The Party of Self-Doubt
This weekend, with the news networks calling the presidential election for the Biden-Harris ticket, saw massive outbreaks of celebration across the country. Democrats took to the streets to express relief and joy, emotions that have been in short supply in 2020. Yet these celebrations came in the middle of a week of self-reflection and doubt for a party that had hoped to do better.
My recent book examines how the party that loses a presidential election constructs narratives to explain its failure. It's a vital process that helps the party chart a course for the future, even if the narratives they cling to aren't 100% true. So I've been curious to see the loss narratives adopted following the 2020 election.
What I didn't expect is that those loss narratives would come from the winning party.
I don't have particularly hard evidence on all this, at least not yet. But from following conversations on Twitter, in the news media, and elsewhere, it seems like Democrats began to form a circular firing squad fairly quickly after polls closed on Tuesday, expressing disappointment that Trump was within firing range of reelection. Some questioned whether Joe Biden, nominated for his perceived electability above all other traits, was truly all that electable. Some suggested Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris might have produced more enthusiastic turnout from progressives or from black voters. Some noted disappointing Latino support for Democrats, especially in Florida, suggesting the party had done poor outreach there.
Now, there are reasons for the Democrats to have discussed loss narratives so much at that point. For one, as in 2018, the first votes coming in had a largely Republican lean to them. As had been widely predicted, mail-in ballots were cast early but counted late in many states, and Democratic fortunes didn't look better until later in the week. For another, Democrats had expectations, based on the most thorough state-level polling to date, that they would do quite well in this election, with Biden possibly picking up Ohio, Florida, and even Texas. While Biden appears on track to a decent Electoral College victory and a solid popular vote majority, it appears substantially less than expected, and a lot of narrative creation is a product of expectations.
This raises an important question about how exactly Democrats should have done. They've underperformed polls somewhat, but that's more a problem with the polling than with the Democrats. We're never good at determining a baseline for candidate or party performance -- a lot of people cling to the idea that Hillary Clinton should have beaten Donald Trump in 2016 simply because she should have -- but this year it's harder than most. Second quarter GDP saw the sharpest drop since the Great Depression; third quarter GDP saw the biggest increase ever. What exactly were the fundamentals this year?
One could note that incumbent presidents rarely lose reelection bids. The last time a party lost a reelection after just one term in control of the White House was 40 years ago. The fact that Biden achieved this victory, likely winning the popular vote by a bigger margin than we saw in 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016, is no small thing. But it was a victory that didn't translate well for Democrats down the ballot.
And the recriminations from Democrats have fallen along familiar lines. In a much cited conversation among the House Democratic Caucus, more moderate white members worried that attacks on them as being socialist or embracing more progressive messaging on racial justice were making them less electable. As the New York Times reported, "Representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly escaped defeat on Wednesday in a conservative-leaning district in Virginia that Democrats had also toiled to protect, chastised her progressive colleagues for embracing the 'defund the police' movement and for not pushing back forcefully against accusations of socialism. If Democrats did not acknowledge the election results as a 'failure' and change strategies, she said using an expletive for emphasis, they would be 'crushed' in future elections."
These criticisms were met by pushback from people of color from more left-leaning districts. "We didn’t get the repudiation of Trump we wanted, but we turned out huge numbers of young people, brown and Black people," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. "Don’t be so quick to blame the members who have been responsible for energizing these groups, who will ultimately save the day in the race for the White House." Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan added, "To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want."
In a series of tweets and interviews, Progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York claimed that more moderate Democratic House members campaigned poorly and massively under-invested in digital advertising, and that this was more likely a cause of defeat than any progressive messaging. She noted that those swing-district members who embraced Medicare For All did just fine in their reelection bids.
These are the same sorts of arguments Democrats have been having for years, possibly decades, every time they underperform in an election. More moderate whites argue that winning the votes of other moderate whites is essential to future victories, and being too embracing of racial justice policies or anything that can be branded "socialist" will cause those voters to drift to the Republicans. More progressive people of color argue that motivating other people of color is essential to future victories, and trying to woo centrist whites will reduce turnout.
I am not claiming one side is clearly right or wrong. Comb through the exit polls (and honestly I'd encourage you to wait a few weeks to do that) and you can usually find some evidence to support your side. It's also not obviously terrible for the party to have this fight. The Democratic Party is a massive and increasingly diverse coalition, and different groups and factions will compete for resources and attention. And they've been stifling a lot of these differences all year.
But what impresses me is that the Democrats are having this conversation at all. They have just taken the White House. That it's the Democrats publicly airing their grievances with each other, rather than the Republicans looking to blame someone within their party for a loss that didn't need to happen, is notable. Perhaps this will change over the coming weeks. But it may also simply be an aspect of party culture. Self-doubt may be alien to Republicans, but it's sewn into Democrats' nature.