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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Anti-Politics of the Democratic Party Left

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Jon Chait, in an important article in New York magazine, analyzes the profoundly ineffective anti-politics of the Democratic party left, aided and abetted by donors and foundations who finance this nonsense. (Note: he also has some stern words for centrist Democrats who oppose very popular Democratic measures in the name of moderation.)

Here is perhaps the most important part of his argument:

“When confronted with the reality that the Democratic Party is losing Black and Latino moderates, the response on the left is often to treat their views as morally beyond the pale. “Yes, it turns out that a number of people of color, especially those without a college education, can see the allure of the jackboot authoritarian thuggery offered by modern Republicans,” wrote The Nation’s Elie Mystal. “A certain percentage of non-college-educated people are hostile to immigration. Sure. Does that mean Democrats should embrace beating migrants? A certain percentage of non-college-educated people are resistant to science. Sure. Does that mean Democrats should embrace horse dewormer?”

Obviously, nobody is proposing Democrats run on authoritarian thuggery. The question is whether any compromise with the center is acceptable. Obama competed for moderate views by promising that people could keep their private insurance even as he covered those who couldn’t get any coverage, that he would secure the border even as he gave amnesty to Dreamers. Reducing all these spectra of belief to a simple binary, then declaring the opposing position so horrific it cannot be accommodated, is not a political strategy. It is a kind of anti-politics.

This anti-politics did not materialize out of thin air. It is the working assumption of a vast array of progressive nonprofit organizations and the millionaires who fund them. Over the past half-dozen years, several people who work in and around the nonprofit world have told me, the internal political culture at progressive foundations has undergone the same changes that have torn through elite universities, mainstream-media newsrooms, and private schools. An uncompromising version of left-wing political rhetoric has put the leadership of these organizations on the defensive and often prodded them to fund more radical organizations and ideas than before.

These groups have churned out studies and deployed activists to bring left-wing ideas into the political debate. At this they have enjoyed overwhelming success. In recent years, a host of new slogans and plans — the Green New Deal, “Defund the police,” “Abolish ICE,” and so on — have leaped from the world of nonprofit activism onto the chyrons of MSNBC and Fox News. Obviously, the conservative media have played an important role in publicizing (and often distorting) the most radical ideas from the activist left. But the right didn’t invent these edgy slogans; the left did, injecting them into the national bloodstream.

Twitter is often blamed for (or, alternately, credited with) facilitating the rise of the Democratic Party’s left wing. But an important and generally unexamined source of the left’s growth is the left-wing millionaires who finance it. A little more than a decade ago, David Callahan wrote a book, Fortunes of Change, describing a social and political evolution among the American rich. The rise of a knowledge economy had produced a growing class of liberal millionaires and billionaires, and this elite cohort had begun to work its will on the system by forming “a new progressive donor class.”

Gara LaMarche, the former president of the Democracy Alliance, a constellation of progressive groups, told an interviewer in the spring, “The DA’s own strategies have moved several notches to the left as the donor class has as a whole.”

Speaking more generally of other progressive groups, he said, “More of the money is white, and more of the places the money goes to are BIPOC organizations.” Of course, just as the young, college-educated white staff at progressive organizations tend to have far more liberal views than white people as a whole, so do the young, college-educated staff at organizations representing racial minority groups. As both the staff and the donors of the progressive-nonprofit complex have moved left, it has grown increasingly difficult to ground their worldview in a political reality recognizable to most Americans.

The Ford Foundation is an instructive case study in this change. Ford’s president, Darren Walker, had helped develop and promote a prison-reform proposal that would have closed Rikers Island, a facility notorious for mistreating prisoners, and moved the inmates elsewhere. In a 2019 blog post headlined “In Defense of Nuance,” Walker defended his work from criticism by prison abolitionists that the reform did not go far enough. His argument was characterized by the “yes, but” constructions beloved by mainstream liberals: “We can see how our capitalist systems have broken down while also appreciating that markets have helped reduce the number of people around the globe who live in poverty … We can see the historical failures of our own republic on fault lines of race and gender and sexual orientation and class — as the New York Times has illustrated with deft, delicate care in its 1619 Project — while also protecting and promoting democratic values and institutions, and participating fully in democratic processes, around the globe.”

It did not go over well. Protesters marched in front of his office with signs bearing slogans like FUCK YOUR NUANCE. Over 300 Ford Foundation fellows signed a letter denouncing his blog post. In June 2020, after the George Floyd murder, a group funded by the Ford Foundation demanded the defunding of the police in Minneapolis. Activists booed Jacob Frey, the liberal, reform-minded mayor, for appearing at a rally for Floyd but refusing to endorse their demands. Three months later, the Ford Foundation announced it would devote $180 million “to support the organizations, movements, and visionary individuals that are building power in their communities to dismantle the structural systems that harm Black and Brown people.” In November, a ballot measure to replace the city’s police force lost in Minneapolis, faring worse in the most heavily Black neighborhoods while doing better in white liberal areas.

