Although I identify with the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders/AOC wing of the Democratic party, I am convinced that mutual respect among non-Trumpist ideological camps is usually the way to go. Nonetheless, some of the comments from conservative Democrats and their enablers in the media in the wake of Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia last week make me want to throw up.
A New York Times editorial last week read "A national Democratic Party that talks up progressive policies at the expense of bipartisan idea... is at risk of becoming a marginal Democratic Party appealing only to the left. Tuesday’s results are a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party, including on priorities like Build Back Better, which have some strong provisions and some discretionary ones driving up the price tag."
The editorial approvingly quoted conservative Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger’s dismissive comment about Joe Biden, "Nobody elected him to be F.D.R."
Times columnist Maureen Dowd echoed the same theme and quoted James Carville’s attack on progressives on CNN "What went wrong is stupid wokeness…this defund the police lunacy."
On Sunday’s Meet The Press Chuck Todd smugly repeated conservative Democratic talking points as if they were objective facts. Todd did not have a single guest from the progressive wing of the party, but he did include a soundbite from Conservative Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner opining "you can’t win in Virginia if you only appeal to very liberal voters."
It is hard to tell where good faith political analysis of the election results by these characters end and where their ideological opposition to the progressive aspects of Biden’s agenda begins. Normally when a campaign loses, attention is focused on the people who ran it but not one of these geniuses blamed or even criticized McAuliffe or his campaign. Does Carville think that McAuliffe himself was super woke? Does Warner consider McAuliffe’s campaign "very liberal?" Does Todd think that the losing campaign was covertly run by The Squad?
In a post-election piece for The Atlantic Ron Brownstein provides a far more plausible reason for McAuliffe’s loss-- a significant decline in turnout by people of color and young voters who overwhelmingly favor Democrats when candidates take them seriously.
Brownstein explains, "Compared with the 2017 governor’s race, or the 2020 presidential contest in the state, the electorate Tuesday was older, whiter, less college-educated, and more Republican, the exit polls found. Census figures show that voters of color have increased as a share of the state’s eligible voter population since 2017, but in the exit polls nonwhite voters plummeted from about one-third of the electorate in both 2020 and 2017 to only a little over one-fourth this year. Voters under 30 fell from 20 percent of the vote in 2020 and 14 percent in 2017 to just 10 percent Tuesday." As AOC tweeted "Before people disingenuously complain 'woke' is denigrating to older people, it’s actually pundits like Carville using terms like 'woke' to insult voters under 45 that’s denigrating… Don’t wonder why youth turnout falls when Dems talk about them like this. We need everyone."
The headline of The Times editorial was "Democrats Ignore Political Reality At Their Own Peril," but the piece failed to provide a "realistic" scenario for a Democratic victory in 2022 that would not require a maximum turnout by young people and people of color.
In any case, it is not clear what "very liberal" ideas in Biden’s agenda Warner and Spanberger are complaining about. As ostensibly pragmatic politicians, they can’t possibly be referring to such positions as paid family leave, lower prescription drug prices or extending Medicare coverage to include dental treatment, hearing aids and eyeglasses all of which get more than 70% approval in polls.
Anyone who thinks that Democrats can magically control every slogan that activists use at rallies is living in a dream world. Movements play a different role than major party candidates. It should go without saying that neither McAuliffe nor any national Democratic leader has ever supported "defund the police" or any of the obscure ideas that Carville and his ilk single out as the "woke" reasons for last Tuesday’s results.
Spoiler alter-- Republicans don’t play fair in elections and they won’t in 2022. They have been calling Democrats "socialists" since Nixon did it in the nineteen forties. "Critical race theory" is merely the latest in a series of code words that Republican campaign consultants have used since Nixon won the White House with the "southern strategy" in 1968. As Martin Luther King Jr. said "White backlash is a new term for a very old phenomenon." If Democratic candidates and their campaign advisors can’t figure out how to fight back against this ancient tactic, they should find another line of work.
Meanwhile Biden administration messaging has been atrocious. A recent ABC/IPSOS poll showed that only 31% of voters knew "a great deal" or "a good amount" about the Build Back Better bill. Unless and until Democrats can connect the dots between their legislative proposals and Americans who would agree with them, they are doomed to be overwhelmed by the monied interests who oppose popular proposals like paid family leave.
One difference between the Clinton and Biden campaigns against Trump was that small parties received 5.7% of the vote in 2016 and only 1.7% in 2020. That decisive shift was partially fueled by the unprecedented engagement of artists and entertainers in 2020 who raised the level of urgency and intensity among reluctant Democratic voters.
The creative community needs to put the old band back together. One reason why celebrities like Cardi B, Taylor Swift, Jim Carrey, John Legend and dozens of others still matter politically is that Republicans have invested far more in populist media than Democrats. On any given day most of the top ten Facebook posts emanate from right wingers like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro. For reasons known only to the inner circles around "progressive" philanthropists, there have been no effective efforts to compete with Breitbart News or right-wing email machines like Blabber Buzz. Left leaning comedians and celebrities with tens of millions of Twitter followers are among the few tools Democrats have to counteract right wing brainwashing of millions of voters who mistrust or are bored by old school politics.
Besides developing messages and policies that create excitement with their base Democrats also need a national political messengers for the midterms. I’d love it if AOC spoke for all Democrats but that will not be her role in 2022. Biden is limited both by his office and temperament. And whatever one thinks of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, their day jobs are all consuming and neither of them are TV stars outside of the Sunday morning shows.
On the other hand, Kamala Harris has charisma and, like Biden, can bridge left and center in a national campaign against Trumpists. The Vice-President’s official duties are limited so she has the bandwidth to be an effective full time partisan warrior. The administration should not allow themselves to be gaslit by demonization of Harris by the likes of Fox News. Harris’ potential effectiveness is why they go after her just like they try to trivialize pop stars who they vainly hope would "shut up and sing."
(Danny Goldberg is the author of the new book Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment and Resistance to Trump. I read the book and whole-heartedly recommend it to DWT readers, especially if you're interested in the nexus between politics and popular culture.