Originally published in Nation’s Kapital, edited by Michael Marmol and Sean Cassar
By the end of the summer of 2020, the Democratic Party seemed poised for a historic victory. The incumbent president was deeply unpopular, the economy was in sharp decline and COVID-19 was running rampant throughout the country. This was a golden opportunity for the Democratic Party to take back power after four years in the opposition.
Instead of a resolute win, they experienced a lackluster victory — narrowly clawing back the presidency from Donald Trump. The party lost seats in the House and have had their chances at flipping control of the Senate reduced to two longshot runoff races in Georgia. What was initially predicted to be a landslide victory turned into a protracted election week in which a winner was not declared for six days. This lukewarm performance stands in stark contrast with the electoral high-water mark displayed by the party in 2008 where they won back the presidency, expanded their House majority and took control of the Senate — one seat short of a filibuster-proof majority. The decline in the party's ability to decisively win elections has left a lot of Democrats wondering where they went wrong. The answer is clear: Democrats no longer embrace their left-wing base.
In the wake of the 2020 election, Democratic leaders were looking for scapegoats to rationalize their underperformance. High-profile figures like Rep. Abigail Spanberger explicitly denounced the party’s alleged support for calls to defund the police and condemned any affiliation with socialism — by extension, condemning left-wing populism. Despite Rep. Spanberger’s denunciations, the most successful victories for the Democrats have been when they embraced their left flank. In the shadow of the Great Depression, FDR won four landslide victories by running on the most radical agenda in American history. His platform also delivered a Democratic majority in both legislative bodies. Upon his re-election, the Democrats held 74 seats in the Senate and 334 seats in the House. Faced with similar circumstances during the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s insurgent candidacy astonished the country with his ardently progressive platform — leading the party to a nine-seat majority in the Senate and 37-seat majority in the House.
2008 — a year with many parallels to 2020 — saw the country engulfed in the Great Recession: an economic crisis in which 10% of Americans lost their jobs all while facing unprecedented foreclosures due to the harrowing housing crisis. This, coupled with the unpopularity of the Iraq War, resulted in high levels of left-wing activism, such that protests became a regular fixture in the public discourse. During the primary, Obama was not the definitive frontrunner until late in the race. Among others, the young senator from Illinois faced two heavyweights in Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who both represented the moderate Democratic bloc. In order to differentiate himself from his high profile opponents, Obama took more progressive stances on issues like climate change, vowing to cut America’s carbon emissions by 80% before 2050; on immigration reform, opposing border fencing; and, most notably, on the issue of healthcare, envisioning a system that included a public option with the goal of universal coverage. Though his healthcare plan did not go so far as to advocate for a single-payer system, it was significantly more expansive and progressive than that of his opponents. Despite the conventional wisdom of the Democratic establishment, the adoption of these progressive policies would prove popular with the electorate — most significantly, the young, progressive left. The support he received from the base provided him with the energy he needed to push past his rivals in the Democratic Primary and, ultimately, delivered him the presidency that fall. Ironically, his Vice President would completely abandon this strategy in the 2020 election.
Twelve years after Obama’s landmark victory, little had changed: voters were once again faced with soaring levels of income inequality, the accelerating threat of climate change, a cruel market-based healthcare system that forces low-income Americans into crowdfunding for care and an incumbent with punitive immigration policies. Biden, in contrast with his former running mate, adopted moderate solutions to these problems. Of these, Biden only articulated one clear stance: On the issue of healthcare, he advocated for expanding the ACA by adding a public option — the most moderate plan of the high profile candidates. His rhetoric on immigration, income inequality and climate change seemed to obfuscate his positions — forgoing a clearly articulated plan when questioned in a public forum. His platform on these issues fell short of meeting the severity of the moment, which stifled his ability to garner young supporters. The same progressive energy that carried Obama to victory in 2008 was now behind his primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Where Biden hedged, Bernie chose to be bold with clear ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — plans that would heavily reform the health care and energy sectors of America’s economy. Subsequently, Bernie led with young people in the double digits. His proposals to reshape the economy, while considered radical, were popular with a wide majority of Democratic primary voters. In reaction to this widespread support, moderate Democratic front runners abandoned their lead to throw their support behind the trailing Biden campaign. Despite his momentous second run at the presidency and securing victories in the first three primaries, Sanders would be soundly defeated with the race all but over following Super Tuesday — leaving Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee. However, going into the general election, Biden lacked support from the progressive wing of the party.