Several liberal political analysts told me that the left-wing tilt in the progressive-foundation world has given liberals a strong incentive to play along. “The story of foundations and influence is a subset of the overall story of how the center left has moved rapidly in a direction inimical to their goals,” the liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira, co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, told me. “But they’ve done it with eyes open and hands out for the cash.”

The nonprofit world exerted a profound influence over the Democratic presidential race. In June 2019, a coalition of eight activist groups — including Indivisible, MoveOn, and Women’s March — issued a call for Democratic candidates to endorse the decriminalization of border crossings and close detention facilities. “There’s no path to victory that doesn’t bring in communities of color, immigrant communities, working-class folks of all colors,” said Ana Maria Archila of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, one of the groups endorsing the demand. “Latinos are watching, and Asian American communities are watching, and Black immigrants from all over the world are watching.”

Polling showed the public opposed this idea by a 40-point margin, and even Democrats narrowly opposed it. And yet candidates and the news media reporting on these demands tended to take at face value the claim that they represented the authentic desires of the party’s voters. When border decriminalization came up at a Democratic presidential debate a few days later, every candidate but two endorsed it.

Progressive activist groups, once atomized into a gaggle of single-issue lobbies, have increasingly closed ranks, endorsing one another’s ideas as a single, all-or-nothing program. The Green New Deal, for example, blossomed into a call for Medicare for All, affordable housing, student-debt forgiveness, and “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.”

After Floyd’s murder, progressive activists quickly coalesced around defunding the police as a slogan and policy objective. (The slogan was itself a compromise between activists who favored reduction of police budgets and those who favored outright abolition.) Defunding the police never commanded strong support among the public, which has rejected it by margins of more than two to one, and is unpopular among Democrats. Black and Hispanic Democratic voters are more likely than their white counterparts to support higher spending on police, and no more than one-quarter of any Democratic constituency, Black or white, supports reduced funding. Black voters have consistently registered support both for reforming police to crack down on racism and abuse and increasing the level of protection for residents of high-crime areas.

As longtime Minneapolis police-reform activist Nekima Levy Armstrong lamented, most Black Minneapolis residents wanted serious police reform: “Instead, what we got was progressive posturing of a kind seen throughout the country and a missed opportunity to bring about real change and racial justice.” There are at least some models of police reform that combine greater accountability with more robust protection. Camden, New Jersey, for example, reconstituted its corrupt, abusive police force with one that was both more responsive and larger. Those kinds of reforms are not easy, but they at least have a chance of success since they can command significant public approval (which is not a sufficient condition to enact a high-profile reform, but it is a necessary one). There was never a world in which a concept supported by less than 20 percent of the public was going to emerge victorious.

Yet activist groups of all stripes rushed to join the defund movement, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and dozens of climate groups. Those endorsements have continued to blow back in the faces of Democrats. Virginia Republicans in this year’s election learned they could attack any Democrats receiving endorsements from these groups as gaining support from “pro-defund” organizations, and one Democrat declined an endorsement from NARAL, an abortion-rights group, in order to avoid being linked to police defunding.

Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in 2020 may offer the single most instructive example of the distorting effects of the progressive-activist complex. Warren began her presidential candidacy with some liabilities — most obviously, she was a woman running after an election many Democrats believed they had lost because of sexism — but also many strengths. She had earned a reputation as a hard-nosed champion of economic reform. Her platform was simultaneously aggressive yet broadly acceptable within the party.

Over the course of her campaign, though, Warren found herself both racing to outflank Sanders to her left and unable to expand her base beyond college-educated liberals. Persist, Warren’s campaign memoir, chronicles her dogged and largely successful efforts to win the approval of political activists. She proudly notes that a 2015 address at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston was called “the speech that Black Lives Matter activists had been waiting for” by the Washington Post. At another speech in 2018, she declared, “The hard truth about our criminal-justice system: It’s racist … front to back.”

The book quotes an activist’s tweet approving of her criminal-justice plan, her well-received appearance at the “She the People” forum, her endorsement by Black Womxn For. At no point, however, does she show any sign of grasping the disconnect between the preferences of progressive activists and those of minority voters. Indeed, as Warren’s campaign went on, her strategy devolved into issuing more (and more left-wing) policy promises, lining up more activist groups, getting more positive tweets.

The progressive-foundation complex was designed to lift up a candidate like Warren. Instead, it swallowed her in a trap, luring her deeper and deeper into a worldview increasingly alien to the voters she needed to win.”

Follow the money leads in this case to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the evolution of today’s left.

One comment on “Teixeira: The Anti-Politics of the Democratic Party Left

  1. Candace on

    “When confronted with the reality that the Democratic Party is losing Black and Latino moderates…”

    If you vote Republican, you are not a moderate.

    Reply

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