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Are Democrats in “disarray”? Has the party moved too far left? These questions are now clichés. But what if they’re a reflection of liberal anxiety, rather than of reality? Before Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination for president, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that since the Republicans had gone full Trump, Democrats must also be radicalizing. It’s a tidy media narrative, anyway. In June 2019, The New York Times betrayed its own anxiety, declaring in the headline that “Liberal Democrats Ruled the Debates. Will Moderates Regain Their Voices?” In October 2019, CNN’s Chris Cillizza published a piece centered on a Quinnipiac poll in which 47 percent of respondents said that “the [Democratic] party has moved too far left.” And in November 2019, Barack Obama warned a room filled with wealthy donors that most American voters don’t align with “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.” Was Obama really worried that Democrats would move too far left? Or was he floating this thesis with the hopes of getting Democrats to nominate a more electable centrist?
In February 2020, Biden won the South Carolina Democratic primary. The then-77-year-old former vice president was arguably the least “left wing” candidate on the debate stage. But the “Democrats have moved too far left” narrative was set. Now all pundits had to do was seek out information to support it. The fact that Sanders and Warren had failed to capture the nomination could not stand in the way of a good story.
Biden installed a diverse—and mostly moderate—cabinet. Vice President Kamala Harris is a former attorney general from California. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had worked in the State Department and on the National Security Council under Obama. Centrist “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg got secretary of transportation. With the possible exception of Janet Yellen, who believes in “modern supply-side economics,” most of Biden’s cabinet was largely composed of old-school Clinton Democrats.
In his first year, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, two measures to avoid a government shutdown, and legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. His most controversial act has probably been increasing the stringency of vaccine requirements for workers—like Italy, France and Canada all have.
Some pundits have of course denounced Biden’s Build Back Better Act as radical, but it was filled with wildly popular things like the child tax credit—and it didn’t pass. Also not enacted by Biden: Two things the Democratic base desperately wanted, Medicare expansion and student-debt cancellation. Meanwhile, Republicans moved against trans kids, books, gay kids, reproductive choice, and the foundation of our democracy, voting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans have made it harder to vote in 19 states.
Where is the fabled leftward lurch happening? I am told to look at the race for governor in Virginia. Glenn Youngkin supposedly defeated Terry McAuliffe because McAuliffe was too liberal. But 65-year-old McAuliffe is hardly a radical. He was chair of the DNC from 2001 to 2005 and then Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018. He was nominated because he was the safe choice and a good fundraiser. And anyway, according to The Washington Post, “In Virginia, those off-year contests have tended to favor the party that does not hold the presidency.”
More recently, I was told the lurch was evident in the school-board elections in San Francisco. More than 70 percent of voters supported the recall of each of three board members: Alison Collins, Gabriela López, and Faauuga Moliga. Voters were mad that the board had seemingly devoted more energy attempting to rename schools than reopen them. But as Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery put it, “This recall was a vote about a lot of issues, but overall it was a vote against incompetence.” They didn’t get recalled because they were too woke, they got recalled because they failed to help the San Francisco Unified School District develop a clear plan for reopening.
Do Democrats keep bringing a stuffed animal to a knife fight? Yes. Do Democrats have trouble messaging? Yes. Are Republicans better at messaging? Yes. Is disinformation undermining Democrats an enormous problem? Yes. Do Democrats need to reach out to working-class voters? Absolutely.
But journalists don’t need to accuse Democrats of extremism just because the Republican Party has hardened against democracy, nullified Roe in Texas, and is now pushing bills like “Don’t Say Gay” and Stasi-style parent tip lines where you can complain about your kid’s teachers teaching critical race theory, which isn’t actually in the Virginia curriculum. I understand the temptation to both-sides the narrative, but it’s wrong.
“The Democrats in Disarray,” a New York Times headline solemnly intones. “Unless the Democrats now gathering in New York to nominate a Presidential ticket have found a way to achieve a miraculous last-minute compromise,” the article goes on, “they will lay before the nation a full-color spectacle of division and bitterness, live from Madison Square Garden.” This ran on August 10, 1980. Forty-plus years later, the media keeps reaching for those three words, Democrats in disarray—when they’re not throwing around woke. The fact is, Republicans supported a racist autocrat for president and Democrats nominated a moderate. The two parties are not the same, and any narrative that suggests otherwise serves only one of them.