In the months since the Democrats’ underwhelming performance in last year’s election, we’ve more or less been able to figure out why the party did so poorly despite a historically unpopular opponent and the two world-historical crises he presided over.
As I’ve argued before in this space, Joe Biden and the Democrats repeated the same failed campaign approach they had tried in 2016, hoping the pandemic and resulting economic devastation would make up for its flaws this time. They had no audible economic message, allowing Trump to easily paint the vote as a false choice between either wrangling the pandemic or maintaining a robust economy. And their decision to forego in-person door-knocking hurt their turnout efforts, especially with Latinos, while letting energized Trump supporters persuade and mobilize voters of all kinds without challenge. This all combined with the steady march of partisan polarization and class dealignment that’s been accelerating since 2016.
Surprise, surprise: a new 2020 postelection autopsy comes to many of these same conclusions — conclusions that observers on the Left have been stressing for months, pulling their hair out as the Democratic Party’s CIA caucus sought to publicly put the blame on the party’s handful of socialists, and popular, commonsense ideas like Medicare for All. But what genuinely is a surprise is who authored this particular autopsy: Third Way, the corporate- — especially Wall Street– — funded think tank that exists to shape Democratic policy for the benefit of tycoons like the Kochs.
Naturally, the report’s diagnosis doesn’t overlap perfectly with the Left’s, but let’s first run through the parts that do agree. One was the messaging failure. Despite pleas from Bernie Sanders advisers like Chuck Rocha throughout the campaign, the report notes the party once again both took Latino voters for granted and treated them as a monolith, not accounting for differences along regional, national, or socioeconomic lines. The resulting loss of Latino support was the “lynchpin” in Democratic defeats in Florida, Texas, and New Mexico, states the report.
More broadly, just as in 2016, Democrats “leaned too heavily on ‘anti-Trump’ rhetoric without harnessing a strong economic frame.” The report quotes officials and campaign staff complaining that “it was the lack of an economic plan that really hurt,” and that leaning on nothing but “Donald Trump sucks” led to Biden/Republican ticket-splitting around the country, with the GOP painting the party as out of touch with economic concerns. This overlaps with the findings of a Navigator Research survey of three thousand voters, which found that the majority of Biden-Republican ticket-splitters put a higher priority on the economy (and actually tended to side with progressive positions on economic policy).
Finally, there was the decision to cancel in-person canvassing, at the same time that the GOP launched a furious door-knocking and voter registration effort. “Many of those included in this analysis said in hindsight Democrats could have been on doors safely in more places — and Democrats would have won several close races if they had gone back on the doors either sooner or in a more robust way than they did,” states the report. This point was made repeatedly on the record by a host of the party’s leading lights after the election and was almost certainly responsible for not just the drop in support among Latinos but for the Republicans’ crucial triumphs at the state level.
The fact that a report from a left-punching corporate think tank has come to many of the same conclusions as Jacobin readers about last year’s Democratic failure may seem strange but should be heartening. It’s further proof that the arguments advanced by the Left in the wake of this electoral disaster aren’t just things we say as leftists to make ourselves feel better but grounded in objective reality.
Where progressives and socialists will take issue with the report is its predictable attempt to pin the blame on them for this disaster. A significant chunk explains the election result as a product of the GOP successfully painting Democratic candidates as “radicals” and “socialists” and tying them to “defund the police” — an activist demand that no elected Democrat or candidate actually ran on.
Amusingly though, the report undermines its own arguments here. In the passage charging that Democrats couldn’t counter the “socialist” label, the only specific example cited is a complaint by New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski that he struggled to shake appeals to QAnon from his GOP opponent. “We were talking issues and our opponent’s record in the state senate. They were talking about pedophiles. QAnon became a huge presence in our race, and drowned out conversations about policy,” he’s quoted as saying. (Malinowski has since been embroiled in yet another congressional insider trading scandal).
Meanwhile, on the topics of both socialism and defunding the police, the report makes clear that if Democrats found these concepts that toxic, they could have countered this with more effective messaging and by engaging directly with voters. “The primary problem with Defund was not Defund, but the lack of an economic message,” one “major Democratic funder” is quoted as saying. In fact, the report cites two polls that show that while “defunding the police” doesn’t have popular support, “reallocating” or “redirecting” police resources and funding actually does. In other words, people support what “defunding the police” actually means, just not whatever they’ve been told it means.
Could the same principle apply to socialism too? Real-world case studies suggest so. There’s of course the example of Bernie Sanders, a lifelong socialist who simultaneously appealed to liberals as well as Trump voters and Fox News audiences and who has consistently remained one of the country’s most popular politicians.
Arguably a clearer test case were the pivotal Georgia Senate runoff elections this past January, where the Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff faced a ’roided-up version of this exact GOP fearmongering that was supposed to have sunk the party in November. The corrupt Republican incumbents relentlessly labeled the two Democrats “radicals,” “socialists,” and “Marxists” (including thirteen times in a single televised debate), conjured apocalyptic visions of the country’s fall to socialism, and warned their victory would see the government controlled by Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who would move to defund the police and give undocumented immigrants the right to vote.
Of course, they won anyway. According to the report, now Sen. Warnock in particular — the most frequent target of the GOP’s thinly veiled race-baiting charges of radicalism — outperformed both Clinton and Biden with the black vote that proved crucial to the Democrats’ success there. In fact, while typically Republican-voting white rural voters saw a significant drop in turnout for the runoffs, black and urban/inner-ring voters saw fewer drop-offs than other constituencies.
What the report conspicuously doesn’t mention is how and why. The answer is that shortly before the elections, socialists including Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, with a typically lazy assist from Trump, made $2,000 direct payments a central demand for pandemic relief, which Warnock, Ossoff, and their door-knockers quickly made the focal point of their campaigns. Even Joe Biden, who had refused to embrace the demand during the whole campaign and was visibly annoyed to have to sign on to it, made the idea the crux of his pitch to Georgia voters. The results speak for themselves.
In other words, however voters feel about “defund” — or about whatever caricature of socialism they’ve been misled with — they clearly like the economic policies thought up and pushed by socialists. Third Way is correct that candidates need an economic message to be successful, even if the think tank won’t say exactly what that is. Feel free to fill in the blanks yourself.