Leftism is not the sole future of the Democratic Party


Graphic by Evelyn Shue

House Democrats faced a shocking string of loses in the 2020 election, but centrism was not to blame.

Sagar Castleman, Opinions Writer

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats exceeded even the most optimistic of predictions by flipping 41 Republican seats in the US House of Representatives, the largest gain for the party since 1974. Although a few of those elected were very liberal, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayana Pressley, the vast majority were centrists running on popular policies. These moderates embraced compromise, a welcome change from Donald Trump’s polarizing politics.

Since the midterms, the Democratic party has grown increasingly radical. Progressive representatives introduced initiatives such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to the House floor. Outside of Congress, radical cries to defund or abolish the police became mainstream, even though polls showed that a minority of Democrats and voters of color supported such actions. Unsurprisingly, House Democrats faced devastating losses in the 2020 general election: 13 incumbent representatives lost their seats, 12 of whom were moderate freshmen elected in 2018.

Though it is clear that leftist policies caused this string of losses, many progressives countered that because moderate representatives experienced the most loss, liberal policies are not to be blamed. However, this is only true due to the fact that progressives often do not face the consequences for their nationally unpopular policies since they originate from overwhelming liberal regions. “Most very progressive candidates live in areas where I think they are going to be re-elected no matter what because their views are more mainstream in those areas,” senior Justin Posner said. 

But these views were disliked in the congressional districts that Democrats needed to maintain a strong majority. Centrist voters alienated themselves from a party associated with abolishing the police, even if the particular Democratic candidate in their district did not run on such a policy. “As very [sic] progressive views that are seen by Republicans and centrists as radical have become more mainstream in the Democratic party, that’s hurt Democratic candidates across the field because even centrist candidates can easily be painted as radical or socialist by their Republican opponents,” Posner said.

One of the freshmen Democrats who lost his seat, Max Rose, plummeted in polling after one of his ads showed him marching for racial justice alongside signs saying “abolish the police”. “The number one thing that people brought to me in my district […] was defunding the police,” Abigail Spansberger, another freshman Democrat who managed to barely cling onto her seat in Virginia, said on a much-publicized phone call reported by the Washington Post.  “We need to not use the word ‘socialist’ or socialism ever again.”

However, leftists themselves are not entirely to blame for these losses. Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were able to win on the radical issues they believed in. The fault lies with the centrist Democrats who failed to differentiate themselves from these progressives. “I don’t think Democrats ran enough ads saying, ‘No, I don’t support defunding the police,’ they didn’t make it clear enough that, ‘I am not the left,’” said sophomore Sahil Rao, who phone banked for Joe Biden and interned with Rep. Jamie Raskin. Instead, these moderates, who make up the bulk of the Democratic party, were often overshadowed by their louder and more popular leftist colleagues. 

Whether it was a fear of losing progressive voters or of being “canceled” and ostracized, moderate Democrats were not vocal enough in showing that they had substantial differences with the left. Instead, they ran mundane anti-Trump ads and occasionally discussed their hallmark policies. Meanwhile, their Republican opponents boasted their much more powerful, if inaccurate, message: they were saving the country from a wave of socialism that had already resulted in surges of rioting and looting across the country. 

 Moderate Democrats failed to properly condemn even the most extreme cases of rioting. Throughout the summer, there was violence, property damage and police cars set on fire. Most Democrats stayed silent, occasionally making guarded statements about the value of peaceful protests but never offering the strong denunciations that centrist and conservative voters wanted.

“When you can vote directly against Trump and say no to Trumpism, then what does voting for a Democrat down-ballot do? It doesn’t do anything because you’re already saying no to Trump when you vote for Biden,” Rao said. For center-right voters who disliked Trump, the solution was obvious: vote Democrat nationally and choose Republicans for local positions. This explains why in so many of the districts where moderate Congressional Democrats lost, Biden still won.

If Democrats want to get back the seats they lost, they need to firmly vocalize what they believe in. It is fine for liberals to say what they are running on, but it is equally fine for moderates to say they do not want to defund the police, they do not want a Green New Deal and they do not want to eliminate private health insurance–especially when these are the most popular views in their districts and the ones they won on two years ago.