(This is a guest post from my friend and colleague Peter Juul. Juul argues that there are important lessons to be derived from Biden's march to the Democratic nomination, against the preferences of many, many progressive activists who felt they had the wind at their back. The center-left must learn these lessons, he argues, to fully engage the massive pool of normie Democrats and build an effective and unifying national coalition. I agree.)
To hear it from political pundits and commentators, in their 2020 presidential primaries the Democratic Party dodged the bullet that felled their Republican counterparts in 2016. Former Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious amidst a crowded field, vindicating the Democratic establishment against insurgent populists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By contrast, horrified Republican elites could do little to stop their radicalized primary voters from handing their party’s presidential nomination to Donald Trump four years ago.
But this narrative both misleads and obscures: Biden’s sudden and swift political resurrection amounted to a revolt of the Democratic rank-and-file against a strident and loud progressive elite. In an inversion of the 2016 Republican primary, Democratic primary voters prevented a hostile takeover of their party by a well-heeled ideological vanguard class with whom they fundamentally disagreed on matters of both style and substance. Call it the revenge of the normie Democrats against the avant-garde progressive Twitterati.
It’s important to distinguish between a Democratic establishment still trusted by normie votes and a progressive elite that exerts influence in political discourse vastly disproportionate to their actual public support. The former consists of Democratic elected officials like former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in addition to the proverbial party hacks. More than anything else, these elected officials and party functionaries have to win competitive elections and manage fractious political coalitions in order to deliver practical results for their constituents and the public as a whole.
In contrast, the progressive elite consists of professional activists, opinion page writers, and influential academics and think-tankers – many of whom will populate a potential Democratic presidential administration. This elite also includes ideologically-driven elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who represent safe state or districts and probably won’t face competitive elections against Republican opponents any time soon. Backed by wealthy donors and philanthropic foundations, this network of progressive elites loudly dominated political discourse on social media as they sought to shift the Democratic Party toward the rarefied worldview prevalent within elite institutions outside the party – and all against the apparent will of regular Democratic voters.
Democratic candidates and center-left institutions that underestimate the centrality of normies to American politics do so at their own peril. Average voters with largely conventional social and political attitudes represent the core constituency for any center-left political coalition that hopes to win elections and govern in the United States. If the Democratic Party and the American center-left more broadly hope for future success, they must stop catering to noisy activists and funders who insist on receiving gestures that only undermine their political prospects. They must instead cultivate the quiet army of normie voters that powered Biden’s primary victory - and could lift Democrats to victory in November and beyond.
Unfortunately, many leading progressive lights have been captured by this loud, influential, but ultimately unrepresentative class of elite activists and wealthy donors. This class has pulled center-left politics apart from two directions: the identity politics of the “woke” left and the democratic socialism concentrated around the camp of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Highly-educated elite progressives ensconced in the upper echelons of the media, academia, and well-endowed foundations constitute the primary source of support for the woke left. Their influence could be seen quite clearly in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, which became an unwitting parody of woke politics over the course of the primary season. Other candidates like Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kristen Gillibrand also believed a rhetorical embrace of woke identity politics would deliver them the nomination, only to all drop out of the race before the first primary votes could even be cast.
Likewise, Sanders’s surprisingly vigorous 2016 primary challenge and consistently strong polling ahead of the 2020 primaries led many progressives elites to overestimate the wider appeal of his vague brand of democratic socialism to average Democratic primary voters. Propounded by a number of veteran left-wing activists and fueled by the Sanders campaign, democratic socialists positioned themselves as the inevitable wave of the progressive political future. Thanks in no small part to the highly visible and clamorous contingent of dyspeptic professional activists in its ranks, however, democratic socialism never won over a majority -or even a strong enough plurality - of the Democratic primary electorate.
In short, neither of the most vocal ideological factions in contemporary progressive politics proved popular among actually existing Democratic voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination largely thanks to the strength of his support among black voters, for instance, while Sanders failed to expand his own coalition in a meaningful way. Worse, they may likely be actively harmful to Democratic prospects in November by pressuring Biden to engage in costly political posturing that drives away normie voters. As commentator Josh Barro has pointed out, candidates and institutions have adopted “a wide variety of fundamentally non-policy positions on the culture that annoy the crap out of people” in order to placate internally powerful activist and donor classes.
