A crisis of legitimacy swept across American politics in the second decade of the 21st century. Many people had the general conviction that the old order was corrupt and incompetent. There was an inchoate desire for some radical transformation. This mood swept the Republican Party in 2016 as Donald Trump eviscerated the G.O.P. establishment and it swept through the Democratic Party in 2020.
In the 2020 primary race Joe Biden stood as the candidate for linear change and Elizabeth Warren stood as the sharp break from the past. Biden was the front-runner, but fragile. Many of the strongest debate performers — Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bennet — couldn’t get any traction because Biden occupied the moderate lane. By the time he faded, it was too late.
Warren triumphed over the other progressive populist, Bernie Sanders, because she had what he lacked — self-awareness. She could run a campaign that mitigated her weaknesses. He could not.
Biden was holding on until Warren took Iowa and New Hampshire. He or some other moderate could have recovered, but the California primary had been moved up to March 3, Super Tuesday. When Warren dominated most of the states that day, it was over. The calendar ensured that the most progressive candidate would win.
Many pundits predicted that Warren was too much the progressive regulator in chief to win a general election. Indeed, her personal favorability remained low. But the election was about Trump — his personal disgraces but also the fact that he told a white ethnic national narrative that appealed only to a shrinking segment of the country.
Warren won convincingly. The Democrats built a bigger majority in the House, and to general surprise, won a slim Senate majority of 52 to 48.
After that election, the Republicans suffered a long, steady decline. Trump was instantly reviled by everyone — he had no loyal defenders. Only 8 percent of young people called themselves conservatives. Republican voters, mostly older, were dying out, and they weren’t making new ones. For the ensuing two decades the party didn’t resonate beyond its white rural base.
The American educated class celebrated the Warren victory with dance-in-the-street euphoria. In staffing her administration, she rejected the experienced Clinton-Obama holdovers and brought in a new cadre from the progressive left.
The euphoria ended when Warren tried to pass her legislative agenda. One by one, her proposals failed in the Senate: Medicare for all, free college, decriminalizing undocumented border crossing, even the wealth tax. Democratic senators from red states, she learned, were still from red states; embracing her agenda would have been suicidal. Warren and her aides didn’t help. Fired by their sense of moral superiority, they were good at condemnation, not coalition-building.
When the recession of 2021 hit, things got ugly. The failure of two consecutive presidencies had a devastating effect on American morale. It became evident that the nation had three political tendencies —
- conservative populism,
- progressive populism and
- moderate liberalism.
None of them could put together a governing majority to get things done.
Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.
Moderate liberals had a basic faith in American institutions and thought they just needed reform. They had basic faith in capitalism and the Constitution and revered the classical liberal philosophy embedded in America’s founding. They inherited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s millennial nationalism, a sense that America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth.
Progressives had much less faith in American institutions — in capitalism, the Constitution, the founding. They called for more structural change to things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the basic structures of the market. Trump’s victory in 2016 had served for them as proof that racism is the dominant note in American history, that the founding was 1619, not 1776. They were willing to step on procedural liberalism in order to get radical change.
With the Republicans powerless and irrelevant, the war within the Democratic Party grew vicious. Progressives detested moderate liberals even more than they did conservatives. The struggle came to a head with another set of Democratic primaries in 2024.
The moderate liberals triumphed easily. It turns out that the immigrant groups, by then a large and organized force in American politics, had not lost faith in the American dream, they had not lost faith in capitalism. They simply wanted more help so they could compete within it.
By 2030, progressive populism burned out as right-wing populism had. The Democrats became the nation’s majority party. This party ran on a one-word platform: unity. After decades of culture, class and demographic warfare, moderate liberals defined America as a universal nation, a pluralistic nation, embracing all and seeking opportunity for all.
In a wildly diverse nation, voters handed power to leaders who were coalition-builders not fighters. The whole tenor of American politics changed.
helps explain one of the mysteries of American politics — given that the Republican economic agenda is unpopular and the country has swung left on social issues, why can’t Democrats win more elections? The answer (one of them, at least) is that as the country has moved left, the Democratic Party’s base has consolidated even farther left, and in the process the party has lost the ability to speak to persuadable voters who disagree with the liberal consensus on a few crucial issues... On abortion, where public opinion has been stable, Democrats have ditched their old attempts at moderation, undercutting the gains that secularization and the liberal turn on other culture-war issues should have naturally delivered them. And the party’s base has no patience anymore for the kind of careful triangulation that Bill Clinton practiced on issues like crime and welfare policy, or for the then-Democratic voters who were reassured by it... Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters didn’t differ very much on the actual issues... Whether the Sanders or the Clinton faction rules, the demands of its large, consistently liberal core won’t allow much room for the experiments in outreach that a minority party needs... On both sides of the Atlantic, if you tried to build a consensus politics based around what voters actually want, it would be very moderately culturally conservative and very moderately economically liberal, and it would sit low in the upper left quadrant of our chart — the place where Trump won voters who had previously voted for Obama... But on both sides of the Atlantic, if you sought to place the elite consensus on the same chart, it be much closer to the emptiest of quadrants — the land of austerity and open borders, free trade and the permanent sexual revolution, the Simpson-Bowles plan and Emmanuel Macron.
.. Both Bill Clinton’s self-consciously moderate liberalism and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism were rooted in a recognition that what the Acela Corridor wants is not quite what the country wants.