Moving Left Won't Guarantee Victory for Democrats—but Expanding the Franchise Will Help

Why fighting voter suppression and expanding the rolls matter more than achieving progressive purity.
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"Bernie would have won."

The phrase has become something of a catchphrase among various progressives since the 2016 election. It sums up a lot of the left's frustration with the Democratic establishment in general, and with Hillary Clinton's campaign in particular.

But "Bernie would have won" isn't just an analysis of past errors; it's also a program for the future. Arguing that Bernie Sanders could have won is meant as a wedge, a way to encourage Democrats to embrace progressive candidates and progressive causes if they want to win elections. Unfortunately, that argument looks less and less tenable in the age of President Donald Trump—and can end up distracting organizers from approaches that could help bring about actual change.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, it was natural for people to look for explanations. Trump was a historically unfit and unpopular candidate who won in a fluke Electoral College victory. The contest was so close that small changes in votes in a handful of Midwestern states could have swung the election, so it's certainly possible that a candidate other than Clinton could have snuck across the finish line ahead of Trump.

Many progressive arguments, though, went further than this. Franklin Foer, in a long story for The Atlantic, sums up the conventional wisdom that Clinton was defeated because of the Democratic Party's "unwillingness to blare its hostility to crony capitalism." Democrats, the argument goes, need to embrace Sanders' populist message of free health care for all, free college, and full-throated denunciations of the rich if they are to capture the support of the working class. As Annie Weinberg, electoral director of Democracy for America, told BuzzFeed, "Voters want to hear someone who knows what they're fighting for." By this account, progressive candidates offer a stark contrast to the GOP and fire up the base. Choosing strong progressive candidates will therefore ensure victory in contests that the usual corporate, centrist Dems would lose.

As a progressive, I see the visceral appeal here. In Illinois, I'd much rather vote for Daniel Biss for governor in November‚ a candidate who responded to questions about the opioid crisis by arguing for cannabis legalization and universal health care. Instead, I'm going to be stuck casting a reluctant gubernatorial ballot for billionaire corporatist Democrat J.B. Pritzker. And it fills me with despair when Democrats scurry to deregulate banks at the behest of their donors.

But just because I'm more enthusiastic about progressive candidates doesn't mean that progressive candidates would necessarily run the table if they were only given the chance. On the contrary, all the evidence since Trump's election suggests that less-progressive candidates don't have any problem winning in an electoral environment where the president's popularity is hovering below 40. Ralph Northam, not a progressive darling by any stretch, swept to a shocking nine-point victory in a Virginia's governor's race that was supposed to be a nail-biter. Doug Jones, who was pilloried as a poor candidate by progressives before the Alabama election, scored a historic win, becoming the state's first Democratic candidate in a quarter century. Conor Lamb, generally seen as a moderate, just narrowly won a House special election in Pennsylvania, in a district that Trump took by 20 points. In special elections since 2016, Democrats have out-performed the partisan lean of their districts by an average of 13 points this election cycle, according to 538.

This isn't to say that progressive candidates do worse in general elections. So far this year, progressives have done quite well. In Virginia, a socialist won an upset victory against a Republican in the House of Delegates, as just one example. Still, progressives are thriving alongside more centrist candidates—not instead of them. Democrats haven't radically altered their message since November of 2016. What's changed is that they're running against Trump, a hugely unpopular president. The exact policy preferences of whatever Democrat is on the ballot matter significantly less than the fact that the Democrats in question are not Trump.

In short, tweaking policy seems to have little effect on how people vote—which is exactly the point that political scientists L.M. Bartels and C.H. Achen argue in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Governments. The vast majority of people, Bartels and Achen point out, don't follow politics closely. Most people aren't going to get fired up by single-payer health care because most people have only the vaguest idea of what single payer even is. Instead, people vote generally on the basis of how things are going. If their personal economic outlook is bad, they tend to vote against the incumbent—and if they dislike the incumbent president, they vote against the incumbent president's party too.

Pushing progressivism, then, won't necessarily help Democrats get elected. There is one policy that would help progressives and Democrats alike, however: expanding the franchise.

According to Bartels and Achen, people do not necessarily vote on policy—but they do vote on identity. White people tend to vote for Republicans, especially if they are wealthy; everyone else tends to vote for Democrats.

The problem for Democrats is that the white and wealthy are more likely to vote than the non-white and non-wealthy—and that there are numerous structural barriers to make sure other people will have trouble getting to the polls. Poor people and people of color are much more likely to be in prison, and almost six million adults are disenfranchised as felons in the United States. Majority-minority populations in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other territories have no representatives in Congress. Documented and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are barred from voting. Sanders energized young people in unprecedented numbers during the primary campaign, but 16- and 17-year-olds can't vote. And of course voter ID laws suppress poor and minority voteswhich is why Republicans support them.

Most people don't vote on the ins and outs of bank regulation or health care; you can't guarantee electoral wins by picking one policy or another on those issues. But you can affect election outcomes by changing the demographics of the electorate. If more democratic voters are able to vote, the country will move left—which is another way to say that the government will be responsive to the interests of everyone, not just to the interests of rich white people.

Over the long term, the most important thing for progressives, for Democrats, and for the country as a whole is to expand the electorate. There's no way to know whether Sanders would have won. But if we don't put voting rights at the center of the Democratic and progressive agenda, we're all going to lose.

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