Democrats can drive you crazy. Joe Biden won the presidency by a decisive majority, ousting a dangerous incumbent loathed across his party. In the streets of Democratic cities, there was jubilation. Yet just two days after the election, House Democrats fell into angry recriminations. Moderates blamed lefties for ideas and slogans that Republicans deployed against them. “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) told her colleagues during an angry conference call. “We lost good members because of that.” Lefties, meanwhile, criticized moderates for running bad campaigns and failing to appreciate the energy the left generates. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told the New York Times that “not a single one of these [moderate] campaigns were firing on all cylinders.”
Compare that with the Republican Party, which was almost entirely complicit with President Trump’s insane and democracy-wrecking claim that he won the election.
After a masterful presidential campaign that brought together every wing of Biden’s party, our politics seemed to snap back instantly to old habits and an old rule: Republicans fight Democrats while Democrats battle each other. These contrasting behaviors reflect a simple fact: Democrats are a big-tent party, while Republicans are a closed circle. For more than a half-century, Republicans have purged dissenters and turned themselves into a rigid, radical, unified bloc — ideologically, racially, religiously. As the Republicans cast off free-thinkers, Democrats took them in.
This makes Democrats the larger party with better long-term prospects. But it also means that Biden’s party is at risk of either pushing away the middle-of-the-road voters it needs to hold its majority or disillusioning the progressives who often power its apparatus, especially in urban centers. And Democrats must also struggle in a political system that — especially through the Senate and the electoral college — artificially tilts the playing field toward the GOP. Although Democrats ruefully invoke the old Will Rogers joke (“I am not a member of any organized political party — I am a Democrat”), their struggles are not a product of some psychological peculiarity. History has made them what they are, and they have to learn to live with it if they want to win and govern.
The conundrum goes back to the 1960s, and not just the ’60s of the counterculture, civil rights and antiwar protests. The movements for Black, women’s and LGBTQ rights had a decisive impact on our country socially, and they continue to play an important role in the Democratic Party. But there was another 1960s, embodied in the rise of the conservative intellectual movement, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, the backlash against civil rights and a New Right. The revolt on the right had a decisive impact on our party system.
The long-term effect of Goldwater’s takeover of the GOP was a series of purges. They started with the liberals (senators such as Jacob Javits, Clifford Case and Tom Kuchel). The party then drove out moderates and eventually moved to cast away even genuine conservatives (Sen. Bob Bennett and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor among them) whom activists charged with the unforgivable sin of squishiness. As Republicans became ideologically pure, they also became racially and religiously homogeneous.
This churn had overlapping effects. Many voters who would once have been moderate Republicans have been moving steadily Democratic since the 1990s — culminating, for example, in Biden’s sweep of suburbs outside places like Philadelphia and Boston, which were once moderate Republican heartlands, and even in the more conservative-leaning suburbs around Atlanta and Phoenix.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act (which Lyndon Johnson pushed through and Goldwater opposed), African Americans, who had been shifting toward the Democrats since the New Deal, consolidated as the party’s most reliable constituency. The counter movement of conservative Southern Democrats toward the Republicans, in turn, strengthened the GOP’s right wing. And Trump’s success in winning over Whites without college degrees in 2016 sharpened the Democrats’ internal debates over the relative priority of mobilizing base voters or persuading defectors. Biden did enough of both to win significant popular-vote and Electoral College majorities, but the margins in swing states were close, and Trump’s 2020 mobilization of his own voters tipped more than a half-dozen House races in red territory his party’s way.
Far from stopping the rightward radicalization of the GOP, what happened this year may only reinforce the trend. This means many debates that once took place between the parties — about, say, the appropriate size of the welfare state, the proper role of economic regulation or the right way to protect the environment — are being held almost entirely within the Democratic Party.
Imagine that the United States had a multiparty system with proportional representation, as many European democracies do. A government led by Democrats would amount to a coalition involving a left party, a broad center-left party with roots in a once-thriving labor movement, a socially liberal middle-class party, a Green party and perhaps a civil rights party. Coalitions of this sort are not unknown — progressive parties in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal have governed successfully with such alliances — but holding all the pieces together requires the patience of Job and the canniness of Machiavelli.
Although a proportional system might fracture the right to some degree — one could imagine the formation of separate pro-business, socially conservative and right-wing nationalist parties — the Republicans are, basically, one big conservative party. Its constituencies give each other what they need. Economic conservatives live with appeals to religious conservatives, nationalists and even the fringe right in exchange for tax cuts and deregulation. All sides want conservative judges to foil possible future progressive advances. With the moderates in their ranks purged, they are united in fearing the liberal (or “socialist”) enemy far more than they worry about each other. This approach was not enough to re-elect Trump, but it allowed the GOP to hold its own in Senate races and (often gerrymandered) House districts.
