“Together we will make Donald Trump a one-term president,” tweeted U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in September of 2019. A few days later, Sanders’ senate colleague from New Jersey, Cory Booker, confidently stated that “we’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president.” This repeatedly invoked axiom about a one-term Trump presidency is reminiscent of the Democratic Party’s misplaced confidence in Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In fact, the baseless assumption that Trump would be a guaranteed loser in the election led Clinton’s team to avoid campaigning in swing states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, which turned out to be more than costly.
It bears remembering that back then, commentators claimed that Clinton’s more moderate policies better positioned her to defeat Trump as compared to her liberal primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Similarly, today, pundits continuously saturate our airwaves, columns, and screens with claims that in the general election, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s leftist policy proposals and positions will engender a Republican victory. They argue that only a moderate, such as former vice president Joe Biden, stands a chance of defeating Trump in 2020.
The origin of the moderate electability myth dates back to Bill Clinton’s historic 1992 presidential primary victory over his more left leaning opponents like California Governor Jerry Brown. Since then, conservative Democrats have argued that the party must take a much more moderate stance on policy, if they hope to win elections. Clinton not only believed, but governed according to the moderate electability narrative, moving the party’s focus from the working class, marginalized peoples, and civil rights, to the big banks, major corporations, and emerging technocratic class. Clinton worked with Republican leadership to repeal Glass-Steagall in a boon for Wall Street, pass NAFTA in a blow to workers, gut welfare, empower the prison industry, absolve Internet companies from government oversight, and further deregulate the news media.
The shift of focus among Democratic Party leaders was a blessing to corporate America, which had long feared the party’s pro-regulation history dating back to the New Deal of the 1930s. Thus, it is no surprise that the corporate news media have long echoed the call for “moderation” in the Democratic Party by negatively covering left-of-center policy proposals and politicians. Their profit margins and monopoly on information are due in large part to the Democratic Party’s “moderate,” neoliberal policies. In this context “moderate” is simply code for pro-corporate.
However, the country is much different than it was in 1992. Voters have shifted increasingly left, evidenced by the popularity of democratic socialism among the youth, who comprise the biggest part of the voting bloc in 2020. Furthermore, there is popular support for liberal policies such as gun regulation, The Green New Deal, the legalization of marijuana, expanded public health care, tax increases, and tuition-free college.
Despite these ideological changes, commentators and party stalwarts still discuss the electorate like it’s the 1990s. Case in point, in 2018 pundits argued that the Democrats won back the House of Representatives due to moderate positions. However, the gauge by which the press measures these candidates “left-ness” is not clear. Left, right, and center have been subject to changes in the last 30 years (which could also be understood using the theory of shifting baselines). Sure, some progressives lost in 2018, but so did some moderates. Rarely, if ever, does one political approach win every single seat. After all, congressional elections are not national elections. Nonetheless, in 2018, progressives won seats in swing states such as Michigan, and unseated moderate incumbents. In fact, Vox concluded that it was progressive energy that propelled the Democratic Party to take back the House of Representatives.
As 2016 revealed, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign is an outdated template for the party’s national strategy. After all, he is the last example of a moderate winning the DNC primary and presidency. Bradley in 2000, Dean in 2004, and Sanders in 2016 ran to the left of their moderate primary opponents, and lost. Their victorious opponents – Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hilary Clinton respectively- all went on to electoral defeat in the presidential election. Meanwhile, Barack Obama won the primary and general election by running to the left of Clinton, opposing NAFTA and supporting anti-trust enforcement. His more progressive sounding campaign message (if not his eventual policies) energized the very demographic that the party needs to win in 2020: young people.
In 2020, millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, will be the largest voting bloc. Millennials turned out in 2008 and 2012 for Obama, and again in 2016 for Sanders’ primary campaign. They were motivated by authenticity and sweeping left of center policies. In 2020, they continue to influence national politics, as evidenced by the surge of support in swing states for left-leaning democrats like Warren and Sanders. Meanwhile, Biden stays afloat due to the Democratic Party’s outdated delegate rule, and Trump’s poll numbers dwindle from positive to negative in fifteen states. However, the corporate news media and major party discourses have ignored the vast historical and contemporary data on elections to maintain the vapid notion that only moderate candidates can secure electoral victory. The ubiquitous adoption of this falsehood as fact risks shifting the party’s focus away from the very young voters they need to stop Trump from becoming a two-term president.