The day I’ve been dreading is here. Now that the midterm elections are over (except for the late vote counts and recounts), we’ve arrived at that time in the electoral process when we get flooded with questions about what Democrats need to do with their successes and what kind of candidate will be most successful in the 2020 presidential race.
There are two groups that do a particularly bad job of answering those questions. The first is major media outlets that insist of framing everything as an either/or situation based on a past narrative. We watched that one unfold during the 2018 Democratic primaries when every two weeks there was a different take on whether the results indicated that establishment (read: centrist, moderate) or insurgent (read: leftist, progressive) candidates were winning. It was all based on a myth that local elections were still caught up in the Sanders/Clinton primary.
We’re now seeing the same narrative being forced onto the midterm results and 2020 prospects. For example, here’s how the New York Times promoted an article by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns:
Should Democrats pick a 2020 candidate who can aim for the center and pick up votes from disenchanted Trump supporters, or veer to the left with a progressive who can electrify the grassroots? The midterms haven't made the answer any clearer. https://t.co/sfyqyum4sB
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 11, 2018
From the article:
The schism reflects the party’s longstanding internecine tensions, which flared again this year when insurgents on the left challenged establishment-aligned candidates while voicing urgent calls for change and a more confrontational approach to the president.
The rest of the article is a hot mess that veers from a suggestion that Beto O’Rourke was at the center of those “internecine tensions” as an “unapologetic progressive” to discussions about mobilizing people of color vs. outreach to rural white voters–and then on to middle of the road ideology vs. far-left policy ideas.
That was supposed to fit into a frame of establishment vs insurgent, when the truth is that each of those either/or configurations contain a lot of nuance. For example, Beto O’Rourke certainly embraced some progressive policy goals, but he also ran a campaign that was fueled by optimism and went to great lengths to avoid the negativity of partisanship. For years now, writers here at the Washington Monthly have been talking about the need for Democrats to fight back against corporate consolidation, a very progressive policy goal, as a way to win back white rural voters. Just recently, I pointed out that voters in red (predominantly rural) states embraced several progressive Democratic policies while rejecting their candidates.
The other group that is hard at work trying to convince us how to answer the question about where Democrats go from here is made up of pundits and political consultants who have traditionally taken a side in the either/or framework the media is so quick to embrace. They are using the results of the midterm elections to bolster the views they’ve always had in favor of moderation or boldness. For example, Anne Kim and Will Marshall write:
For Democrats to maintain and expand this near-majority advantage, they must craft a broadly appealing agenda that brings or keeps independents and less committed partisans—the majority of whom call themselves ‘moderate’—under the tent.
On the other hand, Elaine Godfrey writes about what members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) took from the midterms.
…when she was asked about [centrism] at Monday’s press conference, Pramila Jayapal, the vice chair of the CPC, just laughed. “If centrist is defined as ideas that serve the center of the country, then I might agree with that,” she said, citing recent polls showing that the vast majority of Americans support “Medicare for all,” a policy priority that for a long time was championed only by members of the far left.
Whether or not Democratic candidates were endorsed by the CPC or ran on an explicitly progressive platform, progressives believe their agenda was the real winner last week.
There is some truth in both of those viewpoints. While it will be important for Democrats to maintain their gains with suburban white women who label themselves as “moderate,” it is also true that the American public overwhelmingly supports many Democratic policies like raising the minimum wage, continuing to improve access to health care, election reform, common sense gun-safety measures and comprehensive immigration reform. If Democrats fail to take bold steps on issues like those, even support among moderates will begin to erode.
Democrats need to develop a narrative that will take them into the 2020 campaign. But, as my colleague Martin Longman recently pointed out, that narrative should not rely on making a choice between centrism and progressivism, just as it should not be about mobilization vs. persuasion, urban vs. rural, or even, as we’re hearing today, Arizona and Georgia vs Iowa and Ohio. Those are the kinds of divisive frameworks that Republicans are trying to foist on the country. The essence of the Democratic response should be to reject them all in favor of unity—e pluribus unum—out of many one.