The Myth of the “Electable” Democrat: Neoliberal Bankruptcy, 2020 Edition

As the Democratic primaries near, the usual chorus of Democratic-establishment pundits have emerged to remind Americans that their party needs to remain “moderate” and appeal to “the center” if it wants to win the presidency. The calls for moderation are pervasive in commentary from the New York Times, the Hill, and the Wall Street Journal, among others.

Most recent is a January New York Times op-ed from Ezra Klein, entitled “Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t.”

Klein is the sort of pundit who likes to drape his political prescriptions in empirical social science data, thereby adding the appearance of legitimacy to what are neoliberal Democratic talking points. He warns primary voters that “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. They can move to the left…but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power.”

Klein draws on statistics describing the demographic foundations of Democratic and Republican Party support, claiming that Democrats must appeal to Americans of many different backgrounds. Democrats are “more diverse,” drawing support from “a coalition of liberal whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and mixed-race voters,” in addition to “liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, agnostics, Buddhists, and so on…winning the Democratic primary means winning liberal whites in New Hampshire and traditionalist blacks in South Carolina. It means talking to Irish Catholics in Boston and atheists in San Francisco.” In contrast, Klein points out that the Republican Party is primarily comprised of white voters, with “three-quarters of Republicans identify[ing] as conservative, while only half of Democrats call themselves liberals.”

Klein believes that “to win power, Democrats don’t just need to appeal to the voter in the middle. They need to appeal to voters to the right of the middle.” Republicans, to the contrary, rely on undemocratic entities like the Electoral College and the suppression of minority voters to win elections, while relying disproportionately on white conservative supporters who vote in high numbers, despite the party’s steadily “shrinking constituency.”

But Klein’s narrative is largely a regurgitation of an old establishment Democratic trope that’s been crammed down Americans’ throats for the last three decades. The notion that moderate pro-business Democrats are the party’s only chance to win office traces back to the rise of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” “third way” coalition, which is defined by center-left social politics and conservative, pro-business economic policies in favor of deregulation, free trade, corporate tax cuts, and attacks on the welfare state. I’m intimately involved with the narrative of the “electable” neoliberal Democrat in my own line of work as a professor. Most social scientists, after all, are milquetoast liberals, so claims that only establishment Democrats can win abound in the halls of higher education.

Things Change

The claim that only neoliberal Democrats are viable candidates has been exposed in the era of Donald Trump. Trump’s election demonstrates that candidates don’t need to appeal to the “center” to win. Reactionary media and political leaders have been pulling Republican voters to the right for decades. [ … ]

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