Conventional wisdom on the American left holds that while the Republican Party has grown steadily more right-wing in recent years, Democrats have remained comparatively moderate. Liberal activists and commentators usually observe this sneeringly, characterizing the Democratic establishment as cowardly or weak for allowing their side to stagnant in the centre, and it’s why aggressively liberal Democrats like Elizabeth Warren (or hell, Barack Obama) tend to be such populist darlings.
In some respects it’s a fair analysis. Socialism actually polls quite well with the Democratic base, but only a tiny smattering of Democratic Congressmen openly claim the label (pace, Allen West). And as Noam Chomsky never tires of observing, aggressive pacifism is much more popular with liberal voters than is generally reflected by Democratic policy.
But the modern left is increasingly not defined by economic issues or foreign policy, but rather unyielding militancy on what we’ve come to call “social justice” issues —the drive to liberate women, blacks, immigrants, and gays from the perceived cruelties of a society dominated by chauvinistic white men.
On this front, Democrats are absolutely taking further and further left, in both rhetoric and policy. And if Tuesday night is any indication, they’re not gaining much from it.
Wendy Davis, the Texas legislator who became an overnight liberal superstar for leading an 11-hour filibuster against a contentious abortion law, saw her campaign for governor fall flat once it became clear her hardscrabble single-mom biography had been heavily massaged and her demonized abortion bill was actually fairly moderate and broadly popular. Her feminist pitch having flopped, she spent the rest of the campaign in a near-constant state of backtracking and clarifying.
Similar flailing defined the Senate race in purple Colorado, where incumbent Mark Udall was rebranded “Mark Uterus” for campaigning exclusively against the pro-life credentials of his Republican opponent. The Republican in question, Cory Gardner, had in fact ostentatiously softened his once-strident anti-abortion position in the face of backlash, but the Udall campaign refused to let it go, mounting what the traditionally liberal Denver Post dubbed an “obnoxious one issue campaign.” A darkly comic pre-election column in the British Guardian featured an interview with an Democratic donor flush with irritation: “f—ing abortion is all he talks about!”
In Louisiana, meanwhile, embattled senator Mary Landreau offered a cloying caricature of an excuse when asked to explain the unpopularity of President Obama in her state — an unpopularity that was unquestionably dragging her down by association. “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” she moped.
The New Republic would praise the quip as a clever ploy to “juice black turnout” (though less reported, in that same interview she also implied Southern sexism might be pushing her numbers down), but even if it did, the appeal was too niche to yield meaningful results. Landreau won 94% of the black vote, but only 18% of whites.
Mind you, her racial appeals were a model of subtlety compared to some of the handouts seen in Georgia. In that state, which featured a tossup race for an open Senate seat, the local Democratic Party distributed flyers featuring photos of doe-eyed black children holding cardboard signs reading “DON’T SHOOT.”
“If You Want To Prevent Another Ferguson In Their Future… Vote!” the brochure implored. This, at the time when the early liberal narrative of Ferguson — a black teen murdered by a racist cop apropos of nothing — is becoming increasingly disputed by new revelations about the nature of the fight between the two men.
In short, the left’s obsession with identity politics seems to be turning the Democratic base into an increasingly bitter coalition of those who relish in victim identities, and whose sole animating cause is the demonization of perceived victimizers.
Attempts to narrowly market “women’s issues” as abortion and birth control has made the Democrats less the party of women than the party of young, single women — your Lena Dunham and Sandra Fluke types — who see reproductive rights as the very essence of liberated femininity. To women who have aged beyond the sexual anxieties that come with early adulthood — perhaps even to the point of understanding that the legal status of abortion (and abortifacients) is not an all-or-nothing proposition — the whole thing comes off as rather condescending and juvenile.
Similarly, a disproportionate Democrat focus on stoking minority anxieties, implying a hidden racist agenda in basically every Republican criticism or initiative, has led to powerful alienation from whites resentful of this incessant blame. Republican voters are vastly more likely than Democrats to believe American race relations have “gotten worse,” in recent years, an opinion that doesn’t reflect indifference to minorities so much as deep skepticism that the reflexive impulse of the Obama administration to sensationalize and politicize racially delicate episodes like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin are doing much good.
By it’s very nature, a two party political system will always encourage the polarization of society. It behooves any ambitious partisan machine to push policies and rhetoric that win the loyalties of the fattest slice of this split.
Democrats are proving very good at dividing, but their conquering could use some work.
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