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The Democrats’ Taste of Defeat is Just an Appetizer

The main course is coming next year, and every year after that.

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Last night was a relatively low-stakes election night in America, at least in terms of national politics. On the table were a smattering of Governorships, a bunch of mayors, ballot measures and city council seats and district attorneys, plus a few special elections in non-tossup House districts. Yet despite the stakes, the Democratic party managed to make a Tuesday night in an odd-year election into a national debacle, a cycle that has become so predictable that it’s incredibly difficult to not look 12 months down the road and see only a pile of rubble and ash where the party’s last crumbling power structures once stood.

Some caveats: mayors and governors and ballot measures are of course incredibly consequential to the segments of America they affect, and the news on that front wasn’t bad across the board. Well over a dozen DSA-endorsed candidates or ballot measures won local elections last night, picking up a handful of city council seats around the country. Austin shut down a reactionary “hire more cops” measure, St. Paul passed a rent control measure, Philadelphia re-elected one of the boldest reform-minded District Attorneys in the country. Boston elected Michelle Wu, a young, progressive Asian-American child of immigrants who favors free public transit, Green New Deal climate policies and rent control or stabilization plans. Boston!

But in the big races, the ones the racetrack gamblers at the major networks and papers and think-tanks follow as bell weathers for national trends — those went about as bad as they could have. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is expected to narrowly keep his seat from a right wing challenger, and in Virginia, moderate figurehead Terry McAuliffe got dragged into the mud and drowned by a combination of idiotic campaign strategy on his part and the expected assault of bad-faith race-baiting by Glen Youngkin.

You would think by now that for a party so accustomed to losing, the Democrats and the media establishment that largely supports them would have a better way of dealing with it. And yet, almost immediately, we got this:

I don’t want to spend too long on this because it’s an argument that is so easily refuted, and so divorced from reality as to be absurd unless you are a guy like the poster above who spent all night tweeting cell phone videos of CNN pundits filling dead air on his TV (to be fair, America contains a shocking number of that kind of guy). Democrats in Virginia lost to Youngkin for an absurd number of reasons, including but not limited to their failure to pass a national budget bill with a concrete platform to run on, their purchase of campaign mailers for their opponent, and their operatives’ false-flag racism stunts. It’s true, in some ways, that this election was a repudiation of the progressive agenda across the country — but it was Democratic party strategists who repudiated it, not American voters.

You don’t have to look any further than what happened in Buffalo to understand this. Better writers than me have and will document the nuances of that race, but the broad strokes are this: India Walton, an outspoken socialist, won a primary election against an establishment favorite. Instead of supporting her (or, at the bare minimum, grudgingly accepting an exciting young politician with growing cultural cachet), the city, state, and national party did everything they could to kneecap her candidacy and threw their weight behind the incumbent, who won the general election by allying with Republicans to win on a write-in campaign.

What happens next is a choice. Next year is an even year. There are midterms, the House and Senate are in the balance. The Senate is gone — Sinema isn’t up for re-election until 2024, nor is Manchin, and even if by some unbelievable miracle the Democrats keep their “majority” in that house their presence will continue to Joe Liebermann the shit out of the party. The most optimistic take is that in the year we have left until the midterms, Biden manages to find a way to get enough out of that situation to give the party something to run on, based on issues that by now should be wildly obvious for anyone looking clearly at national priorities. A majority of Americans want student debt relief. A majority of Americans want more paid family leave for new parents. They want Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. This list goes on and on and the issues on it are basically everything that the horse racers and glass-desk pundits would consider “progressive.” That’s the agenda. The Democrats can do their best to pass it or they can continue to lose. The most doom-pilled among us, I know, think that they don’t actually want to win, that they don’t care as long as a few of them get re-elected and the rest get easy board seats in the private sector, and while there’s some truth to that, I don’t really think Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are dying to have their half-century legacies marked by a generational failure to achieve anything. Some Democrats do want to win. They keep losing because they’re the last ones to realize that doing so will take them reaching just ever-so-slightly to the left.