Despite Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election and the Democrats’ razor-thin margin of control over the US Senate, the party’s underwhelming showing in down-ballot races — both at the federal and state levels — has put it on course for an internal reckoning. What lessons will the Democrats learn from their losses in the House, their near-failure to capture the working Senate majority required to pass any meaningful progressive legislation over the next two years, and their forfeiture of multiple state legislative chambers leading up to a crucial redistricting year? And what are the implications of the Democrats’ internal postmortem for progressive electoral politics? While not written to anticipate the contours of post-2020 Democratic politics, Seth Masket’s masterful Learning From Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020 provides a wealth of useful insights for understanding the Democrats’ likely trajectory over the coming years, as well as the strategic decisions progressives must grapple with as they seek to expand their influence on Democratic Party politics.
First, Learning From Loss makes a forceful case that the Democratic Party is both better organized and, paradoxically, more porous than most commentators on the progressive left allow. In particular, Masket argues that Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary had much less to do with a concerted effort by Democratic leaders to tip the scales against progressives, and much more to do with a hyperfocus on electability among the party’s base, combined with a powerful (if empirically questionable) assumption that progressive presidential candidates are simply not electable. These findings should cast serious doubt on claims that progressives are structurally incapable of wielding influence within, or even taking control of, the Democratic Party, even as the medium-term prospects of doing so appear weaker in light of the 2020 election results.
Next, Masket makes a series of important contributions to understanding the legacy and potential future of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Through a detailed analysis of Democratic donor patterns and candidate staff reshuffling between 2016 and 2020, he shows that, although the democratic socialist faction of the party was unable to expand its 2016 ranks significantly in 2020, it has become a distinct and stable force within the party that is not likely to dissipate in the near future. At the same time, however, Masket’s findings suggest that there is no obvious path forward for Sanders’s coalition to meaningfully expand its ranks within the party over the coming years (at least not outside of heavily progressive areas of the country). This poses a major challenge to democratic socialists in Congress and in state legislatures who have experienced impressive gains in recent years (including in 2020) but who appear to be edging ever closer to a relatively low electoral ceiling.
Finally, Masket’s rich analysis of Democratic Party activists’ interpretation of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss offers insight into the debates we are likely to see unfold within the party over the coming months and years: Was the Democrats’ weak showing in 2020 a product of poor campaign strategy and messaging (particularly around identity politics), poor candidate selection, exogenous factors related to COVID-19 and the accompanying economic and health crises, or some combination of these factors? To what extent will party activists reevaluate previously held assumptions about the relative competitiveness of progressive candidates against centrist candidates, white male candidates against female candidates and candidates of color, and campaign strategies targeted to working-class voters, voters of color, and wealthy suburban constituencies within the party?
Learning From Loss suggests that post-2020 intraparty debates are likely to mirror — and ultimately produce a similar outcome to — the party’s post-2016 debates. The party will remain highly risk averse and will have few incentives to update its post-2016 belief that centrist candidates tailored to the median white suburban voter remain the key to party success. I close this essay with reflections on the strategic liabilities of repeating the lessons learned in 2016, which are based on the assumption that any progressive messaging is a political liability for Democrats in red and purple states. To the contrary, I suggest that economic populism remains a potentially powerful, if largely untested, strategy — not only for progressive success but also for Democratic Party success writ large.