Being liberal doesn’t work — to remain relevant, Democrats must revise their agenda

There’s an interesting fairy tale that Democrats (and Mr. Veldman) have been telling themselves for more than a decade. “If we were simply better at getting out our message, we’d win more elections.” This is an incredibly facile analysis — it is akin to saying that the U.S. Army would win more wars if its soldiers shot more enemies and got shot less themselves. Even if it had the power to explain why Democrats win in some years and lose in others (which it doesn’t), it’s less than worthless as a form of strategic advice. The “voters are stupid, why else wouldn’t they vote for us” meme has been rampant on the left for quite some time — if it really had insights to offer, surely these lessons would have been capitalized upon by now.

There’s an even more interesting fairy tale that Democrats are telling themselves in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 elections. “If only we’d been more liberal” the line goes, “we wouldn’t have lost the midterms so badly.” According to this logic, if Democrats had stayed true, not only would their base have come out in droves, but there would have been a better chance of repairing the economy, and thus a better chance of averting all those unhappy unemployed people from voting Republican.

It’s not surprising that many on the left are making these verdicts. They are, after all, highly convenient to the partisan purists that survived the election; such a diagnosis gives them the intellectual cover to support unpopular policies and still claim they are responsible party leaders. But whatever succor it may provide to the Nancy Pelosis of the world, the idea that Democrats can stay the course on their left-wing agenda and see success in the next election cycle is nothing short of a complete abjuration of reality.

Firstly, the base did not stay home. Of those who voted in 2008 but did not vote in 2010 (the ‘droppers’), 40 percent consider themselves independent, while those who consider themselves liberal and conservative poll at 32 percent each. Thirty-nine percent said the Democrats “tried to have government do too much,” and those who said Obama was more liberal than them outnumbered those who said he was more conservative by three to two. This is not a picture of a depressed Democratic base — this is a picture of the country’s political center.

Of those who voted for Democrats in 2008, but changed their minds in 2010 (the ‘switchers’), the large majority are conservative or moderate, with only 11 percent calling themselves liberal. By sizable majorities, they believe the government is too large and are concerned about the deficit. These are not the angry jobless — they’re right-leaning independents and moderate conservatives.

Secondly, the electorate is moving to the right. Looking at elections in the U.S. House, 42 percent of 2010 voters consider themselves conservative, compared with 32 percent just four years ago. The trend is reflected in the non-voting public as well — today, Gallup polls indicate that 42 percent of the country consider themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate, and only 20 percent liberal. What’s more, the GOP is winning an ever-higher percentage of the conservative vote — this cycle, they led Democrats among conservatives by 71 points, up 19 from two years ago and up 10 from the wave election of 1994. If Democrats capture only 10-15 percent of the vote from a 42 percent chunk of the electorate, they’ll continue to lose elections.

Lastly, Republicans won a considerable number of governor’s mansions and state legislatures in 2010, which means that next year’s post-census redistricting will hand the GOP a golden opportunity to redraw the lines in their favor. Though the Republican lead in this area is not crushing (for every six districts they get to redraw, the Democrats will get roughly five), there are two reasons to think it will be decisive: this is the first time in fifty years that Republicans have had a dominant hand in redistricting — Democrats holding the pen will likely only have the chance to perpetuate an existing gerrymander, while Republicans will get to flip the status quo. Furthermore, Democrats are more susceptible to gerrymandering; their concentration in urban areas makes them easy to shunt into massively Democratic electoral ghettos without having to create the ridiculously contoured districts that betray partisan meddling.

After their loss in 2008, Republicans looked into their political soul and found the Tea Party. It is hard to characterize their transformation as a turn toward moderation; if anything, the Tea Partiers seem more extreme than previous iterations of Republican ideology. But even if the GOP’s swing was not explicitly toward the center, it did result in an offering that appealed more to moderates and independents than before. Stripped from the platform were the deadweight of social conservatism and foreign policy neoconservatism. Whether these planks were thrown away or merely brushed under the rug remains to be seen, but the practical effect was to remove the party’s biggest handicaps and make a fresh bid for the nation’s swing votes.

In the face of an increasingly conservative voting public and the loss of their structural political advantages, Democrats very desperately need to reclaim the political center. Like Republicans, perhaps they will look into their souls and return with a product that remains true to a core portion of their ideology, yet offers something fresh and competitive. But unlike Republicans, Democrats will not have the political landscape on their side if they choose to make such a gamble.

There is a safer road back to relevance. To bring the droppers back to the polls, Democrats need to offer something that was not present during the 2010 election: truly moderate candidates. And to claw back the switchers, Democrats need to convince them that they too can be serious about fighting deficits.

Whatever path Democrats choose, one thing should be made clear to them: they lost. And if they don’t change something, they will lose again.