For all their cautious optimism yesterday, a mild midterms victory may prove the last thing the Democrats need. If they had performed as predicted, the Democrats and their media adjuncts would now be busily dissecting their defeat. But what has to be considered a lost Republican opportunity — gaining little in a country where lifespans are now dropping — also means that the Democrats will be slower to address their weaknesses, and may be forced to accept the unpopular Joe Biden as their leader in 2024.
With no sign of a Republican resurgence, the Democrats will likely be lulled into thinking that Biden’s polarising agenda is a vote-winner, in the same way the conspiracy-minded MAGA wing of the GOP refuses to move on from 2020. Until it’s resoundingly disproved in the ballot box, stridency tends to whip up your base: Trump’s supporters have become, as the President suggested, “semi-fascist”, while his political mentor, South Carolina’s James Clyburn, goes further, decrying the GOP as the architects of a Nazi state.
When Democrats performed poorly in the past, they were forced to rethink their politics. After Walter Mondale suffered a landslide defeat to Reagan in 1984, the Democratic Leadership Council was set up to steer the ship towards the centre — and ultimately supported both a young Bill Clinton and, to an extent, Biden himself. In turn, the DLC was inspired by the moderate Coalition for a Democratic Majority, founded after Nixon’s trouncing of McGovern in 1972. Today, however, it’s hard to say that now is the time for a new political vision when virtually all the high-profile blue state Democrats won, sometimes by wider than expected margins.
So, rather than using the next two years to regroup and craft a political programme that could win the next election, the Democrats now appear stuck with a weak leader who appears unfit to deal with the global challenges that will define America in the coming decade. Internally, too, the Democrats look increasingly unstable. A stronger-than-expected Midterms performance doesn’t mask the fact that the progressives remain a dominant faction in the party — with an associated agenda that, outside of deep blue-college towns and core cities, commands remarkably low levels of support, as Barack Obama and others have warned.
Sticking to such a programme threatens the party’s already weakening hold on working-class voters, in particular those threatened by climate policies. Over time, the economic implications of Biden’s green agenda may be obvious, but for now they are hidden amid massive deficits and increased transfer payments. However, as Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira has noted, in the longer run, the party’s emphasis on “de-growth” and austerity is unlikely to attract middle and particularly working-class voters. Already, the political implications of climate policy have ruined the Democrats’ best chance to take the GOP seat in Ohio. Their candidate Tim Ryan may have claimed to support fracking, but his backing of the Pelosi Congressional agenda proved disastrous in a state whose economy is fuelled by natural gas production and hopes to attract new investment, including a possible $20 billion new Intel chip plant in the Columbus suburbs. In Florida, meanwhile, Ron DeSantis won heavily in Latino, historically Democratic regions.
To lure back those alienated by the Left’s climate and cultural agenda, socialists such as Bernie Sanders propose a more economically redistributive policy. This has clearly worked in California where last year’s surplus was channelled into subsidies for working-class voters who are stuck paying the high rents and energy prices caused by policies dreamt up in Sacramento. To win, Sanders has noted, the Democrats need to focus more on basic economic concerns, such as pensions, healthcare, job creation and higher wages. What’s needed is a giant US welfare state, a supercharged Sweden on steroids.
The big problem for the Democrats, now that this seems an acceptable policy, lies in who will pay for it. Biden’s 2020 electoral win was largely financed and marketed by the corporate and tech elite. Today, however, many of these moguls are moving to the Right as their mega fortunes, particularly in Silicon Valley, become less mega. Most remain supportive of the Democrats, although arguably the biggest player, Elon Musk, has shifted his support to the GOP. Meanwhile, once-reliable backers, such as JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Steve Rattner, have been harshly critical of Biden’s economic policies and worry about the expansion of anti-trust regulations. And as the Democrats push their draconian climate policy, the ranks of its wealthy critics are likely to swell. Nationalising the energy industry would, for instance, rob them of the windfall from an energy “transition” to solar and wind power. Wall Street and the Valley may yet find that their alliance with the climate activists will end in tears.
As their wealthy backers become increasingly alienated, the Democrats can’t afford to be complacent about their Midterm performance. Any sense of victory must be matched by a recognition that the best way forward is to adopt a moderate strategy that incorporates the best parts of the Sanders agenda, such as an aggressive reshoring of industry and strong policies against China, with a less intrusive cultural agenda. Democrats need to embrace the potential of America’s productive economy, from agriculture and energy to manufacture, to create jobs; they should be the ones figuring out how ordinary people can benefit from the country’s vast natural resources and creative advantages.
This is possible, although elements of its progressive wing will no doubt object to any move towards the middle ground. In Britain, Labour has largely learnt its lesson and extinguished much of Jeremy Corbyn’s far-Left, antisemitic faction, paving the way for a likely reversal in its political fortunes. Here, too, the Democrats must find ways to circumvent, and at times reject, its unpopular fringes. If they seek to become a true national, majority party, they need to rediscover something of the spirit of Harry Truman or John Kennedy, or, maybe even Joe Manchin — a party that could win support not just in blue zones, but across the entire country.