It’s a year until the mid-term elections of 2022. Will Democrats learn? This past Tuesday, voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Minneapolis sent them a very clear message. Are they listening? We’ll know soon enough. After all, Democrats in Congress are still fighting among themselves over infrastructure and reconciliation. So far, that fight has seen progressives wield impressive power, forcing embarrassing retrenchment by Speaker Pelosi on at least two occasions.
But Tuesday’s outcomes were a blunt rebuke by voters to Democratic progressivism. Just a few weeks ago, the Virginia governor’s race looked like a slam-dunk win for Terry McAuliffe, but the state that went to Biden in 2020 by 10 percentage points dumped the Democrat. Into the bargain, it elected as Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, a black Republican female Jamaican immigrant and former Marine. The Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey lost, but only by a hairsbreadth and that in a state with a Democratic incumbent and one million more registered Democrats than Republicans. In Minneapolis, the ballot initiative to replace the entire police department with some vaguely-imagined successor went down in flames, 56% - 44%.
In all that, progressivism was the elephant in the room. Famously, McAuliffe’s campaign crashed in large part because of his disdain for parents. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” turned out to be an imperfect electoral strategy. Virginia’s parents voted for Republican, Glenn Youngkin, by a 15%-point margin. McAuliffe’s remark was ridiculously tone deaf, but politicians make those sorts of mistakes all the time and voters forgive them. It’s hard to lose a major election on the basis of 12 words spoken extemporaneously, but McAuliffe managed the feat.
His gaff sank him because it so perfectly aligned with the progressive narrative. As the Black Lives Matter website told us, parents and families are outmoded relics of oppression that need replacing by, I suppose, a village. Loudoun County, VA parents who protested the teaching of Critical Race Theory were branded as, yes, terrorists by the Biden Justice Department. The Lincoln Project chipped in on McAuliffe’s behalf with a race-baiting dirty tricks operation that received national attention from CNN. All that and far more occurred within a steady drumbeat of progressive messages to the effect that anyone voting for Youngkin was, of course, a racist.
On PBS Tuesday night, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville summed up the matter nicely referring to “woke stupidity” and adding,
“I mean, this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this ‘take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools,’ . . . People see that.”
Indeed we do. The question is “will Democratic progressives do the same?” Will they see that they’re the main reason for McAuliffe’s debacle? If the past is prologue, the answer is “no.” For at least a couple of decades now the progressive response to every rejection of their politics and worldview has been, not mature reflection on what went wrong, but to heap opprobrium on voters who reject the woke narrative. Those, they consider to be, at best, witless dupes of right-wing news media and at worst (what else?) racist white supremacists. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” called the tune that, as of Wednesday morning, was still being sung by the progressive Twitterati. Virginia voters, you see, are racists, at least the majority who voted for Youngkin.
Surely the measure of that lunacy is the fact that, at the same time they were sending Terry McAuliffe out the back door, those “racist” voters were electing to the lieutenant governorship a black woman who, in her acceptance speech, rightly called her election her own realization of the American Dream. While progressives were slandering Virginia voters as white supremacists, Sears was leading her constituents in a deafening chant of “USA! USA!” Of the two, which sounds like the better appeal to voters, the more upbeat view of a nation and its future?
However you answer, one thing looks clear. The progressive/woke narrative was born and nurtured on college campuses where it received no real pushback. It spilled out of the academy and into the Democratic Party, the leftist media and much of corporate America, but nowhere did it meet serious resistance. Until Tuesday, no one had told the children “No!” But on Election Day, woke progressivism met the real world of electoral politics and fell on its face. Carville is right. We the People do see what the woke are up to and are not amused. You can call a fine, upstanding black woman a racist if you want, but don’t expect us to vote for you if you do.
There is a name for this: Democracy in Action. What happened last Tuesday is what democracy has always been about – the takedown of self-appointed elites by everyday folks. It’s why we’re no longer ruled by monarchs. I don’t mean to make more of this than is warranted. Monarchy has merely been replaced by oligarchy, but what that oligarchy learned is that the people can limit its power. The struggle between elites and the rest of us is everlasting.
In the shorter term, what matters is whether progressives demonstrate the ability to grow up and do the things necessary to earn the respect of American voters. The age-old political conundrum – to be ideologically pure or pragmatic - is one progressives have never sorted out, but they tend strongly to prefer purity to success. In the Moderates vs. Progressives fight for power within the Democratic Party, that’s been underway for decades and that sees an ascendant progressive minority, that’s music to Republican ears.
The coming year and the mid-term elections will tell the tale. We’ll see what progressives in Congress do and how President Biden, once a hapless moderate, now a hapless progressive, responds. The short-term fate of the Democratic Party hangs in the balance.