An inflexible agenda and a global retreat.
But what if American liberals, while unfortunate in the Electoral College, are luckier than they think in other ways? The fact that populism is flourishing internationally, far from the Electoral College and Fox News, suggests that Trump’s specific faults might actually be propping up American liberalism. If we had a populist president who didn’t alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-center mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
.. The strategic flaw in this reading of the liberal situation is that politics isn’t about casually held opinions on a wide range of topics, but focused prioritization of specifics. As the Democratic data analyst David Shor has noted, you can take a cluster of nine Democratic positions that each poll over 50 percent individually, and find that only 18 percent of Americans agree with all of them. And a single strong, focused disagreement can be enough to turn a voter against liberalism, especially if liberals seem uncompromising on that issue.
A pattern of narrow, issue-by-issue resistance is also what you’d expect in an era where the popular culture is more monolithically left-wing than before. That cultural dominance establishes a broad, shallow left-of-center consensus, which then evaporates when people have some personal reason to reject liberalism, or confront the limits of its case.
None of this needs to spell doom for liberals; it just requires them to prioritize and compromise. If you want to put climate change at the center of liberal politics, for instance, then you’ll keep losing voters in the Rust Belt, just as liberal parties have lost similar voters in Europe and Australia. In which case you would need to reassure some other group, be it suburban evangelicals or libertarians, that you’re willing to compromise on the issues that keep them from voting Democratic.
Alternatively, if you want to make crushing religious conservatives your mission, then you need to woo secular populists on guns or immigration, or peel off more of the tax-sensitive upper middle class by not going full socialist.
But the liberal impulse at the moment, Buttigiegian as well as Ocasio-Cortezan, is to insist that liberalism is a seamless garment, an indivisible agenda that need not be compromised on any front. And instead of recognizing populism as a motley coalition united primarily by opposition to liberalism’s rule, liberals want to believe they’re facing a unitary enemy — a revanchist patriarchal white supremacy, infecting every branch and tributary of the right.
A future without a liberal class will prove to be a problem not only for the people it is supposed to protect but also for the integrity of the American democratic system as a whole.
Indeed, the government needs to have a liberal functioning class, as it acts as a safeguard against policies that are too harsh. A liberal bulwark too is often the last hope for those whom the government has wronged.
It was the liberal class, for example, that pushed reforms such as workers’ rights, saving people from complete exploitation under an unfettered free market or despotic government.
A functioning liberal class also acts as an attack dog, battling radical movements that might wish to topple a government by instituting the moderate reforms that discredit more radical action.
The liberal class can claim, rightly or wrongly, that its policies can improve a social situation without the insecurity and chaos that can come with radical change.
Furthermore, Americans have become disappointed and restless without a functioning liberal class.
The failed liberal class in the United States provides no new meaningful reforms and is thus no longer a safeguard against governmental controls. Consequently, today’s working class feels disappointed and angry.
We can also find examples throughout history of how the disappearance of a functioning liberal class has caused the collapse of entire governments.
At the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, for example, the liberal class failed to satisfy the needs of its citizens, such as providing job security and a stable economy. With their needs unmet, the public turned to extremists on both sides of the political spectrum for support, which eventually allowed the Nazi party to rise significantly in power.
The failure of the liberal class weakens an entire political system, the consequences of which are much harsher and broader than you might initially think.
Many liberals were simply bought off.
Indeed, many liberal thinkers have become extremely wealthy, and have no desire to change the system that gave them their wealth.
Institutions that were always a home to liberal thinkers, such as universities and churches, now offer salaries large enough to encourage liberals not bite the hand that feeds them by criticizing the system.
Professors at elite schools, such as Harvard University or Princeton University, can earn up to $180,000 per year. With an income like that, it’s tempting to abandon advocating for reforms that could end the gravy train. They’re also less likely to pass on liberal values to their students.
Of course, non-liberal institutions, such as corporations, are just as eager to buy off critics by offering huge rewards to those who remain on the sidelines and stay out of a corporation’s way.
Labor union leaders, for instance, can earn huge salaries or even become junior partners at large companies, but only if they promise to keep their criticism of corporate interests to a minimum.
The perks of a cushy job might make it easy to stay quiet, even if you know that your fellow workers are being exploited.
Whether a consequence of blind faith, big wages or corporate promises, however, the result is the same: the liberal class has failed to protect us from corporate domination.
But what does this mean for the future?
As Democrats move from success in the 2018 midterms to the early stages of picking a 2020 presidential candidate, a narrative is taking root. It holds that the key Democratic voter today is young, liberal and rebellious—in short, a version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old activist who became the youngest congresswoman ever and who appears to be pushing the party to the left.
There is one problem with this narrative. It largely misses the story of the voters who actually delivered success to Democrats last year—and who may determine the outcome of the next presidential race.The disconnect between perception and reality is important because it affects what Democrats do—now that they have a piece of governing power in Washington with their newfound control of the House, and because it affects the way the party views the nascent effort to choose the next presidential contender. In particular, it affects views of the largest name in the party not yet in the 2020 field: former Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s certainly true that there was a lot of energy among young, liberal Democrats in 2018, and that figures to be true again in the new presidential cycle.
Yet the Democratic electorate in 2018—the one that swung House seats and governor’s offices from Republican to Democratic—was neither as young nor as liberal as popularly imagined. AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 115,000 self-identified 2018 midterm voters, found that just 15% of those who voted Democratic last November were aged 18 through 29. The largest contingent of Democratic voters—36%—actually were ages 45 through 64.
All told, 60% of Democratic voters were aged 45 or older.
In ideological terms, there is no doubt that the party is moving to the left. An increasing share of Democrats are identifying themselves as liberal. Yet that movement also can be overstated. While half of Democratic voters last year identified themselves as liberal, 48% called themselves moderate or conservative. And moderates outnumbered “very liberal” Democratic voters by two to one.
Their switch is why many of those moderate Republicans washed out to sea; their fate was sealed more by moderate women rising up to vote Democratic than because of a left-wing insurrection. Indeed, candidates endorsed by the moderate New Democrat coalition flipped 33 of the 42 House seats that went from Republican to Democrat.
Geographically, the keys to Democrats’ success came not in the party’s coastal enclaves—such as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district, which was held by Democrats long before she arrived—but rather in the industrial upper Midwest swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were won by Mr. Trump in 2016, but Democrats won the popular House vote in those states last fall. Democrats also nominated moderates for governor in all three states—and all three won, by a margin of 1.3 million votes.This reality is important for Democrats as candidates begin drifting onto the 2020 presidential battlefield. The prevailing narrative suggests not only that the advantage goes to a fresh face who excites the party’s young progressives—think former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas or Sen. Kamala Harris of California—but that such a choice has the best chance of success against Mr. Trump.
And maybe that’s the case. But consider the alternative, suggested by the reality of the midterm election results: The votes that will spell the difference for Democrats lie not on the left and on the coasts, but in the center and in the industrial Midwest.
That’s where Mr. Biden enters the picture. Perhaps the 76-year-old former vice president is too old. He certainly doesn’t meet the desire for “new blood” in politics cited last week by former President Obama.
On the other hand, if the Democrats’ key votes in 2020 will lie among centrists in the industrial Midwest, the more moderate profile of the favorite son of Scranton, Pa., will be an attractive one. Moreover, if voters generally are looking for somebody who knows how to get things done rather than simply create controversy, the guy who once prevented a government shutdown by cutting a big budget deal with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell may have some appeal.
It’s too early to know, of course—but there is more than one narrative at work for Democrats.