Following the primary, many progressives were left embittered by the party. This presented a challenge for the Biden team; however, he had many opportunities to reach out and earn their votes. The first attempt to reconcile with progressives came with a task force that was designed to mitigate the platform disputes between the Sanders and Biden wings of the party. The results of the commission, which proved largely disappointing for progressives, produced a platform that consisted of a climate plan that would not ban fracking, a continued prohibition of marijuana and a commitment to lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60. Notably, this contrasted with the 2016 DNC platform, which supported the legalization of marijuana, provided state and local governments with the ability to regulate and ban fracking and pledged to lower the Medicare age from 65 to 55. Though the task force did produce a few laudable results, including a commitment to a $15 minimum wage, most of the platform fell significantly short of progressives' hopes. On several key policies, the 2020 DNC platform demonstrated a rightward shift that, while incremental, represented their return to the center in pursuit of moderate voters. After providing over 30% of the vote in the primary, progressives had hoped that their delegation would have had more influence over the direction of the party.
As the summer progressed, another opportunity for reconciliation with the activist left presented itself to the Biden team. The largest civil rights uprising in history had engulfed nearly every major city in America following the murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department. These protests were almost uniformly led and organized by young, progressive, Black organizers. They were subsequently met with increasingly harsh crackdowns by the police, which would frequently spark violent confrontations with demonstrators. The police received stalwart support from President Trump, who would often encourage violence against the protesters. This only emboldened the police to continue their use of brutal, excessive and, in some cases, illegal tactics to quash legal dissent. The impassioned activists received no such solidarity from the Democratic nominee. Biden made clear that he supported the concept of the protests, but failed to endorse or empathize with those fighting against police brutality. He also explicitly rejected activists’ calls to defund the police — a policy initiative central to the Black Lives Matter movement. Biden’s stance on this issue has remained stagnant following the election. In a meeting with civil rights leaders in December, the President-elect claimed that calls to defund the police were “how [the Republicans] beat the living hell out of us across the country.”
The culmination of these momentous disappointments resulted in very low enthusiasm for Biden's candidacy among young progressives. Although many still turned out for him, this was largely driven by a sense of duty in the face of a second term for Trump, rather than excitement for a new direction for the country. Therein lies the critical difference between the strategy of the Obama ’08 and the Biden ’20 campaigns. When faced with economic turmoil, public unrest, rising inequality, a callous and ill-equipped healthcare system and a looming climate disaster, they chose fundamentally opposite paths. Obama chose to harness the energy and enthusiasm of young activists — wielding it into a historic electoral victory. In contrast, Biden evaded his progressive base and held on to win by very narrow margins across multiple swing states. Going forward, this strategy will present a significant problem for Democrats.
In 2024, Joe Biden will be 82 years old and will likely not run for re-election. This will leave Democrats at another crossroads in a predictably schismatic election season. Moderate Democrats like Rep. Spanberger will continue to promote the incorrect conclusion that the party must run to the center in order to win, using the 2020 election as their main supporting example. Ultimately, a win is a win, and once Biden is sworn in, the margin of his victory will no longer matter. However, if the party continues to produce nominees who appeal to suburban Republicans at the expense of the party’s progressive and working-class base — denouncing their preferred policy — they will subsequently experience significant electoral disappointments and potentially lose legitimacy as a party that can compete nationally.
While the Democratic Party navigates the clash of vision among its primary nominees, the Republicans will most likely nominate another cruel candidate who has embraced the Trumpist model of governance and will continue to amplify the growing right-wing base that he inspired. The only way to overcome the passionate threat of the far right is to embolden the prominent figures within the Democratic Party who have been ardently outspoken about progressive ideals. House Democrats who are committed to racial and economic justice like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Rashida Tlaib and Ro Khanna represent what the party should be. They maintain massive social media platforms and high approval ratings among voters, and are keyed into the issues that the base is most passionate about. The left-wing populism they have championed will allow them to serve as formidable competitors in 2024. This is what led to the unrivaled success of FDR; this is what led to Obama’s historic win in 2008 — and this is the only way to ensure victory going forward. Democrats must embrace the left.