The drawbacks of this approach are legion. It’s disastrous politically, alienating Democrats from their own voters and heavily circumscribing their attempts to build a wider political coalition. Moreover, it destroys the sense of common national purpose that the center-left must cultivate if it’s to achieve its policy goals. Allowing progressive politics to be dictated by these unrepresentative factions may serve the interests of professional activists and donors, but it does not serve the interests of the Democratic Party, its electoral coalition, or the nation as a whole. Above all, it’s left Democrats and the center-left bereft of compelling narratives of their own and estranged from their bedrock base of normie voters.
In the 2020 primaries, however, the normies struck back by propelling a somnolent Biden campaign to a string of decisive victories and the Democratic nomination. They also revealed just how unmoored progressive elites had become from their own voters over the past five years. Progressives not only badly misinterpreted the 2016 primary results, they stuck with this faulty interpretation in the face of evidence to the contrary. They ignored the normie revolt of the 2018 mid-term elections, where mainstream center-left candidates supported by the party establishment won highly contested races for Congress while those backed by progressive ideologues lost. An excessive focus by the political media on newly-crowned progressive stars like Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley crowded out sober analysis of the actual election results. As a consequence, many progressive elites and prospective presidential candidates alike failed to perceive the rise of an emerging normie majority in American politics.
Indeed, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates assumed that pursuing the agendas set forth by the woke left and democratic socialists would win them the nomination. This assumption proved false, with Sanders cornering the market on the factional left-wing vote and campaigns that espoused woke rhetoric falling flat among their own supposed constituencies. By contrast, Biden won the support of moderate Democrats and black voters by significant margins, ran competitively with Sanders among Hispanics and Latinos in states like Arizona, and displayed strength in formerly Republican suburbs notwithstanding his strong center-left policy platform. He even managed to bring college-educated and non-college-educated white voters together in his coalition. Along with the 2018 mid-term results, the 2020 presidential primaries ought to put to bed any notions that elections can be won through appeals to woke identity politics or left-wing political purism.
Thanks in no small part to their own primary voters, then, Democrats possess a rare opportunity to build an enduring center-left coalition in 2020 - but only if they embrace the normie politics that animates many of their core supporters. The last several election cycles reveal much about the politics of the emerging normie majority.
Though they may be anathema to the woke left and democratic socialists alike, the politics of the emerging normie majority aren’t difficult to comprehend. To start, normies aren’t besotted with the avant-garde theories of race, gender, or other identity categories peddled by progressive activists and promoted by foundations. Their culturally moderate politics leads normies to accept gay marriage, for instance, while simultaneously holding deep reservations about the excesses of contemporary transgender activism. Normies remain open to ambitious economic programs like adding a public option to Obamacare and substantial investments in national infrastructure, but tend to view expansive progressive left proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All as flights of political fancy. Ambivalent internationalists, normies don’t favor disengagement from global politics but remain cautious when it comes to foreign policy. Above all, normies seek a semblance of normalcy in national life that only a competent government and stable political leadership can deliver.
To fully take advantage of this golden opportunity to cement a coalition founded on this emerging normie majority, Democrats and the center-left need to stop being bullied by the demands of the progressive professional activist and some donor classes. Better yet, they should keep the political and electoral strength of these classes in perspective and embrace the normie politics of core Democratic constituencies. That starts with the recognition that activists and donors aim to advance their own points of view and preferred policies rather than build a broader center-left coalition that can win elections. It’s better to take heat from such groups for failing to send the proper signals than to drive away the normie voters that decided the 2018 mid-terms and 2020 primaries.
Make no mistake, Democrats must win over normie voters to defeat President Trump in the upcoming presidential election. White working-class voters, for instance, will still comprise around two-fifths of the national electorate - and even marginal shifts in favor of Democrats among these voters would doom Trump in critical states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Moreover, black and Hispanic voters tend to be more moderate in their political and social attitudes than the elite progressives who populate activist groups and philanthropic foundations. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the 2020 primary season, it’s that talk of “intersectionality,” “democratic socialism,” and other fashionable concepts failed to mobilize any voting bloc other than highly-educated progressives.
Despite their repeated failures, however, professional activists and donors will still retain the power and influence they have accumulated over the past several years. An emerging normie majority will only coalesce if the center-left stays in touch with political reality and turns back these corrosive and schismatic forces. Democrats must be willing to send positive signals to normies at the risk of bringing the wrath of activists down upon them. More than anything else, the center-left must recognize and accept the reality and electoral power of normie voters - and harness it for constructive ends.