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Last Week’s Elections Were Not a Repudiation of the Left

After nearly a year of barely doing anything the Left has actually demanded, Joe Biden and his centrist allies don’t get to blame leftists for the electoral disaster the centrists’ own inaction brought.

Progressive Boston mayor elect Michelle Wu won her election last Tuesday handily. (Jim Davis / Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Here’s a thought experiment. It’s an off-year election, and the Democratic Party has just spent nearly eight whole months mired in what feels like endless internal negotiations despite controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress. The major bill they’re trying to pass has polled consistently well even after months and months of delay. While it leaves out the big-ticket priorities of the Left, it’s nevertheless full of progressive measures that are both popular across the partisan divide, and ones the party has run on and promised for years — even if most people don’t actually know they’re in the bill. But after eight months of dithering, the Democratic president’s approval rating has fallen to a near historic low of 42 percent. Then, in the weeks and days before voting, the party halves the size of the bill, stripping it of almost every one of its most popular, progressive provisions.

While this is going on, at stake are two solid blue states with a Democratic trifecta. After months of congressional gridlock, both, like the rest of the country, see turnout among left-leaning voters plummet, and turnout among right-leaning voters surge. In one, the party runs a corporate-backed centrist who’d been governor once before, and the party establishment’s leading lights come out to campaign for him; he loses by two points, and the GOP wins the state House. In the other, a progressive governor who has enacted left-wing priorities like a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and a millionaire’s tax has the country’s leading socialist politician campaign with him, alongside the establishment figures; he keeps his trifecta and wins by 2.6 points, becoming the first Democratic governor to win reelection in the state in forty-four years.

Is this result:

  1. proof that moving to the center is an electoral winner?
  2. a typical postelection electoral backlash hastened by Democrats’ stalled agenda?
  3. proof that the party has moved too far left?

If you picked (2), then congratulations: You have more analytical rigor than many of the people who cover politics for a living. If you picked (3) or (1), there’s a good chance you work for a mainstream press outlet or a campaign consulting firm, all of whom wasted no time in using last Tuesday’s results to roll-out their go-to excuse for Democratic failure.

“How much of this is a message just to the Democratic Party that it’s too far left?” asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper on election night. “I don’t know if it’s a rejection of the Democratic Party, or the party moving too much to the left, or the party not delivering on progressivism,” said his colleague Jake Tapper, at least acknowledging there might be more than one option. “It likely hasn’t helped that progressives — who lost out in a series of city elections and ballot initiatives decided on Tuesday — have been a dominant force in the party in Washington, playing into GOP claims that the president is hostage to far-left influences in his own party,” wrote a third CNN pundit, Stephen Collinson.

This went far beyond CNN. “Who Lost on Election Day? Progressives,” wrote the US News & World Report’s Susan Milligan, who charged that “a series of losses at the ballot box and on Capitol Hill have put the limits of the progressive and socialist wing of the Democratic Party on stark display.” “In races across the country, there were signs that voters see the party as having moved too far to the left,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, in a piece of ostensibly just-the-facts reporting.

The New York Times has leaned especially hard into these talking points. “Tuesday’s results are a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party,” wrote the paper’s editorial board, known for its on-point political acumen.

Earlier this week, the paper recruited consultants Mark Penn and Andrew Stein — the first a career-long incompetent who thought Barack Obama was unelectable, the second a Donald Trump backer who used to date Ann Coulter — to make the same case: “If Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives, they could lose as many as fifty seats and control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.” According to the Daily Poster’s David Sirota, he had pitched the Times an op-ed making the opposite case — that Democrats need to at last deliver the agenda they’d promised instead of abandoning it — but the paper rejected it.

It’s hard to overstate just how pervasive this blame-the-Left, move-to-the-right message has been since the election. It’s also hard to overstate just how little actual evidence there is for it.

A Tale of Two Gubernatorial Candidates

The gubernatorial campaigns of Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and incumbent Phil Murphy in New Jersey are central to these talking points, so let’s start with them.

The basic facts of the races already make it a tough fit with what the pundits are charging. If November 2 was a repudiation of progressivism, and a sign that Democrats need to move right, you’d expect the progressive Murphy would’ve done like every Democratic incumbent in his state has done since 1977 and lose reelection. McAuliffe, meanwhile — a longtime Clinton ally who backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and once took his wife to a fundraiser immediately after she gave birth — should’ve cruised to victory.

Instead, it was the opposite: Murphy defied history while McAuliffe lost. It was under McAuliffe that Democrats lost a state legislative chamber; New Jersey Democrats under Murphy still hold their trifecta. Turnout trends meant a sharp red swing in both states — but only the guy who some argue is the most progressive governor in modern New Jersey history survived. Ask yourself: If Murphy had managed this while holding a McAuliffe-style brand of empty centrism, what would the pundits be saying?

