Leftist Policy Didn’t Lose. Marxist Electoral Theory Did.

Much of the left has entered a phase of despondency in the wake of the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. It’s easy to understand why. It’s not just that Sanders went from riding high after winning the first three states in the primary contest, to suffering dramatic defeats in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday that doomed the campaign.

It’s also that this is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now Biden has emerged victorious in 2020 despite having lagged far behind Sanders in fundraising and field capacity.

But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it. Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents. Most Democrats–including Joe Biden voters–overwhelmingly support leftist policy like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

Moreover, culturally liberal Democratic politicians have won with leftist policy platforms all over the country, even in tough, formerly Republican districts. Katie Porter is a no-nonsense surburban single mother who looks and talks like a resistance liberal you might see in any Indivisble meeting, but adamantly champions leftist policy like Medicare for All. Katie Hill won her purple district not as a revolutionary but as an amiable bisexual Millennial who also happens to support Medicare for All and other social democratic policy. And, of course, there has been a major political shift seeing many deeper blue districts replace more centrist politicians like Joe Crowley in New York and Dan Lipinski in Illinois with much more progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marie Newman.

What did lose unequivocally, however, was a certain brand of anti-partisan class revolutionary electoral politics rooted in industrial-era Marxist theory. Zack Beauchamp’s excellent analysis at Vox is essential reading on this topic, but the  upshot is that regardless of leftist policy, a strain of Marxist theory since the late 19th century has posited that the left can usher in a socialist utopia by uniting the workers of the world–and that any cultural divisions within the working class that get in the way are the product of false consciousness and manufactured consent to prevent the proletariat from arising together to overthrow their capitalist chains. In keeping with this tradition, leftists who subscribe to this ideology see the hyper-partisan divides of the modern era as the ultimate artificial divisive construct, and are adamantly hostile to a political reality in which suburban middle-class professionals (regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the party of the “left” while blue-collar rurals (again regardless of race, gender or culture) dominate the “right.”

Accordingly, this perspective informs a Marxist electoral paradigm that 1) is explicitly hostile to the Democratic Party as it currently exists; 2) assumes that there must be a big mass of independent voters and non-voters to the left of base Democrats on economics and open to revolutionary politics; and 3) attempts to minimize cultural divisions and negative partisanship in favor of winning over large swaths of people with theoretically culturally conservative but economically progressive politics.

Unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed. First, it turns out that in Democratic primaries, most voters actually like the Democratic Party! Second, as a bevy of political science studies have already shown for years, “independents” are something of a misnomer: they are a divided group that tend to vote almost exactly like partisans, but simply don’t choose to affiliate officially with a party. They aren’t in any significant sense to the left of base Democrats. Third, whatever the secret formula is for turning out voters under 45 in large numbers, the Sanders campaign didn’t find it. Certainly, Sanders won voters under 45 decisively (with Warren coming in a consistent if distant second), but didn’t turn them out in anything like the numbers needed to win. It is possible that a more explicitly generational politics might have done so, but Marxist constructs tend to eschew generational politics as yet another distraction from working-class solidarity politics–despite the fact that a “working-class” Baby Boomer who bought a suburban house in 1995 is much likelier to be financially stable than a “professional managerial class” Millennial struggling to pay rent in an urban studio apartment. Fourth, culturally conservative whites did not cross over in remotely the numbers leftists might have hoped.

Proponents of Marxist electoral theory have a range of excuses for all of this–all of them unpersuasive. There is nothing surprising, immoral or even unsavory about moderates who were fractured and losing to a candidate consolidating 30% of the vote, uniting to beat a candidate with only 30% of the vote. Cable news wasn’t exactly friendly to Sanders or Warren, but that didn’t stop Sanders from winning the first three states–nor did it have even a fraction of the effect that the Clyburn endorsement and moderate consolidation did. Finally, Marxist theory proponents like to argue that their strategy would work in a general election if only the Democratic Party would let them win the primary. But this ignores the reality that Justice Democrats like Randy Bryce did win their primaries in many areas all around the country in 2018, only to lose their general elections. And while many leftists argue that Brexit politics are somehow not comparable to American politics around immigration and globalization (they are), the reality is that Corbyn’s experience does provide a sobering test case for how persuasive class revolutionary politics is in winning over white working class neighborhoods in a contest with a far-right xenophobic clown candidate. If the future really does come down to socialism or barbarism, cultural conservatives have made it quite clear that they will be perfectly content with barbarism until they reach their deathbeds.

So where does the left go from here? The answer seems simple enough. Instead of using political campaigns as a proxy for testing industrial-era Marxist theories of social alignment, those who want to see leftist policy actually enacted should meet voters where they are and maximize gains within the partisan reality that actually exists. This means, among other things:

1) Embracing the Democratic Party and its voters as a positive force for change. Rather than seeing the party and its voters as an obstacle in the way of transforming society and the country, work to persuade Democrats that candidates who espouse more leftist policy while embracing the liberal side of modern cultural divides can and will win in general elections;

2) Using negative partisanship against the Republican Party to drive turnout. Rather than seeing partisanship as a false consciousness construct of an elite duopoly, recognize it as the fight between decency and cruelty that it actually is, and maximize both social and economic leftist policy within the partisan framework. If that means that some members of the working class with deplorable social views will never come on board, so be it. Leftists can still help them achieve greater material benefits while acknowledging that they will never be grateful for it at the voting booth.

3) Working with even centrist coalition partners on mutual partisan goals aimed at eliminating the unfair chokeholds the right-wing maintains over progress. Much of the rancor between left and center-left is little more than rats fighting in a cage built by the Senate filibuster, gerrymandering, the electoral college, conservative court stacking, etc. Leftists may find that even their intra-party enemies share more of their values than they know, but that everyone is trying to find different pathways to escape the cage. Accept the reality that using the bully pulpit to advocate for material needs policies won’t magically smash that cage on its own by activating a different electorate, and get to work on breaking it directly at every key structural point: eliminating the filibuster, adding states to the union, bypassing the electoral college, pushing non-partisan redistricting, etc.

4) Stopping the use of national presidential campaigns as the key testing grounds for left-versus-liberal contests of will, and focusing more on local campaigns. First, the stakes at the national level are as high as they can possibly be: Democrats, especially older ones, are wary of defeat from past experience. Living through the Reagan, Bush and Trump presidencies has justifiably or not taught them to vote defensively. Meanwhile, conservative structural impediments to policy change at the national level increasingly minimize the differences in outcomes between liberals and leftists in power, the higher up the chain of government you go. Simultaneously, most of the biggest real divides not on strategy (do we get to Medicare for All straightaway or incrementally?) but on real policy are being waged in blue states at a more local level on issues like housing and criminal justice. Here also is where the divides are likeliest to cross partisan lines and encourage Marxist electoral strategies, as with the NIMBY-versus-YIMBY housing battles where young progressives and conservatives alike favor deregulating zoning policy against a coalition of older, more economically comfortable liberals and conservatives. Which means if young Marxist leftists want to engage in battle with older professional middle class liberals and unite with economically strained cultural conservatives, the best places to engage that fight are in races for district attorney, city council and state assembly. Again, though, it’s important for them to remember that their core supportive voting bloc will remain base Democratic voters, and the best way to influence outcomes in those races is to influence the local Democratic Party endorsements.

In sum, now is not the time for despondency on the left. There is ample cause for hope and celebration. Leftist policy is increasingly ascendant in the Democratic Party. But it does call for a change in electoral strategy. Let the industrial Marxist dream of working-class electoral realignment die, and embrace a strategy of leftist policy maximization within an aggressively partisan framework.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.