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Democrats Can’t Blame the Left for Their Lackluster Election Results

The Democratic leadership went into this election with a strategy: stick to the center, avoid the Left, and promise bipartisanship. When the results proved disastrous, guess who they decided to blame: the Left.

A study finds a negative correlation between ballot performance and the extent to which Democratic candidates moved to the right. (Mark Makela / Getty Images)

Had Democrats delivered the landslide many were promising right up until election day, it’s not difficult to imagine the conclusions that would have ensued. Having defeated Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination and run the pathologically centrist Biden in his place, centrists would have viewed the result as ultimate proof of the Left’s irrelevance.

We all know, of course, that the election yielded nothing of the kind. Despite Nancy Pelosi’s projections of confidence, Democrats will actually have fewer seats than they did in the House after the 2018 midterms. The Senate, meanwhile, hangs in the balance, with runoffs set to determine whether the party will command even a slim majority when Biden takes office in January.

Needless to say, these lackluster results have done nothing to prevent centrist Democrats from drawing the conclusion they were always likely to draw, i.e. that the left and its causes need to be pushed further to the margins.

Early shots to this effect were fired in a caucus conference call last week as senior party figures rushed to assign blame to everything except their own chosen campaign strategy. If “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn reportedly said in reference to the looming runoffs.

Pelosi, for her part, appeared to say much the same, warning members of her caucus to focus on an “agenda of lowering health care [costs], better paychecks, building infrastructure” — the apparent implication being that the agenda so acerbically referenced by Clyburn risks getting in the way. The most vitriolic comments of all came from Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic House member and former CIA operative from Virginia who narrowly secured reelection. As Politico reported soon after the call:

[Spanberger] … grew angry as she warned her party against some of the rhetoric she argued hurt moderate Democrats like herself, saying the election results were a “failure.” “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again,” Spanberger said on the call, according to two sources. “Nobody should be talking about socialism.” Spanberger also warned that if Democrats kept up their tactics in 2022: “We will get f—— torn apart.”

On its face, the idea that left-wing slogans and causes cost the Democrats is quite the yarn given the wider context of the election. Had the Left gotten its preferred candidate and run on some version of its agenda only to receive a poor showing at election time, some reckoning would certainly be in order. But that patently isn’t what happened.

Centrist Democrats, in fact, very much got to run with the strategy and the campaign they preferred and, until election day, many were confidently saying it was about to yield landslide results. Notwithstanding their popularity among rank-and-file Democrats, marquee left agenda items like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All simply weren’t central to the party’s national messaging and were quite actively repudiated by the Biden campaign — which itself even sank big money into law and order ads to denounce “rioting” and “looting.”

Conservatives like Spanberger, of course, would claim their Republican opponents leveraged the Left and its agenda to tar them regardless. As Politico’s report on the Democratic caucus call noted, her campaign was subject to an attack ad which accused her, among other things, of wanting to “defund the police” (though the ad’s big villain is, perhaps revealingly, Pelosi rather than any figure from the Left).

The most obvious rejoinder is that Republicans have been using the same playbook against Democrats for decades. Revisit any of the past few election cycles and you’ll find that the GOP message box has almost invariably branded centrist liberals as dangerous extremists regardless of how tame and diffident the countervailing Democratic narrative was.

Arguably no one was subjected to more of these attacks than Barack Obama and he won the presidency twice — Republican invocation of the dreaded S-word doing nothing to prevent him from taking Florida in both 2008 and 2012.

These facts aside, there’s also plenty of empirical evidence working against the centrist effort to blame the Left for the Democrats’ lackluster electoral performance. For one thing, plenty of progressive ballot initiatives succeeded even where Democrats failed — most notably in Florida, where a measure to raise the minimum wage passed by double digits despite Trump’s narrow single digit victory.

As both Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have argued, no fewer than a hundred twelve House cosponsors of Medicare for All stood for election and not a single one lost (at least eight Democratic House members who ran against Medicare for All, meanwhile, were defeated). Of the Green New Deal’s ninety-three cosponsors, ninety-two will be returning to Congress in January. As Ben Burgis points out, left-wing organizing work in states like Michigan also played a significant role in ensuring Biden’s victory at the top of the ballot.

The biggest tell so far, however, is found in an analysis commissioned jointly by the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats. Shared with the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, who recently published its top line chart in his newsletter, the study finds a negative correlation between ballot performance and the extent to which Democratic candidates moved to the right. In other words: the more Democrats in swing districts ran on the Right, the fewer votes they were likely to receive.

In short, evidence that the Left is the electoral albatross some centrists claim is in short supply. Running a centrist strategy from top to bottom was supposed to deliver Democrats a landslide victory.

It didn’t, and that failure isn’t the Left’s to wear.