Recent elections give the lie to the notion that America wants fiery liberal activists to run the country — an idea put forth mainly by fiery liberal activists. It turns out that even Democrats don’t necessarily want them.
Consider a recent House primary race in Illinois. If there is any Democrat a liberal might want to see the last of, it’s Chicago-area Rep. Dan Lipinski. Lipinski voted against the Affordable Care Act because of the mandate requiring employers to cover birth control. (Let the record show that he’s since opposed Republican efforts to kill Obamacare.)
Lipinski’s Democratic opponent, Marie Newman, had the ardent backing of progressive activists, including Bernie Sanders. But Lipinski won, albeit by a hair. Blue-collar voters stuck with him.
For all the talk of how the Democratic Party’s “energy” comes from the left, ballot counts indicate that voters generally prefer what we call “the center.” Nothing wrong with more radical contenders giving it a try, but in the end, the voters decide. Most Democrats aren’t looking for a revolution. They want health care, good wages and a decent education for their children.
On the issues, there was actually very little difference between Hillary Clinton and Sanders in 2016. It was pose, with Clinton coming off as moderate and Sanders as firebrand. When the primary season dust cleared, Clinton had amassed 3.7 million more votes than Sanders.
Some Sanders disciples persist in waving the bloody shirt. They argue that their man lost because the Democratic leadership helped Clinton. They are not wrong about the favoritism, but they ignore the thumbs that pressed on Bernie’s scale. His strength came in the caucuses, time-consuming affairs that empower activists, not ordinary Democrats. In Washington state, which ran both caucuses and a primary, Sanders won the former and Clinton the latter.
Television thrives on spectacle, deeming crowds of cheering supporters as measures of grass-roots support. Recall the wall-to-wall coverage of Sanders’ torchlight parade in Greenwich Village as harbinger of an upset. Six days later, Clinton won the New York primary by nearly 16 percentage points.
The left wing reveres Zephyr Teachout, the ultimate Berniecrat. Come the 2016 general election, though, Teachout lost her congressional race to a Republican in a district just north of New York City and in a state where Clinton bested Donald Trump by over 22 points.
Last month in California, activists denied Sen. Dianne Feinstein her party’s endorsement at the state convention. The political media began cogitating on “Feinstein’s troubles,” declaring her setback as evidence of California’s shift to the left. More accurately, it was activists being active at the state convention. After all, a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll had Feinstein ahead of her leading challenger, Kevin de Leon, by almost 30 points among likely voters.
A few left-wing purists did not rejoice at Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in a southwestern Pennsylvania district that backed Trump by 20 points. He had veered from liberal orthodoxy on a few issues, which, truth be told, helped him win. A writer in Rolling Stone worried that Democrats like Lamb will deflate the sensitive leftists in “the Resistance.”
Some resistance. When Democrat Ralph Northam was fighting in a close race for the Virginia governorship last year, Sanders’ Our Revolution advocacy group refused to endorse him. Northam’s sin? Expressing a skepticism toward sanctuary cities, which Americans share by large majorities.
Some on the left prefer the dramatics of agitating over the grind of winning elections, and that’s their right. But Democrats should regard them less as threats and more as useless. Democrats need to go after the people who voted for Trump in 2016 but Lamb in 2018.
Froma Harrop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.