The 2020 election perfectly captured the distinction between Democratic diversity and Republican homogeneity. Biden’s coalition was a little bit of everybody — self-described liberals (they constituted 42 percent of his voters), moderates (48 percent) and conservatives (10 percent), according to the network exit poll conducted by Edison Research. In other words, contrary to Trump’s claim that Biden is a tool for raging leftists, a majority of his electorate was non-liberal. By contrast, Trump voters were 68 percent conservative, 27 percent moderate and 5 percent liberal.
Racially, 53 percent of Biden’s voters were White, but 82 percent of Trump’s were; 21 percent of Biden’s were Black, but only 3 percent of Trump’s were. And for all the focus on Trump’s gains among Latinos in South Florida and South Texas, the Hispanic vote is still crucial for Democrats: 16 percent of Biden’s voters were Latino, compared with 9 percent of Trump’s. The contrast is especially striking when race and religion are looked at in tandem: 67 percent of Trump’s voters were White Christians; only 30 percent of Biden’s were.
In the short term, Democrats clearly have a coalition-management challenge: Big-tent politics requires a lot of work and leads to inevitable bickering. But over the long run, Republicans are confronting decline, not only because the Democrats’ diversity better reflects the country, both now and in the future, but also because the GOP’s coalition is aging. Among Trump’s voters, 65 percent were 45 or older; only 56 percent of Biden’s were — and Biden captured voters under 30 by a better than 3-to-2 margin. In fact, the only thing that has saved Republicans in presidential elections over the past three decades is an electoral college that privileges White and conservative voters. The GOP has won the popular vote in only one of the past eight elections. Republicans took heart in their gains among Latinos, but the Hispanic vote was nonetheless key to Biden’s success in Arizona and Nevada — and to the Democrats’ ongoing advantage in California, New Mexico and elsewhere.
Still, 2020 did not bring about the larger-scale realignment that the Democrats hoped for (and that was mistakenly forecast by many polls). To nurture that possibility, Biden and the Democrats must find their inner Job, with a little help from Machiavelli.
For starters, each camp within the party can acknowledge the truth of what their internal rivals say. The left is right that it provides a lot of energy, especially among young voters and in the urban areas that turned out big for Biden. But the moderates are right that, to win power, the party needs middle-of-the-road voters, particularly from swing districts. This may produce more cautious officeholders, but they are essential to building a congressional majority.
Progressives are right that the quest for racial justice should not be compromised — and is, in fact, an electoral asset. (After all, 85 percent of Biden voters told the exit pollsters that the criminal justice system treats Blacks unfairly.) But moderates are right that slogans like “Defund the police” can bring down moderate lawmakers, such as Staten Island’s defeated Rep. Max Rose. Here’s a rule for the future: Any slogan that requires five minutes to explain what it really means is not a good slogan.
And while the word “socialist” appeals to younger progressives who associate it with the social and economic successes of Sweden, Norway or Denmark, it carries a lot of baggage for older voters who remember the Soviet Union, and for those whose families fled repressive Communist regimes, including Cuban- and Vietnamese-Americans.
The Democratic coalition can hang together only if its members accept this ground-level truth: that for all their quarrels, they want to move the country in the same direction (as I argued earlier this year in my book “Code Red“), and they want to defeat the radicalized GOP. Biden convinced both sides that they wanted the same thing by crafting a platform that appealed to moderates and the left alike: decent, affordable health insurance for every American (79 percent of his voters supported the Affordable Care Act); ambitious programs to combat climate change (which 90 percent of Biden voters saw as a serious problem); and a promise to dial back economic inequality through large investments in infrastructure, child care and education.
Oh yes, and they all support big steps to contain the pandemic (a priority for 80 percent of his voters) and to get the economy moving. They’ll be judged collectively on whether they succeed at these core missions.
Georgia’s impending Senate runoffs will provide the ultimate test of strength between the mobilizing power of the Democrats’ big tent and the solidarity of the Republicans’ closed circle. The politics of diversity and a whole lot of voter registration helped Democrats convert Georgia from a Republican bastion into a battleground. So did Biden’s carefully calibrated appeal to all wings of the party’s coalition. Control of the Senate and Biden’s ability to enact his larger program depend on his party’s ability to hang together and make Will Rogers’s quip a quaintly amusing piece of history.
E.J. Dionne Jr. @EJDionne a Washington Post opinion columnist, is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.”Image Credits: Jorge Columbo for The Washington Post