The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why progressive Democrats are losing ground

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speak to reporters during a news conference outside the Capitol in November 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Progressive Democrats have lost substantial ground over the past year, weakened by a combination of real-world events and smart tactics by their centrist rivals for the upper hand in intra-party disputes. In fact, the ascendance of more left-wing politicians and policies within the Democratic Party may have peaked — with real potential that some progressive advances will be reversed.

In the months after the 2020 election, it looked as though progressive Democrats had advanced on four fronts. On economic policy, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats adopted a huge stimulus with little regard for its effect on the budget deficit. On domestic policy, the administration was pushing a sweeping bill that would have moved the United States closer to a European-style social safety net. On racial issues, President Biden and other Democrats were embracing a sustained effort to address disparities and discrimination, particularly around policing. And on electoral politics, fresh off the Democrats’ victories in Georgia, the party seemed open to electoral strategies beyond its usual focus on winning White swing voters.

But big problems emerged last year in all four of these areas — and more centrist Democrats leaped to blame the left and its ideas.

There was a big surge in the murder rate, and centrist Democrats such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams have suggested that the increase was in part because Democrats had gone too far in embracing police reform.

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Inflation surged, which Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and other moderate Democrats blamed on big increases in federal spending and other economic policies pushed by progressives.

On domestic policy, the Build Back Better Act (BBB) stalled, with centrist Democrats such as Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) arguing the party’s left pushed too hard to get their preferred policies into the legislation.

And in electoral politics, Biden’s approval rating sank, and Democrats performed dismally in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, losing the latter and almost the former. More centrist figures in the party such as prominent political consultant James Carville attributed the party’s political weaknesses to progressives damaging the Democratic brand.

All these arguments were oversimplifications, and in some cases they were outright wrong. Yes, the stimulus and other big spending policies urged by progressives contributed to inflation, but supply-chain disruptions and other issues related to the covid-19 pandemic were also a major factor. It is ludicrous to blame the party’s left wing for the loss in Virginia when the moderate Biden-aligned Terry McAuliffe was the candidate. The main barriers to passing BBB were centrists such as Murphy and Manchin; progressives kept dropping their demands, desperate for anything to pass. Murder rates rose across the country, not just in places that adopted more progressive criminal justice policies.

More than that, real-world events were, in fact, validating the left’s arguments. Child poverty plummeted when the federal government simply gave families money directly through the tax credits in the stimulus, the kind of big-government policy the left has long urged. The political struggles of Biden and McAuliffe showed, as the left has argued, that voters won’t be satisfied with a do-little Democratic Party even if it is fairly moderate ideologically and focused on wooing White swing voters. The murder rate surged even as police spending either stayed the same or increased, bolstering the progressive argument that reducing crime will take more comprehensive strategies than just relying on law enforcement.

But despite all that, the centrist arguments gained traction. That’s partly because the mainstream media, the wealthy and Biden himself are skeptical of progressives and inclined to take the side of centrist Democrats in intra-party fights. One telling example: Presidents don’t usually comment on local elections, but Biden joined much of the media in casting last month’s recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin as a sign that voters across the country want more police spending.

And because these anti-left arguments have become conventional wisdom in Democratic circles, they are resulting in policy and electoral defeats for the party’s left wing. Biden started downplaying police reform while he and other Democrats leaned into pro-police rhetoric and funding increases. Most of BBB has been shelved. The Federal Reserve, with the encouragement of many centrist Democrats, is taking aggressive steps to rein in inflation that are likely to reduce wages and increase unemployment.

Give the centrists their due: They have many advantages (like the backing of wealthy Democrats and Biden), but they also have been smart, strategic and focused. For example, they have spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat left-wing candidates in primaries in heavily Democratic areas, closing off one path to power for the left. And, in many cases over the past year, the progressives have not been as savvy. The emphatic insistence last year from many prominent left-wing figures that inflation was “transitory” and overstated cost them credibility as prices stayed up. In New York City, progressives didn’t mobilize behind a single candidate early on, easing Adams’s path to victory.

Overall, while there are a lot of progressive activists, groups and prominent politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), left-wing Democrats are struggling in part because they don’t have a formal leadership structure or political strategy.

Now, they face a troubling future — a Biden-led Democratic Party that is likely to lose in November and then argue that the defeat is a further repudiation of left-wing ideas. The 2024 election cycle could feature the party adopting conservative ideas, abandoning liberal ones and potentially even trying to defeat prominent progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez in primaries.

But all is not lost for progressives. While more centrist Democrats have greater power and money, many of the party’s most compelling ideas and figures come from its left wing. The left’s arguments that the party’s political strategy is outdated have been validated by Biden’s struggles. And real-world events over the past few months, particularly the spate of mass shootings and the upending of abortion rights, not only make it hard for the party to move to the right but are pushing it left.

So the triangulating Democratic Party of 1995 isn’t coming back. The big question is whether the deficits-don’t-matter, firmly antiracist party of March 2021 is permanently gone, too.