While still a relatively small cadre, the left wing gained strength in 2020 with the election of Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush to the House. Both ousted seemingly entrenched Democratic incumbents in majority-minority districts, Eliot Engel in New York and William Lacy Clay in St. Louis. If progressives vote as a bloc, their numbers in both branches of Congress could prove crucial since Democrats will need every vote to pass legislation.
During the campaign, Cori Bush provoked a firestorm of controversy when she tweeted on June 4, “We need to defund the police and make sure that money goes back into the communities that need it,” and on Oct. 20, “If you’re having a bad day, just think of all the social services we’re going to fund after we defund the Pentagon.”
Moderate Democratic candidates have complained bitterly that rhetoric like this receives wide publicity, prompting some voters to believe that the Democratic Party will follow Bush’s suggestions. Republican strategists claim that “defund the police” and socialism have been highly effective when used in negative ads directed against Democratic candidates who in fact repudiated these views.
Looking to the future, the question is how these conflicting interests and trends will affect the outcome of the 2022 off-year elections and the 2024 presidential election.
Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and one of the authors (along with Jonathan Weiler) of “Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide,” cites the key role of urban and suburban whites in the 2020 election in Georgia to demonstrate their crucial position in the contemporary Democratic Party.
From 2016 to 2020, Hetherington argued in an email,
there was no marked increase in the percentage of nonwhite voters. The racial composition of the Georgia electorate was about the same in both 2016 and 2020. And, the percentage of African-Americans voting for the Democratic candidate was also about the same.
Instead, Hetherington found,
what appears to have changed the most is the voting behavior of whites. When Trump won Georgia by 5.1 points in 2016, 75 percent of whites voted for him. In 2020, however, that percentage dropped to 69 percent.
The key factor in this shift among white voters, Hetherington contended, was a major change in “the mix of urban, suburban, and rural voters” who turned out in 2020. The preliminary data suggests
that the percentage of voters in Georgia who hailed from rural areas plummeted from 23 percent of the electorate to 14 percent, while the percentage of the electorate from urban areas — a highly Democratic group — increased by five percentage points and the suburban share of the vote increased by four points.
This did not happen because
rural Georgia voters stayed home. The numbers of votes cast in rural counties actually increased between 2016 and 2020. But the numbers of votes cast in more-Democratic friendly urban and suburban areas simply increased by a lot more,” according to Hetherington. “It seems plausible that the increase in Democratic support among whites is because more of those white voters lived in cities and suburbs than in rural areas.
I asked Hetherington whether the future of the Democratic Party lies in the suburbs. He replied:
It certainly seems that way. Biden was more successful than Clinton in stanching the Democrats’ bleeding in rural, white areas, especially in Pennsylvania where it mattered a lot. As an older, straight, white, male working-class guy, he might have been the only Democrat who could have pulled that off. Whoever the Democrats next candidate for president is, that person is unlikely to share many characteristics with Biden. So more highly educated people in the suburbs are going to be critical to future Democratic success.
Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University, argued in an email that “the organizing principle around the parties is increasingly defined by social identities, rather than ideology, policy preferences, or organized interests.” Republicanism, she continued,
has come to be defined by Donald Trump and his brand of “Trumpism,” which is characterized as an America-first, masculine-bravado, defense of traditional social hierarchies. Democratic Party affiliates, on the other hand, are increasingly organized around the counternarrative to Trumpism. In this way party politics is strongly driven by negative partisanship.
In 2020, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party was sustained by what Victor calls “the counternarrative to Trumpism.” That counter- narrative was less than adequate for the congressional and state legislative wings of the party. In 2022, Trump will be neither on the ballot nor in the White House. In 2024, Democrats might luck out with Republicans nominating Trump, or even his son Don Jr., although neither outcome appears likely right now.
Instead, the Democratic Party faces the daunting task of uniting a party with competing moderate and left factions built on a fragile “upstairs-downstairs coalition” — a party that stretches ideologically from Joe Manchin to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and financially from the 18th Congressional District in California’s Silicon Valley with a median household income of $149,375 to Michigan’s 13th District in Detroit with a median household income of $39,005.