I’m not going to pretend I know all the state-level dynamics that led to this exact result, though it’s worth noting that besides turnout, Murphy’s been dinged by several notable scandals. But if we were to use the reductive approach of the media’s most well-paid pundits, couldn’t you make this case more easily:

The gubernatorial results suggest a robust progressive agenda is such an electoral winner, it helped a politician survive against a nationwide conservative countersurge.

Key to the mainstream narrative have been headlines, sound bites, and declarative statements that paint Murphy’s historic win as a loss, and Glenn Youngkin’s victory over McAuliffe a transformational triumph. After last Tuesday, you could barely read the news without tripping over headlines declaring Murphy had “narrowly” won or “eked out” a victory in a “close” race. This ever-present qualifier was, as far as I can see, never applied to headlines about Youngkin’s win. What editorializing there was tended to cast the race as a significant lesson for Democrats.

But as we’ve already covered, with a 2.6-point winning margin, Murphy did better than Youngkin amid this swell of conservative turnout. In fact, that margin puts him only 0.4 points below George W. Bush’s three-point win in 2004. Neither of those are exactly sterling performances. Yet that didn’t stop the national press in 2004, including the Post and CNN, widely repeating Bush’s claim that his slim margin was a “mandate” for a right-wing agenda. (In a perfect illustration of the media’s ideological tilt, when Obama won reelection by 3.9 points eight years later, all these same outlets rushed to declare that was not a mandate.)

A Day for Cherry-Picking

The McAuliffe-Murphy races are only one example from last week of these kinds of analytical sleights of hand.

Virtually all of the commentators named above use the same few examples to make the case the electorate is rejecting the Left all over the country: India Walton’s defeat in Buffalo; the defeat of a Minneapolis ballot measure to replace its police department with a department of public safety; and wins by Republicans in parts of New York and Seattle. These losses, writes Milligan, show that “progressive and socialist Democrats are seeing setbacks at nearly every turn,” and that “even in many blue enclaves, voters showed an interest in moving toward the center,” as the Times editorial board argued.

It’s also so selective that you might as well call it fake news.

As I detailed yesterday, twenty-three of the thirty-three (counting India Walton) candidates the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had endorsed won their races on Tuesday, many of them DSA members themselves. That includes four of the seven-person DSA slate that won city council seats in Somerville, Massachusetts, the three Twin Cities DSA members elected to city council in Minneapolis, two socialists elected to New York’s city council, and socialists winning council seats everywhere from upstate New York and Connecticut to Pennsylvania and Florida.

Walton’s shock defeat in Buffalo was undoubtedly a significant loss. There, relentless negative media coverage, hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars, and a united Republican and Democratic campaign against Walton beat back her challenge, thanks especially to one Democratic council member who worked to massively drive up turnout in one of the city’s most conservative districts.

But can the situation in Buffalo, where 77 percent voted for Biden in November, really be extrapolated to a nationwide rejection of progressivism? Let’s look at the similarly blue Boston, where 83 percent had voted for Biden.

There, Michelle Wu, who ran distinctly from the left, won in an even more lopsided landslide than the seventeen-point margin Walton lost by: 64 percent to her opponent’s 36 percent. And she did this while running on a platform similar to Walton’s: rent control, tilting city development in favor of residents over developers, and creating good jobs by decarbonizing the city, to name a few planks.

Is it a spotless winning record for socialists and progressives? Hardly. But can a 68 percent win rate for DSA-backed candidates and causes honestly be described as “seeing setbacks at nearly every turn”?

The Times editorial board briefly acknowledges Wu’s victory, as well as progressive mayoral wins in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, bringing them up only to quickly dismiss them: “Progressive wins in deep-blue cities aren’t evidence of broad, national support.” Yet this line comes immediately after a lengthy, thirteen-line paragraph arguing that selective defeats in “blue enclaves” show even liberals want to move to the center. Are the results in blue electorates irrelevant, or do they indicate an urgent national shift? Both, according to the editorial board, depending on how it fits their ideological preferences.

The beauty of this is you can pick and choose examples to make whatever argument you want. Want to argue that Republicans everywhere made gains against a party that’s moved too far to the left? Point to GOP gains and wins in Seattle, Atlanta, and in Long Island. But that means ignoring socialist (and even Democratic) city council wins in other parts of New York, or in other blue or even purplish states, which often involved unseating centrist Democratic incumbents. No one’s going to argue Tuesday was a dream night for the Left. But to cast it as an electoral disaster borders on the willfully misleading.

Same goes for ballot measures. Though almost all the commentators above named the failed Minneapolis measure to eliminate its police department, none told their readers about Austin’s soundly defeated ballot measure that would have turbocharged resourcing for the police. That measure failed by a 69-31 percent margin in a city just as blue, and its rejection was endorsed by the DSA. Neither do pundits mention the many other ballot measures around the country where voters directly advanced long-standing progressive causes, not all of them in solid blue states: a $15 minimum wage in Tucson; rent control in Minneapolis and St. Paul; participatory budgeting in Boston; drug decriminalization in Detroit and Ohio.

