The Biden paradox has led to a cottage industry of pundit commentary (mis)diagnosing what went wrong and offering advice on what Democrats should do now. An emblematic article, byNew Yorkmagazines Jon Chait, aProspectalum (where did we go wrong?) gets the story about half-right. Thewhole pieceis worth reading for both its insights and its errors, and because it conveniently channels the conventional wisdom.
Chaits basic argument is that the Democrats cultural radicalism on issues of race, identity, immigration, woke language, etc., has upstaged their popular pocketbook measures, alienated moderate and working-class voters, and given Republicans and their media a fat target to caricature. Meanwhile, corporate Democrats undermine their partys ability to deliver valued benefits, so there is less in the way of economic positives to offset the cultural negatives.
This basic story is a half-truth, of which more in a moment. The malign influence of corporate Democrats is a curse that theProspecthas covered extensively, and its good to see a more centrist writer like Chait paying attention to it. That alone makes the piece worthwhile. But Chaits analysis goes entirely off the rails in two key respects.
First, he dates the Democratic model of pursuing a coalition of minorities and socially left college educated liberals only to 2012. (After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, exit polls showed he had prevailed despite losing the white vote by 20 points.)
And second, he blames the profusion of cultural radicalism substantially on woke rich people whose foundations supposedly pay nonprofits to embrace concepts and jargon that alienates the non-woke. Despite his effort to disentangle cultural radicalism from New Deal progressivism, Chait often ends up conflating the two as general leftism.
What other course is there? Repairing to a mushy center surely wont help.
In fact, the idea that Democrats can assemble a majority-minority coalition enhanced by the college-educated but minus the white working-class dates at least to the 1990s. It did not spring full-grown in 2012. And the idea was wrong then and wrong now.
Democrats are barely a majority party today mainly because they stopped delivering for the working class and instead got into bed with financial elites and neoliberal ideology. And that slow, lethal descent began under Jimmy Carter.
Weran a piecein 2017 by Justin Gest, which pointed out that in 1996, counties that were below national median income and at least 85 percent white split evenly between presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. But as neoliberalism took hold, outsourcing became the norm and factory towns kept dying, by 2016 those same counties split 658 for Donald Trump and 2 (two!) for Hillary Clinton.
And of course Clinton, with her six-figure Wall Street speaking fees and her culturally radical rhetoric epitomized the strategy of going left on social issues and center-right on economics. This recipe is poison.
If you want a shot at retaining the affections of white working-class voters despite being a liberal on abortion, civil rights, and LGBTQ issues, you need to be steadfast on the economics while steering clear of gratuitously provocative rhetoric, like Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sandersand Joe Biden. Thats why Bidens New Deal is so hopeful.
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We need to look beyond the Joe Manchin problem to the deeper structural erosion. Half a century ago, the Democratic Party could tolerate a handful of Manchins because they were offset by scores of labor Democrats in the Midwest, the West, and even the Rocky Mountain states. West Virginia, then as now, elected corporate centrists. Their names were Bobby Byrd and Jennings Randolph. But they could be outvoted.
Chait is right that Manchin, Sinema, and the handful of other Democrats who have blocked much of the Biden program that resonates with the majority of voters, are not principled centrists; they are corporate toadies. The idea that Democrats have gone off the deep end on economic issues is preposterous. As Chait correctly points out, the most ambitious and extensive aspects of Build Back Betterprecisely the parts being blocked by Manchin et alare the most popular.
On the cultural part of the story, its true that a number of left foundations and donors find it easier to embrace a radical view of race than to take on entrenched corporate power. Being scrupulously careful with approved language is what the theologian Reinhold Neubuhr termed cheap grace. The writings of the Black conservative John McWhorterridiculinghow elite institutions like universities and hospitals have been quick to embrace and demand use of precious racial language (that leads to no real change) cannot be easily dismissed. If only the same hospital executives were instead fighting for Medicare for All.
But Chait has the cause and effect wrong. Looking back on the increasing demands for racial justice in the face of worsening assaults by police and self-appointed vigilantes, groups like the Movement for Black Lives did not become radicalized because rich white donors were paying them to do so. This was a spontaneous response to accumulated outrages dating back centuries, where apparent progress is regularly and brutally reversed. The story told byThe New York Times1619 project is all too accurate.
Chait is also far too glib in his discussion of race and the Democrats. He writes: After [George] Floyds murder, progressive activists quickly coalesced around defunding the police as a slogan and policy objective. In fact, some left activists embraced the slogan, but hardly any elected Democrats did.
The right will continue to blur the radical left with the Democratic Party. And Democrats will try to keep faith with demands for overdue racial justice without giving gratuitous help to the right. Chait makes it sound like this is easy, and that Democrats fail at it because they are stupid. In fact, it is very hardanother legacy of four centuries of white supremacyand there is no smoke-filled room to which Democrats could repair to devise a common rhetoric and strategy. Each Congressional district is different.
Joe Biden has managed this tightrope act as well as anybodydelivering tangible benefits that disproportionately benefit Blacks but are not racially targeted; appointing the most diverse array of senior officials ever; and avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.
The fact is that Biden initially benefited from good luck and party unitythe pandemic was subsiding, the economy was re-opening, Democrats last March were united in voting for the American Rescue Plan. And now luck has deserted him: inflation not of his making; a fourth pandemic upsurge; and corporate Democrats going their own way.
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We need to fight like hell to get as much of the Biden program enacted, and then to rally voters who voted more heavily for Democrats in 2018 and 2020 than for Republicans, and can do so again in 2022 once they grasp the alternative. And we need some self-discipline on the part of a fractious coalition. What other course is there? Repairing to a mushy center surely wont help.
At points in his article, Chait usefully distinguishes between the majoritarian New Deal mainstream, cultural radicals, and corporate shills. At other points, he blames an undifferentiated progressive left. If he were still at theProspect, his piece would have been subjected to several queries, fact checks, and a good edit.