But there is a logic here. Today’s politics are very partisan, hyper-nationalized and media-driven. Even in a statewide race, voters are often thinking Democrat vs. Republican rather than evaluating candidates as individuals. So the national brand of a party matters.
And media outlets tend to amplify the boldest and most controversial positions. So, to some voters, what they perceive as the “Democratic” position on an issue might not be the one held by Biden but instead one held by a more progressive member such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) or even a group like Black Lives Matter, which is not part of the Democratic Party. If anything a prominent left-wing person or group says can get defined as the “Democratic position” on an issue and that position can be attributed to Democratic candidates across the country, that’s a pretty strong case that Democrats should stick to saying and doing things that are popular in swing states. That case becomes even stronger when you consider that Democrats really need to win elections or risk losing power to the increasingly radicalized GOP.
But I think that Democrats always trying to calibrate their positions to swing voters in Wisconsin is wrongheaded. Why? Most importantly, “Democrats” is simply too broad of a group — the 81 million people who voted for Joe Biden can’t and shouldn’t exercise collective message discipline. The views of groups like Black Lives Matter and prominent individuals like, say, the writer Nikole Hannah-Jones are closer to the Democratic Party than the GOP. But many influential figures and groups in America’s political discourse aren’t part of the official Democratic Party and don’t speak for it, even as they are often cast as villains on Fox News. Our society needs individuals, groups and movements to push ideas that aren’t currently in the mainstream — and sometimes those ideas are the right ones. The civil rights movement might have hurt the Democrats’ chances in 1966 and 1968, perhaps as BLM did in 2016 — but that activism should not have been short-circuited for electoral politics.
It’s different for prominent elected Democrats, particularly those in Congress. They represent the party and share its interests. And Democratic officials get this. Notice that members of The Squad don’t talk about abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency as much as they used to, in effect self-censoring for electoral reasons.
But I disagree with the notion that even Democratic elected officials should always act like they are running in swing areas. (I don’t think Republicans should, either — and they largely don’t.) First and most important, our elected leaders should lead. If the best policies for our country are reparations, Medicare-for-all and smaller police departments, I want at least some elected Democrats trying to move public opinion in those directions.
Second, the idea of local representation is important. While politics may be nationalized, members of Congress represent unique districts and states. They shouldn’t avoid taking positions that they believe are right or are popular with their constituents to avoid offending people elsewhere that they don’t represent.
Third, all Democratic officials trimming their rhetorical sails isn’t likely to work as an electoral strategy anyway. There is a large bloc of voters who are simply opposed to the broader project of the Democratic Party. They are not going to forget that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) doesn’t share their vision for the country simply because she stops tweeting out her most controversial ideas, and those voters correctly assume that Biden’s vision is broadly similar to Omar’s. Some voters might tell pollsters and reporters that they are backing the GOP only because they believe that Democrats want to abolish the police, but we aren’t obligated to believe that explanation. In reality, lots of voters oppose taking on systemic racism and other less controversial Democratic policy priorities where Omar, Biden and most Democrats agree.
Republicans won elections by successfully casting the Democrats as too far left long before The Squad ever formed. There will always be someone on the left espousing some position that can be turned into a TV ad that says “Democrats believe X controversial idea,” even if most in the party don’t support it. The scary reality, thanks in part to gerrymandering and the electoral college, is that Trumpian Republicans could win control of the U.S. government no matter how much retrenchment, message calibration or appeasement Democrats do to prevent that.
Every day is not Election Day, every left-wing person is not acting on behalf of the Democratic Party, and every Democratic politician is not accountable to swing-state voters. Some people should say unpopular things, particularly if those unpopular sentiments are morally right. And if Americans decide to elect authoritarians, we should blame the authoritarians and the people who voted for them.