The Crime Question

Tuesday’s results around police and prisons deserve particular attention. Since the 2020 election, there’s been a concerted media campaign to push back against the growing sentiment to address police abuse and dismantle mass incarceration, largely by misleadingly tying a sudden spike in crime to reform efforts. Tuesday’s results added fuel to this campaign, with a number of these commentators pointing to Walton’s loss, the failed Minneapolis ballot measure, and Eric Adams’s win as mayor of New York as a sign of backlash against police reform.

No one, as far as I know, has ever claimed taking on the police is a ticket to electoral success. The argument, rather, is that police reform is morally and socially necessary, even as it’s politically fraught. And this was reflected in the defeats sustained in Tuesday’s results, especially with Buffalo’s most police- and firefighter-heavy district turning out in huge numbers to defeat Walton.

But it’s just as untrue to argue the results reflect an across-the-board swing against progressive stances on policing. Besides the defeated Austin measure, 57 percent of voters in Bellingham, Washington, passed a DSA-backed ballot measure banning facial recognition and predictive technology. In Cleveland and Albany, similar majorities voted to impose civilian oversight on the police.

In terms of candidates, Wu won a landslide in Boston despite running significantly to the left of her opponent on the issue, including pledging to overhaul the city’s police union contracts. She was opposed by local police and accused by her opponent, who received the majority of police donations, of wanting to defund the force. Similarly, all three new socialist city councilors in Minneapolis backed the city’s failed ballot measure to abolish its police department, and insurgent candidates in Des Moines and Dayton beat incumbents despite taking progressive stances on the issue.

Most significantly, in Philadelphia, incumbent district attorney Larry Krasner “beat my pants off,” in the words of his tough-on-crime Republican challenger. This was after a first term where he had ended cash bail for certain low-level crimes, prosecuted dirty cops, reduced prison numbers, and reviewed and overturned nearly two dozen wrongful convictions. New York City may have elected the pro-police Adams, who had no progressive challenger in the mayoral race, but it also elected civil rights lawyer Alvin Bragg as Manhattan DA on a progressive platform. Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County likewise saw a slate of progressive judges win their races. If the simplistic narrative pundits are pushing right now were true, none of this should’ve happened.

The fight to end mass incarceration and police abuse is clearly going to remain an uphill battle, and one sensitive to local contexts and countless other factors. But the lay of the land is more nuanced than the commentariat want us to think.

Preparing for failure

What’s amusing about this spate of conservative editorializing is that it comes after nearly a year of over-the-top, almost coordinated media messaging about Biden as a “transformational” president giving Franklin Roosevelt a run for his money. It’s been a narrative that CNN and the Times particularly enjoyed broadcasting to their followers. It’s also been one the Left has sharply resisted, since other than one very flawed stimulus bill in March, Biden has bit by bit slashed progressive demands from his legislative agenda leading up to last week, while running a hard-right immigration policy and a fossil fuel–friendly program on climate.

Now, the Times editorial board urges a sharp retreat from even those narrow ambitions. “What is badly needed, is an honest conversation in the Democratic Party about how to return to the moderate policies and values that fueled the blue-wave victories in 2018 and won Joe Biden the presidency in 2020,” writes the board. As the editorial board well knows, those “moderate policies” Democrats won with are exactly the ones Bernie Sanders and progressives in Congress pushed into Biden’s now gutted reconciliation bill, and which the Left has objected to being cut: popular, progressive policies like lowering drug prices, paid parental leave, and expanding Medicare.

We know the board knows this, because back when it was trying to get its readers excited enough to turn out and defeat Trump, it talked up Biden’s “bold agenda aimed at tackling some of America’s most pressing problems,” including expanding Medicare, lowering drug prices, and massive investment to transition from fossil fuels — all of which were cut from the bill shortly before Tuesday’s election, and which the board now presumably wants Biden to file away for the rest of his presidency.

But as far as rank dishonesty goes, the prize goes to Penn and Stein. To make their case, the duo construct a fantasyland where Biden’s Trump-lite immigration policy and push for more carbon emissions is instead a program cribbed from the “Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playbook.” To mislead readers into thinking McAuliffe was sunk by moving left, they rattle off the litany of radical, far-left figures who stopped by for cameos in his campaign before his loss: Biden, Obama, Kamala Harris, and Clinton ally Randi Weingarten — the party’s centrist establishment, in other words. But maybe we shouldn’t expect much better from a money launderer and a guy who ran a Democratic campaign thinking the primaries were winner-take-all.

Last week’s result wasn’t a triumph for the Left, but it wasn’t remotely the electoral vengeance the pundits so badly want it to be. More to the point, after nearly a year of doing hardly anything the Left has actually demanded, Biden and his allies don’t get to blame progressives for the electoral disaster their own inaction brought. Unfortunately, for Americans bombarded with months of misleading coverage exaggerating Biden’s modest accomplishments, they may never realize this. Biden’s already in the process of being canonized as a go-to case of the political perils of moving left. The house always wins.