The Lesson from 2020: Progressivism Wins Elections

Despite a pandemic that has killed over 250,000, a near-unprecedented economic recession, and one of the most controversial presidents in American history, the “blue wave” that Democrats hoped for this election cycle never appeared. Although Democrats won the presidency, their majority in the House of Representatives shrank significantly as Republicans flipped eleven seats. Furthermore, the party seems unlikely to regain control of the Senate, needing to win the two runoff Senate elections in Georgia against Republican incumbents to have 50 seats. Centrist Democrats have been quick to blame the progressive wing of the party for the disappointing election cycle, with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn saying if, “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.”

However, contrary to this claim, progressives outperformed their moderate counterparts this election cycle. Every one of the 112 co-sponsors of Medicare for All (M4A) won their race, including six who won in swing districts. On the other hand, all eleven seats that Republicans flipped were previously held by Democrats who opposed M4A. 97 of the 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal won their races, with the only one who lost being an opponent of M4A. In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Jared Golden, who backs M4A, defeated his Republican challenger by 5.8% his district, where Donald Trump beat the moderate Joe Biden and Republican Senator Susan Collins beat her centrist challenger, Sara Gideon.

But these results should come as no surprise: progressive policies have proven to be popular across the political spectrum. A measure for a $15 minimum wage, a proposal that was first introduced into mainstream politics by progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, outperformed Biden by 12.9% in Florida, a state where Donald Trump expanded his 2016 margin from 1.4% to 3.3%. Measures to legalize marijuana passed in South Dakota, a state Trump won by 26.2%, and Montana, a state Trump won by 16.4%, while outperforming Biden by 18.6% and 16.4% respectively. The Democratic establishment still has not adopted legalization of marijuana onto their platform. In Arizona, marijuana legalization passed while outperforming Biden by 10.6% and a tax increase on the wealthy to fund public schools passed with a share of the vote 2.3% greater than Biden’s. Other progessive policies share a similar bipartisan popularity. According to a 2020 Hill-HarrisX poll, 69% of Americans support Medicare for All, including 88% of Democrats, 46% of Republicans, and 68% of Independents. The Green New Deal also has widespread support, with a 2019 NPR/PBS/Marist poll finding that 63% of Americans support the climate plan, including 86% of Democrats, 26% of Republicans, and 64% of Independents.

So how can Democrats avoid disappointing election cycles like this one in the future? As the evidence suggests, the party needs to follow the examples of progressives like Senator Ed Markey by embracing progressivism and driving up youth turnout through progressive policies. During the Massachusetts Senate primary in September, Markey faced a centrist challenge from 4th District Representative Joe Kennedy.. The race served as a proxy war between progressives and moderates, with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez backing Markey and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the Democratic establishment, flocking around Kennedy despite Markey’s popularity and her standard of supporting incumbents over challengers. Ultimately, Markey’s support of the Green New Deal and a massive surge of support from youth voters, a group Markey led by 40% according to an Emerson College/WHDH poll, prevailed over Kennedy’s establishment background and less progressive platform. Furthermore, for the presidential election, a Tufts study found that young voters, the most progressive age group, were critical to Biden’s wins in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Still, instead of embracing young progressives and progressivism in general, the Democrat National Committee  have pandered to the interests of centrists and Republicans. For example, the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, raised tens of million of dollars almost entirely from Democratic donors according to the Center for Responsible Politics but produced no visible results, with Trump even building upon his 2016 margin with Republicans. The Democratic establishment also gave John Kasich, the Republican former governor of Ohio, speaking time during the Democratic National Convention. Trump proceeded to expand his margin in Ohio from 8.1% in 2016 to 8.2%.

This election cycle illuminates the disconnect between the Democratic establishment and what voters actually want, and going forward, it will be in the Party’s best interest to realize and act on this separation if they would like to remain relevant. The Presidential race was not the blowout that was wanted, the majority in the House shrank, and, in the best-case scenario, there will be a tie in the Senate. Rather than attack progressive policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and marijuana legalization, Democrats must embrace them and those who advocate for them. Rather than scream “socialism” like it’s the devil, Democrats must recognize that these are popular positions, as proven by their success as ballot issues in numerous states and their polling numbers. Right now, we have a GOP that won’t condemn white supremacy and conspiracy theories while the Democrats attack progressives like AOC and Ilhan Omar and progressive policies. This isn’t sustainable in the slightest. If this doesn’t change, a lot of both serious and superficial issues will play out. The economic conditions of the working class will continue to deteriorate, the planet will continue to heat ensuring a painful future, and the divide between those in power and those disenfranchised will continue to grow. Superficially, the Democratic party will beat themselves into irrelevance. It is both in the interest of the people they represent, and those in power within the party, to move to the left. Our future depends on it. 

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