Jamelle Bouie tries again to argue that progressives aren't to blame for the Democrats' problems

Earlier this week NY Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece in which he argued woke language was not to blame for the problems Democrats are experiencing in Virginia, with Hispanic voters, etc. Instead he argued the problem was more fundamental material and ideological changes in the electorate.

It wasn’t a very convincing argument. I spelled my reasons for disagreeing with him here, Without going over the whole thing again, suffice it to say that woke language is just a marker of woke ideology and an increasing number of people don’t like woke ideology. As one commenter responding to Bouie’s story put it, “As a lifelong feminist, the words ‘pregnant people’ specifically were the reason I’ve abandoned the Democratic party.”

Today, Bouie is back with another attempt to make a revised version of the same argument. Instead of focusing on woke language he argues that progressives as a whole, including activists with unpopular views, are too small a force to matter.

It is true that some progressives — either Democratic lawmakers or affiliated activists — hold unpopular views or use unpopular language. It is also true that Republicans have amplified this to some electoral success. But missing in this conversation is one inconvenient fact: Progressives are not actually in the driver’s seat of the Democratic Party…

The president of the United States, and leader of the Democratic Party, is Joe Biden, the standard-bearer for a bygone era of centrist governance and aisle-crossing compromise, who made his mark in domestic politics as a drug warrior in the 1980s and a “law and order” Democrat in the 1990s…

Although the share of progressives within the Democratic Party is much larger than the share of progressives writ large (12 percent of the party versus 6 percent nationally, according to the most recent political typology survey from the Pew Research Center), a large majority of Democrats are moderate to moderately liberal on most issues.

Let’s pause there because if you actually follow that link to the recent Pew survey it’s a bit more complicated than Bouie’s summary:

Bouie only looks at the Progressive Left which the chart does show are 12% of the Democratic party. But he ignores the Outsider Left who are 16%. Here’s how Pew describes them:

Like Progressive Left, Outsider Left hold liberal views on most social issues, and particularly on issues of racial and ethnic equality and on immigration. Outsider Left are somewhat more skeptical of government’s role than other Democratic-oriented groups, though far less so than those in GOP-oriented groups…

Outsider Left were – along with Progressive Left – the most likely to back Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) supported Sanders in January 2020, compared with 18% who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren and just 12% who backed Joe Biden.

I don’t think it’s very fair to categorize voters who wanted Sanders or Warren for president as not really progressive. They may fit into a different typology for reasons of age and coolness to the party but they’re not moderates. And really if you look under the hood, some of the people categorized as Establishment Liberals aren’t really that moderate either. Consider this graph and the percentage of each group who agreed that “Because they are fundamentally biased against some racial and ethnic groups, most US laws/institutions need to be completely rebuilt.”

So, 71% of the Progressive Left agrees with that but so does 63% of the Outsider Left. Even among the Establishment Left you’ve got nearly a third who are ready to burn it all down and start over in the name of equity. My point is that the people who hold these views are more than 12% of the Democratic Party. They may still be a minority within the party but a very sizeable one.

In any case, I’d concede that right now it’s the moderate wing that is in control of the party. So does that mean it’s unfair to blame the more radical wing for electoral losses?

There was a battle for control of the Democratic Party, and the moderates won. They hold the power and they direct the message. But despite this victory, moderate Democrats and their allies can’t seem to take responsibility for the party’s fortunes. When faced with defeats — as they were last month when Terry McAuliffe fell to Glenn Youngkin in the race to succeed Ralph Northam as governor of Virginia — they blame the left. It’s the same song, each time. If progressives would just stop alienating the public, then they could make gains and put power back in Democratic hands…

Read in this light, the frequent focus on progressives as the cause of Democratic woes looks less like hard-nosed analysis and more like excuse-making. And my sense is that this excuse-making will only get worse as Republicans weaponize the institutions of American politics to entrench their power and lay the conditions for durable minority rule.

This is a better argument than the one he made earlier in the week. He’s gone from progressive language isn’t the problem which seemed like a dodge to progressives’ unpopular views aren’t the problem which is at least taking the problem head on.

Are progressive views the problem? I still think the answer is yes. For instance, the piece Bouie was reacting to earlier in the week found that a lot of Hispanic voters say they are put off by the use of “Latinx.” Another argument for the apparent shift of Hispanic voters away from Democrats is that they refuse to buy into the left’s critical theory approach to America. It turns out a lot of Hispanic migrants are pretty patriotic about America, in part because they’ve seen it work for them. Even Rev. Al Sharpton could see that talking down people’s aspirations wasn’t working for Democrats.

If you look specifically at the results in the Virginia election, Critical Race Theory got a lot of headlines but I think there’s some evidence a lot of parents were still angry about 18 months of forced remote learning. Gallup published a poll in March of this year which found that 79% of K-12 parents were ready for classroom learning to resume. But there was a split between Republicans and Democrats, with 94% of Republicans saying school should resume in person and 62% of Democrats.

But that leads to an obvious question. Should the actions of teachers unions be blamed on moderate or progressive Democrats? If we go back to that Pew survey, they asked about unions and on that particular issue there was little difference between progressives and the establishment left.

The bar graph on the right shows around 80 percent of both groups support unions. The progressive left is slightly more supportive but it’s a tiny difference. As you can see, the Democratic Mainstays felt differently. Their support for unions was closer to 62%. So I think it’s fair to say more moderate Dems were probably less likely to support unions who wanted to keep schools closed but I guess that’s arguable. I do think you can look at other examples, like the recall of woke members of the SF School Board, and see evidence that even liberal democrats have had enough of some of the more extreme ideology.

I guess the bottom line is that I think there’s some evidence voters are feeling put off by far left ideology. Even if that ideology isn’t in the driver’s seat, voters can still hear the woke activists shrieking from the back seat and that’s a disincentive to a lot of people who might otherwise get in the car. That’s pretty much how this commenter summed it up:

This column presents a false dichotomy. It’s very true that one of the reasons the Democratic party has lost power is that it has been out to lunch during 30 years of neoliberal economic restructuring, as Mr. Bouie correctly points out. But it’s also true that “stupid wokeness,” as James Carville calls it, turns off a lot of voters. In fact, it seems to be the case that the more progressives are thwarted from implementing their own good ideas, such as medicare for all, the more they seem to engage in stupid woke posturing as some sort of consolation prize.

But, hey, if Democrats want to keep letting the woke-wing of the party run wild on the grounds that they’re not to blame, I’m okay with that.