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Even in Solidly Blue States, Democrats Aren’t Pursuing Serious Progressive Change

Is it really true that if the Democrats had big majorities in both houses of Congress, we’d see the sort of sweeping change that party stalwarts promise in their election campaigns? Here’s a good test: look at the blue states, where Democrats govern virtually alone. It’s not a pretty picture.

Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, speaks during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Among the most memorable sections of Thomas Frank’s 2016 book Listen, Liberal is the chapter on blue states. Setting out to interrogate a common refrain from national Democrats, Frank’s line of inquiry is a straightforward and useful one:

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their incomprehensible Wall Street reform legislation — when you press them on any of these things, they reply automatically that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered in the congressional districts. And, besides, it’s hard to turn an ocean liner. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Clinton and Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

It’s an argument you hear all the time, and one that’s now recurring thanks to the Biden administration’s steady climbdown from many of its own campaign promises: Democrats, or so the story goes, would do everything short of seizing the means of production if only they had the votes and faced fewer institutional barriers. The myth is a tidy and convenient one, and rings true insofar as America’s political institutions are quite obstructive and antidemocratic.

But what happens, Frank asks, when Democrats govern with big legislative majorities and little to no obstruction? An obvious and recent national example (and one which hardly suggests Democrats suddenly legislate a transformative agenda when given the presidency, a big majority in the House, and sixty votes in the Senate) is 2009–10, but there are arguably many better case studies represented by Democrat-controlled governments at the state level.

In an excellent video essay recently published by the New York Times entitled Blue States, You’re the Problem, Johnny Harris and Binyamin Appelbaum set out to answer exactly this question for themselves. Their basic method, like Frank’s, is to contrast official Democratic commitments (in this case, as represented by the party’s 2020 platform document) with actual outcomes in various blue states where liberal lawmakers effectively wield total control of both state and local governments. The results are, to say the least, quite revealing.

In California, for example, housing policies have effectively made NIMBYism the law of the land, with municipal zoning laws rigged to privilege the construction of pricey, low-density homes and liberal residents in some cases voting to overturn measures designed to increase affordable housing. Here’s the 2020 Democratic platform on housing:

Housing in America should be stable, accessible, safe, healthy, energy efficient, and, above all, affordable. No one should have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, so families have ample resources left to meet their other needs and save for retirement.

Washington state, meanwhile, boasts a tax system more regressive than even Texas, such that the poorest 20 percent of residents pay nearly 18 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes while the top 1 percent pays a miniscule 3 percent. Here’s what the Democratic platform says about taxation:

Our tax system has been rigged against the American people by big corporations and their lobbyists, and by Republican politicians who dole out tax cuts to their biggest donors while leaving working families to struggle.

School districts in Illinois (specifically Chicago) and Connecticut have effectively been gerrymandered so that children who live in wealthy neighborhoods get educated at well-funded, palatial schools while those who live mere miles (and, in some cases, mere meters) away sit in crumbling classrooms without proper resources. Once more, with feeling:

We must provide a world-class education in every ZIP code, to every child, because education is a critical public good.

In fourteen minutes, of course, Harris and Appelbaum can only cover so much. But there are undoubtedly innumerable other potential case studies in the same vein — all of which might be used to demonstrate the fundamental disconnect between the values Democrats officially profess and what they actually do with unobstructed legislative majorities. For Harris and Appelbaum, this disconnect is largely about the hypocrisy of affluent liberals who, as they put it, are awfully good at showing up at marches and proclaiming their love of equality but who, in practice, live by the credo “not in my backyard.”

What’s so revealing about the exercise is that it shows — contrary to the more common (and altogether more self-serving) narrative about why national Democrats don’t govern differently — that plenty of the opposition to a broadly progressive agenda has, for quite some time now, come not just from the political right but also from within the bosom of American liberalism itself. This may not be particularly revelatory to many on the Left, but it’s a truth that urgently needs to be grasped by both by progressively minded Democratic supporters and the kinds of voters who’ve been serially conditioned to give centrist politicians the benefit of the doubt even when they disappoint.

As Harris and Appelbaum’s short and excellent case study demonstrates, the blue state model operates by fusing progressive rhetoric with business-friendly policies catered to appeal to a numerically small but politically influential constituency of well-off voters — the latter being what largely determines real world material outcomes.

But, rather than viewing the divide between affluent liberals’ behavior and social justice rhetoric as merely contradictory or hypocritical, we might also see them as symbiotic. As Frank wrote in 2017:

In the world of the wealthy, liberalism is something you do to offset your rapacious behavior in other spheres. . . . But it’s also something deeper than that. Most people on the left think of themselves as resisters of authority, but for certain of their leaders, modern-day liberalism is a way of rationalizing and exercising class power. Specifically, the power of what some like to call the “creative class,” by which they mean well-heeled executives in industries like Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Worshiping these very special people is the doctrine that has allowed Democrats to pull even with Republicans in fundraising and that has buoyed the party’s fortunes in every wealthy suburb in America. . . . This is a form of liberalism that routinely blends self-righteousness with upper-class entitlement. That makes its great pronouncements from Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons. . . . [Liberals] are lost these days in a hall of moral mirrors, weeping tears of admiration for their own virtue and good taste.