Democratic Party leaders and progressives are taking the wrong lessons from a recent primary victory in New York and reaction to Trump administration immigration policies.
Alexsandra Ocasio-Cortez upset incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York City Congressional district primary. A Democratic Party leader in the House of Representatives, Crowley, ran a low profile and lackluster campaign. He took for granted his victory and spent little money and energy on his campaign effort.
His opponent had a compelling narrative and a progressive economic message in a largely working class, minority, and immigrant district. The victory of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was uniquely related to her campaign, her opponent, and the district.
The idea that a “Democratic Socialist” or progressive candidate can win outside of diverse, liberal districts, is a serious miscalculation.
Another miscalculation on the part of Democrats is their reaction to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border and the subsequent separation of parents and children.
Trump administration refugee polices were so egregious that they generated a flood of mainstream opposition. Former First Lady Laura Bush offered an impassioned rebuke in an op-ed in the Washington Post. The suburban base of the Republican Party was dismayed and rebelling. Support for Trump and the Republican brand was fast diminishing.
Yet the reaction from the Democrats was social shaming, protests, marches, social media interchanges among the like-minded, and foul language from entertainment personalities. None of these actions generates voter support. They are merely symbolic actions that make those participating feels righteous.
While liberals were overreacting, Trump recognized the impending political disaster and reversed course. The blatant cruelty of the separation policy was often displaced in the media by reactive noise.
Changing public policy requires winning elections — statewide and nationally. Protest marches, social shaming, and social media exchanges among the already convinced do not win votes from the undecided.
Putting up candidates who can win in their states and Congressional districts is key to policy change. The primary victory of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a singular event. It is not a reason to advance Democratic Socialists or progressive candidates in Republican and conservative states and districts.
President Donald Trump’s conduct in office and personal behavior is offensive to many — Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. However, politics in America is ideologically polarized and most Republicans and conservatives strongly support his conservative agenda.
They tolerate objectionable behavior for lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, economic and environmental deregulation, conservative appointments to the federal judiciary, limits on affirmative action and immigration, and downsizing the social safety net.
To reverse Trump’s policies, Democrats need to win elections throughout the 50 states. Yet, over the past four election cycles, Democrats have lost over 900 state legislative seats, 63 House of Representative seats, 13 governorships, 12 Senate seats and one presidential election. Not a good record.
Winning requires reconnecting with voters in the heartland. Democrats need an economic agenda and message that brings them back to their liberal economic roots and recognizes that many people in low-wage employment still face economic uncertainty and live paycheck to paycheck.
Democrats must heed the old adage: all politics is local. Celebrating primary victories in already liberal districts and 24/7 anti-Trump rhetoric will not produce enough election victories to overturn the Trump agenda. Especially not in time for the mid-term elections.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven, and has studied the presidency for five decades.
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