The spin game is now in full swing. At first, it seemed the Blue Wave wasn’t quite what was predicted. But with each passing day came more and more good news for Democrats and progressives. The Washington Post quoted a terrific quip making the rounds in the House Democratic Caucus ― that this year’s midterms were more like Hanukkah than Christmas ― several days of gifts.
Still, to hear conservatives and corporate Democrats tell it, Election Day was not a good day for progressives. Every day, The Wall Street Journal publishes another opinion piece contending that the Democratic victory was less than it seemed. Kimberley Strassel, cherry-picking a few high-profile losses in Friday’s WSJ, declared: “Biggest Loser: Elizabeth Warren.”
On Saturday, in the same space, political scientist Allen Guelzo invidiously compared Tuesday’s Democratic House pickup of “only” between 35 and 40 House seats to the election of 1932, when the Democrats did a bit better and flipped 46. FDR in 1932! I’d say that’s pretty good company. In fact, this year saw the biggest Democratic midterm gains since the post-Watergate blowout of 1974, when Dems took 49 Republican seats.
You kind of expect this lame spinning from the Journal. Far more insidious is the corporate Democrat spin machine called Third Way.
To hear this band of Wall Street Democrats tell it, centrist Democrats had a great night, while progressives were losers. This selective use of statistics has all the intellectual honesty of an offering prospectus for subprime derivatives. Third Way bragged that 23 of its endorsed candidates were among those who flipped Republican seats. Yes, but in fact many of those were substantive progressives, including Sharice Davids (Kansas), Jason Crow (Colorado), Anne Kirkpatrick (Arizona) and Abigail Spanberger (Virginia). As a House member, even Beto O’Rourke (!) was part of the supposedly centrist New Democrat Coalition.
To believe that “moderates” were Tuesday’s big winners, you’d have to redefine what it means to be a moderate. Most Democratic winners, even those backed by Third Way, were advocates of expanded Medicare and Social Security, better minimum wage protection and more control of prescription drug pricing.
Third Way is quick to point out that if you look at standard polls, you find that more Americans characterize themselves as moderates or conservatives than as liberals. But if you dig deeper, you find that the majority of voters are substantive progressives. In fact, the percentage of Democrats who identify as liberal rather than moderate has risen steadily in the past decade. By 2018, more than half of all Democrats considered themselves liberal.
More to the point, a large majority of Americans are substantively progressive once we go beyond superficial labels. Fully 70 percent support Medicare for All, a figure that includes 82 percent of self-identified Democrats and even 52 percent of Republicans as well as a majority of independents. Large majorities also support making higher education debt-free. Pew found that 58 percent of Americans support a $15 minimum wage. According to Gallup, 62 percent of Americans approve of unions, a 15-year high. Gallup also found broad majority support for a large infrastructure program.
Progressive is the new moderate. And by clearly addressing pocketbook frustrations, progressive Democrats show the power of that message to bridge over race.
In Florida, a flat-out economic progressive, Andrew Gillum, came within an ace of winning the governorship (and may yet win), as a black man in a state that is only about 19 percent African-American. Same story with Stacey Abrams in Georgia, where the population is around 31 percent black.
These candidates were far from Third Way-type centrists. Despite the legacy of racism in those two states, Gillum and Abrams turned in amazing performances as pocketbook progressives, and won the support of a lot of white voters. For years, centrist Democrats have tried to win these governorships, and have failed by wider margins.
In Newt Gingrich’s old district, GA-6, which is just 15 percent black, Jon Ossoff narrowly lost a long-shot bid in the special election of June 2017. But this time, a black woman, Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was murdered at a gas station in 2012 by a racist white man, narrowly won the seat, which Republicans had held since 1978. McBath won in the Atlanta suburbs, incredibly enough, calling for gun control, Medicare for everyone over age 55 and a higher minimum wage.
Davids is Native American and openly lesbian. Her district, KS-3, is suburban and 83 percent white. Colin Allred, a black civil rights lawyer and former NFL player, won his Dallas seat in a huge upset, ousting Republican Pete Sessions. The district is just 11 percent African-American. Former Rhodes scholar Antonio Delgado, who is African-American, ousted John Faso in upstate New York, in a district that is just 4 percent black and that backed Donald Trump two years earlier.
The fact that white Southerners and other non-urban voters in 2018 are willing to vote for black economic progressives tells us that America is ready to move beyond Trump’s message of tribal hate, and that pocketbook issues are a key part of the winning strategy. In all, eight African-American candidates picked up seats formerly held by Republicans, all of them in majority-white districts, all running as economic progressives.
Democrats made major gains not just in the suburbs, but in Trump country. Despite the conventional wisdom that America is more severely divided than ever between metro centers that back Democrats and rural areas that vote Republican, in 2018 not only were cities and their suburbs more intensively blue, but there was a 5 percent swing back to Democrats in rural counties. That’s not huge, but a lot of elections are decided by much smaller margins.
In Virginia’s 7th District, which combines Richmond suburbs and hardcore Trump country to the rural north and south, Spanberger, a married mother of three and former CIA analyst, won a marquee race to oust one of the House Freedom Caucus leaders, Dave Brat. Brat was a hero to the far right for defeating the former Republican Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in a bitter 2014 primary fight.
Spanberger emphasized health care and prescription drug costs, calling for a Medicare public option and patent reforms to reduce drug company monopoly pricing power, as well as a change in the law to allow Medicare to negotiate bulk pricing discounts the way the VA is able to. In 2016, Brat beat his Democratic opponent, Eileen Bedell, by 15 points. In 2018, Spanberger beat him by 2 points, gaining ground in the district’s rural areas as well as the suburbs.
Third Way claimed Spanberger as one of its own. If this is the new centrism, let’s have more of it.
And of course, Beto O’Rourke performed better than any statewide Texas Democrat in decades, running as an unapologetic progressive. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Jon Tester in Montana kept their Senate seats as economic populists. Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Claire McCaskill in Missouri lost theirs by pulling their punches.
If the Democrats can win in Trump country by running progressives, why on earth should they run Wall Street-friendly centrists, even if centrists can also sometimes win?
Donnelly ran attack ads distancing himself from the “radical left.” McCaskill ran a radio ad attacking “crazy Democrats”; she went on Fox News to criticize Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Both cast votes to weaken bank regulation. In Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the great moderate hope, declared that he would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh had he been in the Senate. He went on to lose his election by nearly 11 points.
In fairness, it’s possible to cherry-pick examples either way. There were some Democrats who took Republican seats running as Third Way-type centrists, such as Max Rose in New York’s Staten Island. There were others ― more of them ― who flipped Republican seats as economic progressives. There were also some Democrats who lost long-shot battles running as populists, such as Richard Ojeda in West Virginia and Randy Bryce in Paul Ryan’s former Wisconsin seat. Bernie Sanders’ spinoff group Our Revolution had a bad night statistically, having put its energy mostly in long-shot candidates.
Here’s the point. The grassroots energy is clearly with progressives. And if the Democrats can win in Trump country by running progressives, why on earth should they run Wall Street-friendly centrists, even if centrists can also sometimes win? Progressives are more likely to win back Trump voters and more likely to address the deep-seated economic frustrations that incubate Trumpism, and more likely to bridge over schisms of race that otherwise fragment the Democratic coalition.
The 2018 midterms bode well for 2020, not just for a big Democratic victory but ― just as importantly ― for a progressive victory.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.