By Jay Morgan
Despite the justified celebration of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, Congressional Democrats performed surprisingly poorly. In the Senate, Democrats netted only one additional seat. Their remaining hope for the majority rests on the run-off election s for Georgia’s two seats on January 5th, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
House Democrats held their majority but lost at least eight seats. That is a bitter pill to swallow when polls ahead of the election predicted the party would comfortably pad its majority. The unexpected reversal has reignited infighting between moderates and progressive over who is to blame.
To hear the moderates tell it, it was the progressives and their radical messaging that undermined House Democrats in swing districts. They argue progressives have branded the whole party as “socialists” and that progressive slogans like “Medicare for all” and “defund the police” exposed their moderate colleagues to Republican attacks over policies they don’t even support.
Meanwhile, progressives like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) argue that the problem isn’t ideology or messaging, but rather operational mistakes like not spending enough on digital advertising and weak local organizations. AOC knows what she’s talking about. Joe Crowley’s weak ground game was one of the reasons AOC beat him in the 2018 primary, even though he was the third-ranking House Democrat at the time.
The Democratic party is a top-heavy organization. Even though the DNC itself is fairly large, the party has little long-term footprint on the local level in most places. Every two to four years, activists and party affiliates must remobilize. Their Republican counterparts, on the other hand, profit from deep roots at the local level. Local GOP organizations also receive considerably more support from the RNC compared to their Democratic equivalents. Along with the structural advantages that rural voters have in the US electoral system, that’s a reason why Republicans control so many more state legislatures than Democrats. And whoever controls state legislatures can also fix favorable districts for future elections through gerrymandering and further solidify their grip on power. Therefore, even though moderates may be right that “socialism” remains a politically poisonous word in the US, AOC has articulated the better long-term strategy.
That’s especially true because progressive policies, if not progressive politicians themselves, remain popular across the country, even in places where one might not expect. Around two thirds of Americans support a single payer health insurance system. Even arch-conservative states like Utah, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas have expanded Medicaid, either via the legislature or ballot initiative. South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana on November 3rd also through an initiative. The Nebraska legislature overrode the governor’s veto in 2015 and voted to abolish the death penalty. That means that progressive candidates could also be competitive in conservative areas if they have roots in the community and speak the same language as their voters. But as long as the Democratic Party does not support and expand its local structures, the welfare state and “socialism” will remain foreign and frightening concepts in the minds of many voters.
Democrats need massive mobilization in every election to overcome Republicans’ structural advantages. Their chances of success rest on ‘wave elections’ in which people can vote against a clear enemy like Trump or for inspiring slogans like hope and change. Without investment in state and local party organizations, Democrats have little control over when and how this mobilization happens. Without a mobilization, there’s no chance for Democrats to implement the policy change they and their base believe in. And hope by itself is not a strategy.
Jay Morgan studies political science in the Transatlantic Masters program at the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a member of the Progressive Caucus of Democrats Abroad.
This article was first published in International.