A Very Bad Election for Progressives

Across the country last week, the left wing of the Democratic Party struggled to connect with voters.

By now, it’s well-known that Democrats suffered substantial losses in last week’s elections, including the Virginia governorship. A few states away, in New Jersey, a Republican truck driver who barely spent anything on his campaign appears to have defeated the Democratic State Senate president, although the latter has yet to concede.

While Americans watched Democrats ousted by Republicans all over the nation, another trend also became clear: across the country, the left wing of the Democratic party failed to displace the party establishment. 

In Buffalo, New York, for instance, things initially looked pretty good for the left. Over the summer, Democratic socialist India Walton had managed to win a victory in the mayoral primary, besting a four-term incumbent mayor named Byron Brown. But Brown decided to continue through the general election even though his name wasn’t even on the ballot, asking his constituents to “write down Byron Brown.” Write-in victories are rare in American political history, and so it was easy to assume that Walton, who went on to earn the endorsement of both of the state’s U.S. Senators, had it in the bag. 

The problem was that Walton, who ran on a broad progressive platform, insisted on taking unpopular positions on the key issue of crime and policing: calling herself a police abolitionist, she campaigned on cutting the city’s police budget. 

This gave Brown an opening. He ran commercials featuring police officers, warning that budget cuts could lead to layoffs. Even as Buffalo polling showed that public safety was a top concern among Buffalo voters, Walton refused to moderate her views on police issues. Ultimately, she lost by almost 20 points to a candidate whose name didn’t even appear on the ballot.

Left-wing candidates faced similar defeats nationwide. In Seattle, the progressive candidate for city attorney—another self-described proponent of police abolition—so badly alienated voters that the notoriously progressive city ended up voting in a Republican for the slot instead.

In Minneapolis, which became ground zero for 2020’s police reform movement after the murder of George Floyd, progressive activists placed a referendum on the ballot that would eliminate the police department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that would be responsible for a “comprehensive public health approach to safety.” That referendum, called Question 2, was decisively defeated. Meanwhile, Mayor Jacob Frey survived a challenge from progressives. 

There was at least one bright spot for the left wing of the party on election night. In Boston, progressive city councilwoman Michelle Wu was elected mayor, defeating a more conservative opponent.

But the bigger picture shows that the left repeatedly failed to win intraparty debates even on the fertile ground of progressive cities. I have some insight into why this might be, having reported on these intraparty debates for years.

I recall a reporting trip I made to Minneapolis in 2017, the year that Frey was first elected mayor. I embedded with a socialist named Ginger Jentzen, who was running on a third-party ticket against the Democratic Party for a city council seat. While this is electoral suicide in much of the United States, the city’s ranked-choice voting system and left-wing bent made her a viable candidate.

Jentzen was a seasoned organizer who had helped run the campaign that won a $15 minimum wage for the city. She had bold plans that included introducing rent control to Minneapolis. But as I went with her door-to-door canvassing, I noticed that she had trouble addressing some of the concerns that her potential constituents raised with issues like crime. When constituents would tell her they felt unsafe at times, she would try to steer the conversation back to some social or economic policy. She was clearly uncomfortable endorsing more policing as a response to public safety concerns. She ended up losing the race. 

Like Walton and other progressives who failed to make it past the finish line this year, Jentzen had difficulty compromising her idealism in order to get elected. This is a perpetual problem on the left wing of the Democratic Party. They often equate compromise with betrayal. 

But by refusing to strategically triangulate at all, the left all but assures that the establishment can maintain its grip on power. Rather than compromise and get 75 percent of what they want, progressives lose elections and achieve little to nothing. 

Is there anything to be gained by calling yourself a police abolitionist? There’s basically no place on the planet—at least not one that isn’t run by warlords instead—that has abolished police. That sort of language only alienates potential voters and ensures that the more conservative candidates and proposals win the day instead. 

It should also be noted that the left has become increasingly callous towards people who don’t share its cultural mores. After the Democrats’ loss in Virginia, “#whitewomen” trended on Twitter because a significant portion of the liberal punditocracy blamed them for supporting Republican candidates. Apparent in these tweets is the fact that many of those pundits seem to think that the way to get someone to vote for their favored candidates is through collective shame and intimidation. But this condescension only turns off voters and pushes away potential allies.

One thing the U.S. left could do is learn from the left abroad. Although his name is now synonymous with the failures of the Labour Party, it is worth remembering that the one election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was able to substantially increase its seats in parliament was in 2017. That year, Corbyn endorsed a large increase in the ranks of the police and intelligence, blasting the ruling Conservative Party shortly after a terror attack for thinning the ranks of security services.

Yes, there are times when politicians compromise so much away that they barely change the status quo. But being unable to compromise on anything is just as politically sinful as being willing to compromise on everything. If the left wants to take power and influence policy, it needs to shed its ideological inflexibility in the face of elections.

Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.