’’s future direction. Thirty-one percent believe the Democratic Party should stay the course, with 34% hoping for more liberal, and 34 percent seeking more moderate.
The relatively small slice of Americans who want the party moving left must be heard, and their outsized role guarantees they will be.
The problem is they’re only listening to each other, and achieving progressive aspirations will require recognition that voters still aren’t signing up for revolution - and acknowledging the real life cost posed by risk-takers.