The punditry you get in the wake of many American elections is often so rote it can usually be anticipated in advance: If a centrist Democrat wins, the takeaway is that they did so by triangulating; if they lose, as Clinton-era hack Terry McAuliffe did in Virginia this week, the Left is invariably to blame. And so, right on cue, the standard chorus of pundits and operatives is already issuing the all too predictable argument that the Biden presidency has been pulled “too far to the left” and is being punished electorally as a result.
It’s an especially comical conclusion to draw as the Democratic Party continues to whittle down what was already a compromised legislative agenda at the behest of corporate interests — and, presumably, a prelude to a likely rightward pivot ahead of next year’s midterms almost certain to yield similar results.
Regardless of the outcome, of course, the usual suspects will double down on the same bogus ontology of politics they’ve embraced since 1992: that the only conceivable road to victory is one of triangulation and that the endless disciplining of liberal voters represents the only viable path to electoral success.
It’s a tiresome schtick which tends to be recited regardless of whether Democrats win or lose, and it’s also one whose few real moments of validation (namely 2006 and 2018) are altogether less validating when you put them in context. In truth, what’s repeatedly sold as a winning electoral formula is less a carefully considered strategy than it is an expression of ideological preference: in this case, a preference to shun both populist mass politics and the transformative policies that come with them.
There’s an alternative story you won’t hear at moments like this, which is ultimately much closer to the truth. A little less than two years ago, the Democratic establishment was on the verge of losing to a populist challenger more popular with younger voters than any in history and arguably more in sync with the policy preferences of a majority of Americans than any other in the field. Looking on in horror as various astroturf candidates flopped, and fearing a candidate who threatened the interests of the consultants and corporate patrons that functionally control the party, it turned to an old guard machine politician for salvation and duly staved off the challenge.
Amid the biggest wave of mass protests in modern history, Joe Biden proceeded to run what was, in its general tonality (setting aside what was, on paper, an unusually progressive-friendly policy platform) — the standard, suburbs-oriented Democratic campaign and narrowly eked out a win against a hugely unpopular president who was badly mismanaging a major national crisis.
Upon his victory, Biden promised an ambitious recovery and reform program, but has since largely read from the standard Beltway playbook while presiding over an all too predictable climb down from the various policies inserted into the Democratic platform to cajole the Left. Thus, what was initially pitched as a monster, New Deal–style program now looks more and more anemic with each passing week.
The standard rejoinder, of course, is that the Democrats would happily legislate a transformative program were it not for opposition from two intransigent blue dog senators. While arguably true at the margins, the current dynamic is ultimately a structural one born of the very basic contradiction at the heart of the Democratic Party as an enterprise — and, if Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema weren’t the villains of the week, we can safely guarantee other Democratic senators would emerge from the woodwork to take their place.
There’s no way to govern coherently with a legislative program that represents a one-sided compromise between the preferences of liberal voters and those of major corporations. This model of so-called compromise was hardly invented by the likes of Manchin or Sinema. It’s also the one embraced by Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and virtually every other major figure or grandee in the Democratic Party’s upper ranks.
In a big way, the Left’s critique in 2016 and 2020 wasn’t just that a new, more ambitious, and more ideologically coherent program was urgently needed. It was also that the Democratic Party is structurally unable to deliver even many of the softly progressive measures its leaders periodically claim to want — and that, by extension, an administration headed by a figure like Joe Biden was almost certain to yield a very predictable result.
At the end of the day, you can’t politically align with both sick people and pharmaceutical companies. There’s no squaring the contradictions of a health care system that puts insurance industry profits ahead of human needs, or an economy officially based on “equality of opportunity” that allows a tiny few to ascend to the status of neo-feudal barons while broad swathes of the working class are literally dying daily and defaulting on their bills. There are no “moderate” solutions to climate change. There’s no reasonable, pragmatic compromise to be had between protecting the basic rights of black Americans to vote and allowing the Republican Party to gerrymander the electoral map into one that creates a system of permanent minority rule. You cannot simultaneously seek a mandate for reform while also, as Biden did, promising that “nothing will fundamentally change.”
These contradictions, and the electoral results they so regularly produce, are ultimately born of a political model that incessantly pretends to be something it’s not. The Left has no claim to an electoral magic wand certain to produce victory. But there’s something elegantly straightforward about staking out clear positions, offering up big and popular policies, and then rallying actual support for them outside an insular and parochial political establishment. This was the progressive alternative the Democratic establishment successfully rallied to defeat in 2020. It’s also what they decidedly opted not to do after a landslide victory in 2008, ushering in an era of successive electoral drubbings that culminated in the disaster of 2016.
With some marginal differences, the Biden era is turning out exactly as many of us on the Left both predicted and feared that it would. And, if the emerging consensus about this week’s elections is any indication, the next few years look destined to follow a template we’ve seen many times before.