A Leftist Dream Just Died

Progressives said they could dominate U.S. politics by boosting turnout. The election proved them wrong.

The left-wing of the Democratic Party had the answer. To clobber Republicans at election after election, all they had to do was get out the vote. According to this theory, legions of would-be progressives weren’t casting ballots. But once activated, they would sweep the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into higher office, transforming America.

It was a theory with a perk. Progressives—rather than needing to persuade moderate swing voters—could cling to positions on the left, and never reconsider them when they lost elections.

During Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination in 2019, he was asked about the risk that a leftist like him might alienate key voters. “The only way you beat Trump is by having an unprecedented campaign, an unprecedentedly large voter turnout,” he responded. “The key to this election is can we get millions of young people who have never voted before into the political process, many working people who understand that Trump is a fraud, can we get them voting?”

This election did enjoy a huge turnout, a percentage that could exceed any race since 1900. But Biden’s victory fails to substantiate the-masses-are-progressive theory. Analysts have suggested that the left-wing of the party actually alienated some traditional Democratic voters. Also, the driving electoral strategy of Biden was an appeal to moderates, peeling away former Trump supporters in key states, which he did with decisive effect in the Rust Belt.

Back in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez articulated her vision for the Democrats. “Our swing voter is not red-to-blue,” she said. “Our swing voter is…the non-voter to voter.” When Claire McCaskill—former Democratic senator from Missouri—argued recently that divisive culture-war issues had distracted the Democrats from their focus on the economy, she earned a sharp rebuke from Ocasio-Cortez.

“Why do we listen to people who lost elections as if they are experts in winning elections?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

But Ocasio-Cortez has no experience winning in the parts of the country that are really at stake. She runs in a district of New York City that the 2017 Cook Partisan Voter Index ranks as 29 percentage points more Democratic than the national average—the Republican Party basically doesn’t exist there. And the reason that Ocasio-Cortez became her party’s candidate for the House of Representatives in the first place was not massive turnout but the opposite: In the Democratic Party primary election that brought her to prominence, about 200,000 Democratic voters were registered, but a little under 30,000 cast ballots.

This is not to dismiss the wish of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez that new voters join in the process. It is intrinsically desirable to have Americans more active in the project of governing themselves (at least as long as you value democracy, as I do). But turnout alone is not enough to win Democrats hegemonic control of the government. In states like Alabama, Democrats saw record turnout in this latest election. But Republicans saw enormous turnout, too. In Texas, more people voting still wasn’t enough for the Democrats. Winning at least some swing voters from the other party is essential.

Take the 2018 midterm elections, which put Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, stifling the GOP’s legislative agenda. The change from the 2016 elections was determined almost entirely (about 89 percent of the shift) by voters who’d changed sides, according to one post-election analysis. We don’t have detailed data on 2020 yet, but there are signs that swing voters again made the difference. By way of illustration, look to Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, where left-wing Democratic candidate Kara Eastman was defeated by four points. Biden won the same district by about seven points.

The progressive pollster David Shor told me by email: “We won’t know for sure about 2016 --> 2020 until we get voter file data back, but eyeballing the precinct/county returns, it seems like it will involve a roughly similar persuasion/mobilization mix as 2016->2018, that is to say, overwhelmingly persuasion.”

Yearning for an electorate that isn’t there is a dead-end, as Trump himself is learning in his desperate attempts to deny the loss. The nation wanted a moderate this time, and the left-wing of the Democratic Party must acknowledge that, too. You can’t just abolish the electorate that rejects you, and dream up another you’d prefer.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist and co-host of the YouTube show “The Backchannel.” He has worked for University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress.