“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined,” lamented King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose costly triumph in 279 BC inspired the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”. In 2020, the Democratic party learned what King Pyrrhus was talking about. They recaptured the White House and narrowly held on to the House of Representatives. And if the Democrats win both Senate runoffs in Georgia, they may yet capture the Senate. But Republicans increased their share of the House, making it easier for them to recapture it in 2022, and they control a majority of state legislatures whose redistricting plans for the US Congress can help the Republican party.
Perhaps the greatest blow has been to the progressive interpretation of American politics. Most progressives have understood Trumpism as the last gasp of a dwindling, reactionary white male population. The future of the Democrats, it was said, lay with women and minorities. And yet in 2020 white men shifted more toward Biden than white women did. Black and brown Americans still voted mostly for Democrats, but there were significant shifts toward the Republicans among black and Hispanic voters and all of the Republicans who took contested seats from the Democrats were minority group members or women.
The mystery is not why the progressive wave that was supposed to establish a new era of progressive politics did not materialize. The mystery is why anybody believed that there would be a progressive wave. After all, progressives – defined as voters who are both socially and economically liberal – are a minority of the American electorate. According to Gallup in July 2020, only 26% of Americans identify themselves as liberal, compared with conservative (34%) or moderate (40%).
Not only are progressives a minority of American voters, they are also a minority of Democratic voters. According to Pew, in 2020 only 47% of Democrats described themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal”. The majority of Democrats are “moderate” (45%) or “conservative” (14%).
Voters of color are mostly Democratic, but that does not mean they are leftwing, as black support for Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary proved. Only 28% of black Americans and 30% of Hispanic Americans identify themselves as liberal.
In our two-party system, consistent progressives can be part of an electoral majority only if at least half of their Democratic coalition is less progressive. What a winning coalition would look like depends on which issues unite the progressives and non-progressives. There are only two choices. The Democrats can be an economically liberal party, with socially liberal and socially conservative wings, or they can be a socially liberal party, with economically liberal and economically conservative wings.
The New Deal/Great Society coalition that transformed the US in the mid-20th century, between the presidencies of Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, was an example of the first kind of coalition. Most New Deal/Great Society Democrats supported economic programs that made life better for the working-class majority, from social security in the 1930s and Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s to the minimum wage and pro-labor laws.
But even outside of the Democratic south, an anomalous region with an apartheid society and a backward economy, the Democratic party was not a socially liberal party. Northern trade union members were often Catholic, with traditional views of sex and marriage. The midwestern agrarian wing of the New Deal often combined populist support for farm families with religious fundamentalism, while northern progressive Democrats tended to be influenced by Social Gospel Protestantism. Asked about his political philosophy, Franklin Roosevelt responded: “I am a Christian and a Democrat.”
Today’s Democratic party is the opposite of the New Deal coalition. In the past generation, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have transformed the Democrats into a socially liberal party, with economically liberal and economically conservative wings. Catholic and Protestant opponents of abortion have been made unwelcome in the party, and more recently Democrats have made support for gay marriage and gender fluidity litmus tests. But white, affluent college-educated Democrats tend to be less religious and more socially liberal than African American and Hispanic Democrats, giving Republicans the opportunity to pry away some Democratic voters of color with appeals to their values.
Making social liberalism a litmus test has allowed the Democrats to pick up some moderate Republicans and libertarians who are alienated by the Republican religious right. Biden won in part because most voters who supported the Libertarian party in 2016 appear to have voted for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020. But attracting small-government free marketeers to the Democrats comes with a price. Republicans and libertarians who convert to the Democratic party tend to combine their liberalism on social issues like contraception, abortion and gay rights with hostility to higher taxes and more government spending. These converts reinforce the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party at the expense of the progressive wing.
The Clinton-Biden strategy of attracting more affluent white voters to the Democrats by stressing social liberalism rather than economic liberalism has already converted the party into something FDR and LBJ would not recognize. Of the 100 counties with the highest median incomes in the presidential election of 1980, the Democrats won only nine, with 91 going to the Republicans. In 2020, Biden won 57 to 43 for Trump. In 2018, the Democrats won back the House of Representatives by winning all 10 of the 10 wealthiest congressional districts, and 41 of 50 of the wealthiest.
These affluent voters prefer Democratic policies on abortion, gay rights and climate change – but only as long as they do not have to pay higher taxes. Back in 2015, Hillary Clinton promised that, if she were elected president, there would be no tax increases on households making less than $250,000. Biden went further this year, promising that taxes would not go up on households that make less than $400,000 a year.
Because it is impossible to fund the Nordic-style welfare state of which American progressives dream without raising taxes on the merely affluent as well as the super-rich, the Democratic party’s pandering to the affluent on taxes means that there will not be a Green New Deal, a major expansion of social insurance and social programs, or massive public investment in infrastructure. To appease the Democratic party’s new high-income voters and donors, the last two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, abandoned their ambitious spending plans once elected and pivoted toward austerity and deficit reduction. It remains to be seen whether Biden will do the same.
Progressive Democrats have a choice. They can continue to be junior partners in a whiter and more gentrified Democratic party that nods toward racial justice and environmentalism and sexual freedom, but says no to a new New Deal. Or they can try to rebuild something like the New Deal coalition and win back sociallymoderate and conservative voters – some of them voters of color – who favor expanding social security and a higher minimum wage, but oppose affirmative action and abortion and decriminalizing illegal immigration. In either case, progressives must accept that they are only a quarter of the US population and cannot hope to win or exercise power without teaming up with people who reject many progressive views.