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Elections never settle debates between progressives and moderates

For many Democrats, Tuesday’s losses just confirmed what they’ve been saying all along

Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, center, greets attendees after speaking during an election night event in McLean, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, center, greets attendees after speaking during an election night event in McLean, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
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Democrats had a bad night on Tuesday. In the aftermath of the GOP win in the Virginia governor’s race, centrists blamed progressives for pushing the Democratic Party too far left. “Nobody elected [Biden] to be F.D.R.,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), “they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Progressives blamed centrists and the “limits” of a “100 percent, super-moderated campaign,” in the words of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Others suggested, strangely, that gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe — who had been elected governor once before — was obviously unelectable. The usual recriminations began right on schedule. In some cases, they even started a bit early: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) attributed his party’s losses to the bipartisan infrastructure bill not having passed yet — on Monday, long before polls closed.

This process is often derided as a “circular firing squad” — a blame game where everyone seeks to avoid responsibility — but it’s actually something more: an opportunity to learn. The wins and losses that happen during midterm elections and odd-year contests can help political parties fine-tune their understanding of the electorate and discern winning messages and candidates. Too often, though, this learning process is compromised by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. Some pundits, party leaders, activists and others see proof of what they’ve always believed: If only Democrats had done this one thing that I’ve been telling them to do all along, the logic goes, Terry McAuliffe would have been elected.

After Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump, Democrats did not have a consensus explanation. As I examine in my book “Learning From Loss,” many party insiders came to believe that the way to avoid such a defeat in 2020 was to nominate a “safe” moderate White guy — someone like Joe Biden. This doesn’t mean that solution was empirically right, but it was a lesson the party could absorb and one that helped it chart a course through the next electoral cycle.

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But Biden’s victory didn’t put to rest the circular recriminations. The Democrats’ centrist faction is basically always fearful that progressives are making the party less competitive in elections. Take their interpretation of November 2020: The polls had barely closed when centrists such as Spanberger insisted that Democrats had not done as well as hoped in congressional races because activists had called for defunding police departments.

Progressives, meanwhile, are consistently convinced that what keeps Democrats from winning more elections is centrists who limit the party’s ability to deliver substantive economic and social reforms that make a difference in voters’ lives. Responding to that very same election, in December 2020, the Nation’s Steve Phillips criticized moderates in the party for failing “to inspire progressive and Democratic voters to the same extent that Donald Trump galvanized his supporters.” Ocasio-Cortez, too, blamed centrists, albeit for running poorly funded and executed campaigns.

For many of these folks, Tuesday just provided more proof of what they’ve been saying all along. James Carville, who in the spring said that “faculty lounge politics” pulled Democrats too far left last fall, blamed progressives’ “stupid wokeness” for this year’s losses in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. A progressive coalition including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement blamed Democratic underperformance last year on centrists running from the party’s progressive roots. This year, it blamed a “milquetoast” McAuliffe for . . . running from the party’s progressive roots.

Importantly, these arguments don’t tend to carry much in the way of evidence. And it’s not clear that evidence is even available to bolster them. If you want to look at a broader context for, say, Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, you might notice that the president’s party often loses. Indeed, the president’s party has won Virginia’s governor’s office only once since 1973. With its unusual odd-year statewide elections, Virginia has a long history of waning turnout from the previous year’s presidential contest. Those who helped the president win sometimes don’t turn up for the next election, and they’re less motivated than the president’s opponents are. There’s some persuasion going on, according to exit polls — about 5 percent of Virginia’s Biden voters swung to Youngkin, while just 2 percent of Trump voters supported McAuliffe. For the most part, though, this is a turnout story. One million more voters showed up for this race than the last gubernatorial election. You wouldn’t know that from most of the immediate reactions to Tuesday’s election, many of which seemed divorced from evidence and history.

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Republicans sometimes engage in this sort of post-election processing, as well. After all, some prominent party leaders concluded from Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss that the GOP needed to become more welcoming to immigrants, more tolerant toward women and people of color, and generally more open to a wider range of Americans. Nor do I mean to suggest that all this post-election learning is cynically motivated. Sometimes party actors are truly open to new information.

In my research about reactions to 2016, I found more than a few Democrats who were legitimately stunned by the results of that election. It caused them to question many long-held assumptions about just who could and couldn’t win a national election and how to run a campaign. I spoke to a lifelong feminist who questioned her support for female candidates after 2016 (though she found reassurance in the results of the 2018 midterms). I talked with seasoned consultants who questioned polling and messaging approaches. For some, particularly the more politically experienced, this was a terrifying process. It’s even possible to “overlearn” from one strange but important election.

But what happened in Virginia in 2021 wasn’t quite like that. For one thing, it wasn’t much of a surprise: The results were very close to what polls had been predicting for more than a week. For another, as suggested above, they weren’t much of a historical departure. It takes a real shock to the system for professionals to question lifelong beliefs, and Tuesday’s election, while upsetting for Democrats, wasn’t exactly earth-shattering.

Democrats will no doubt take something from this loss — a few refinements here and there in campaign approaches and messages, a commitment to strengthening the party for next year’s midterms. But for the most part, people didn’t learn anything they didn’t already know.

Twitter: @smotus

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