The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Campaigning ‘from the middle out’ won’t save Democrats

President Biden in the White House on Oct. 13 in Washington, D.C. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

While we don’t know what sort of Build Back Better bill Democrats will end up passing, we do know that it will be a shadow of President Biden’s original plan. The core of the climate agenda is out. Free community college is out. The extension of Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental is under threat. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) perversely seems intent on killing the plan to lower prescription drug prices, a reform even Republican voters support. Instead of the “Roosevelt moment” Biden promised, we’ve suffered another tawdry chapter about the power of deep-pocketed interests and the pervasive corruption of our politics.

Biden’s popularity has declined as the jockeying has dragged on. Democratic prospects for sustaining even razor-thin control of House and Senate — already grim, given the history of midterm reversals for the president’s party — are below life support. Democratic pollsters and self-proclaimed “strategists” are now urging Democrats to furl their sails and campaign from “the middle out,” whatever that means in an age of fervid polarization.

This is exactly wrong. The only forces likely to rescue the future — and Democratic majorities — are the growing citizen movements that have moved increasingly from protest to power, motivating people not only to protest but to vote. Midterms are what experts call mobilization elections. Turnout falls off from presidential election years. The core of the Democratic coalition — young people, Blacks, Latinos, single women — often stays home more than the older voters and evangelical Christians who anchor the Republican base. Only one thing will overturn these projections, replacing despair and cynicism with engagement and passion. And it isn’t campaigning from the “middle out.”

For example, next week Biden attends a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow known as COP26. Political leaders are already “lowering expectations.” Biden will likely cobble together executive actions to bolster whatever Congress finally passes — if it passes anything — but American rhetorical leadership will surely ring hollow.

Some Democratic pollsters, like David Shor, argue that doesn’t matter for the elections, because climate is only an issue for “very liberal white people.” Real Americans, the argument goes, care about jobs and about the price of food and gas. But extreme weather has knocked sense into people across the world. Scientists have won the argument about the human responsibility for climate change, overcoming the lavishly funded lies of Big Oil. Even the media, driven in part by the remarkable organizing of Covering Climate Now, a global media consortium demanding more accurate reporting on climate change, is starting to acknowledge how climate change is behind the weather catastrophes increasing in number and force. (Disclosure: I serve as publisher of the Nation magazine, which helped assemble the coalition.)

The climate movement has transformed the political debate. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mocked the Green New Deal when young advocates, led by the Sunrise Movement and joined by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), sat in her office demanding change. Now virtually all Democrats favor big investments to create jobs while moving to a sustainable economy. Only Republicans — still cowed by ignorance and Big Oil money — block anything sensible, along with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and a handful of House Democrats.

The citizens’ movements of our time — the climate fight, Black Lives Matter, the dreamers, the women’s movement, the fight for $15, the democracy movement and more — have seen their causes blocked by Republican obstruction and the venality of a handful of Democrats. If they decide it is time to hold legislators accountable — and turn out in large numbers — they can deliver a clear object lesson that politicians of all stripes will adjust to.

This effort won’t be led by the Democratic Party leaders, who will resist efforts to take out retrograde Democrats. And it won’t be joined by Republicans who have rendered themselves superfluous. It can be driven only by independent movements, by organizers on the ground, by activists who decide collectively that this is a time not to give up but to move up.

Electoral politics is only one arena for movements. While Democrats such as Sinema torpedoed the $15 minimum wage in the Senate, workers and activists forced employers — and more and more states and localities — to move wages up to $15 and above. The climate movement and the falling prices of solar and wind energy have shut down more coal mines than any legislation. Republican efforts to suppress the vote have been — and will continue to be — countered by Black and young voters reacting to the insult by turning out in larger numbers.

As progressive movements have won the argument on issue after issue, politicians are always a lagging indicator. They only scramble to lead the march when it is already too big to ignore. After witnessing the Democratic dysfunction in Washington, the only question that matters now is how big and passionate the march will be.