BESIDES DONALD TRUMP, the election’s big loser was the Democratic Party. Having been predicted to win a governing trifecta, it retained its House majority with around six fewer seats, won the White House by a nerve-jangling margin and has probably fallen short in the Senate. Joe Biden can expect to sign little legislation as a result. He may be constrained in his cabinet appointments. If he nominated as attorney-general Stacey Abrams, the hero of his probable win in Georgia and a hate figure on the right, for example, Mitch McConnell might give her the Merrick Garland treatment.
Unlike the president, Mr Biden’s party is already reckoning with its failure. Bruised members of the centre-left—a faction that includes almost all the party’s candidates in the battleground states—blame the activist left for making them seem radical and untrustworthy. The left, in particular its 31-year-old standard-bearer, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is hitting back.
A leaked record of a meeting between House Democrats last week—before Mr Biden’s victory had been called—included angry exchanges between the two groups, which have continued on social media and in the pages of the New York Times. Abigail Spanberger, a narrowly re-elected Virginian moderate, warned that the party must resolve among other things “to not ever use the word socialist or socialism again”. Ms Ocasio-Cortez, a proud democratic socialist, responded by suggesting the centre-left losers didn’t understand how to campaign on social media (unlike her, presumably, with her 10m Twitter followers). Moderates were outraged.
Understandably so. The Democratic losses were in spite of a huge cash advantage and against a Republican opponent that over the past four years appeared to have given up on governing. The Trump party passed no major law besides a tax cut. It has no health-care policy. Yet Democratic candidates ran behind Mr Biden almost everywhere. And there are signs—beyond what Ms Spanberger and other battleground Democrats heard from their constituents every day—that the party’s perceived “radical leftism” was a big reason why. The Democrats lost most ground with two groups that have a special loathing of socialism, Cuban-Americans and Venezuelans. Their shift to the Republicans cost the Democrats two House seats in Florida and Mr Biden the state.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez says this is wrong because it is unfair. No Democrat ran on socialism, “defund the police” or other leftist slogans, she notes. Any damaging impression to the contrary was confabulated by right-wing attack ads—which Democrats should therefore do more to counteract. Point by point, she is right. But as a proposed solution to the Democrats’ problems, it suggests that “AOC”, who won her own district in Queens by a comfortable 38 points, has little conception of how hostile the battlegrounds have become for Democrats.
That chiefly reflects the imbalances in the electoral system, which mean that Democrats, the most popular party, need to filch votes from the other side in a way that less-popular Republicans need not. Democrats’ inflated—as it turned out—hope for this election was to ride an anti-Trump wave big enough to compensate for the over-representation of rural, conservative voters in the Senate and electoral college that is the cause of the imbalance. Some hoped the president’s unpopularity might even give them a big enough Senate majority to reform it. Instead, the Republicans’ structural advantage appears to have grown so large as to have dashed even the Democrats’ more modest expectation of power.
Mr Biden is on course to win the election by more than 5m votes, but the presidency by less than 100,000 across a handful of increasingly conservative states. Wisconsin—the indispensable last component in his electoral-college majority, which he won by a whisker—is more than three points more Republican than the country at large. That is a measure of Mr Biden’s achievement; it may also suggest how unrealistic it was for Democrats to have counted on adding Senate seats in even more conservative states.
If all the battlegrounds continued on their current electoral trajectory, North Carolina and Texas, where they had such hopes, might not turn Democratic until after the ageing, white rustbelt has become so reliably Republican that Democrats will have lost their five Senate seats there. Having approached the election hoping to win sufficient power to reform the system, Democrats are now contemplating a bleak struggle to stay competitive in it.
The early Democratic feuding is mainly a response to the grimness of that prospect. Ms Ocasio-Cortez makes herself an easy target for the aggrieved centre-left. Her claim that Democrats mainly need a better Facebook strategy is as dilettantish as the “defund the police” insanity she signally failed to disavow. The election also suggests the left’s bigger idea to change the political tide, by weaning working-class voters off right-wing identity politics with populist economic policies, may be no more feasible. An electorate that has embraced Mr Biden personally but rejected his agenda as too radical seems unlikely to warm to the left’s actual radicalism. Yet that was already off the menu, following Mr Biden’s thumping win in the Democratic primaries. The dejection of battle-hardened moderates such as Ms Spanberger chiefly reflects the overthrow of their more promising effort to break the partisan deadlock.
Change the record
If the left dreams of moving America with the power of its ideas, the centre-left places its hope in compiling a solid governing record. The evidence of previous bouts of populism suggests there is no better way to re-establish the centre. It is also a bolder approach than the Sandernistas allow. The Democrats’ historic weakness, devastatingly exploited by the Tea Party movement, is its reputation for defending bad government against small government. The centre-left’s commendably daunting ambition is to compile a reputation for modern, effective government. But to do that, it must have power. And Mr McConnell is likely to give it none.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “A Democratic defeat in victory”