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Progressives Refuse to Hear What Voters Had to Say

Ramesh Ponnuru
·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Having all but won the presidential election, Democrats are engaged in recriminations anyway.

In a conference call among House Democrats two days after the election, moderates complained about progressive colleagues who had made their re-elections more difficult.

Some testy exchanges are taking place in public. Claire McCaskill, the former senator from Missouri, said on MSNBC that cultural issues such as abortion and guns had helped Republicans. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist congresswoman from Queens, shot back on Twitter that McCaskill had lost her election in 2018 and so nobody should listen to her.

McCaskill managed to hold a Senate seat for 12 years for the Democrats in a state that has been turning more and more Republican. Her audacious intervention in the Republican primary in 2012 helped her hold a seat she had been expected to lose. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, represents a district where 77% of the voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. If you had to pick one of them for advice on how to expand the Democrats’ appeal in parts of the country where it’s struggling, of course it ought to be McCaskill.

Ocasio-Cortez’s misreading of her record is of a piece, though, with a larger tendency among progressives to misunderstand the last few years. They thought Senator Bernie Sanders did as well as he did against Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries because socialism was on the march. It has gotten ever clearer that what fueled his campaign was not being her. Ocasio-Cortez and her squad of self-proclaimed socialists got the headlines in 2018, but moderate Democrats won the elections that got the Democrats their House majority.

Now progressives are saying that Sanders would have done better than Biden, for example by ramping up the Democratic vote among Hispanics. At the very least, though, one has to wonder whether voters of Cuban or Venezuelan descent would have run to, rather than from, the socialist banner. And progressive champions managed to lose a lot of House races — including the Omaha, Nebraska, district that Biden took back from Trump.

You can make an argument that Democrats should be happy, or at least relieved, by the election results — and most Democratic voters probably are. The Democrats’ top objective was to remove President Donald Trump from office and their chief argument was that another four years of him would be intolerable. They’re on the verge of winning that argument and achieving that objective.

Progressives are disappointed because they wanted more than that. They wanted a sharp left turn in policy on everything from guns to taxes. They wanted a repudiation of “Trumpism,” defined pretty much as everything Republicans believe. They wanted to exploit a massive reaction against Trump to push through structural changes in American politics that would give them a lasting advantage. They thought it was all within reach.

But they’re not getting any of that. If the Democrats win both special Senate elections in Georgia in January, which is unlikely, they will have the narrowest possible Senate majority. That means that dreams of expanding the Supreme Court are dead and the Trump tax cuts are alive.

What’s worse for progressives is that a theory that has sustained their hopes for decades has just been disproven. A boldly left-wing campaign would mobilize new voters, they maintained, and an enlarged electorate would deliver a big, mandate-making victory. Instead, we got the high-turnout election — and an anti-left, although also anti-Trump, majority.

A common response to the dashing of progressive hopes is to lament the undemocratic features of our political system, such as a Senate that gives as much power to the Republicans of tiny Wyoming as the Democrats of populous California. But it wasn’t that long ago that Democrats were able to win elections in Arkansas and the Dakotas, and even today Louisiana has a Democratic governor. Both parties have made deliberate choices that accentuate their differences and put broad coalitions out of reach, and they can make different ones if their core supporters decide they are willing.

Democrats could affirm that they support an individual right to own guns even as they favor some regulations. They could advocate enforcement of immigration laws against scofflaw employers at the same time as leniency for illegal immigrants who have lived here peacefully. They could come out for limits on abortion late in pregnancy. They could make a point of saying, whenever the issue comes up, that of course there’s a difference between George Washington and Jefferson Davis, and monuments to the former have to stay right where they are. All of this would, until very recently, have been commonplace among Democrats.

One other small thing they could do that might go far: Stop trying to shame people for using language in ways that are well-meaning but have not kept up with the left’s swiftly changing dictates. McCaskill’s TV comments led to an uproar and an apology from her: She had used the word “transsexual” instead of “trans people.” We’ll see if anything else she said registers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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