From the mayoral race in NYC to the debates over infrastructure in DC, there’s a narrative of a progressive vs. moderate battle within the Democratic Party. In a two-party system, there are inevitably ideological differences but such divides are not always clear cut. When there is a divide within the ranks, Democratic leadership is looking to balance the competing priorities at the legislative, executive, and electoral levels.
(Mis)understanding “Progressives” vs. “Moderates”
There are some Democrats who can be defined as “progressives” and others as “moderates” but for the vast majority of Democrats the labels are squishier.
- There’s not a clear definition of “progressive” and “moderate” within the Democratic Party. There are numerous House Democrats who belong to both the 94-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and the 95-member centrist New Democrat Coalition. President Biden is perceived as a moderate but he’s a moderate within the Democratic Party, which is still progressive. A two-party political system paves over these differences within parties. If America had a multi-party political system, you’d see some Democrats align with a Green Party (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), a Labor Party (Biden), a Liberal Party (Senator Mark Warner), and a Christian Democratic Party (Senator Joe Manchin). But in America, all these factions are largely under the umbrella of the Democratic Party.
- The extremes of the party tend to garner more media attention that makes them seem like a bigger part of the party than they really are. AOC and Manchin are not camera shy but neither are representative of the party as a whole. Per an Echelon Insights poll, just nine percent of voters would identify as being a member of a Green Party (think Green New Deal + wealth tax + defund the police) if America had a multi-party system. That fiscal conservatism and social liberalism epitomized by the likes of Michael Bloomberg is only identified by just 10 percent of voters.
- But extremes have power in two-party systems with narrow majorities (just ask the House Freedom Caucus). The electoral success of the left may be limited, but it has been a force in changing the trajectory of the Democratic Party writ large. According to a Gallup poll, in 1994, 48 percent of Democrats identified as “moderate” while 25 percent identified as “liberal” and “conservative.” Now, 51 percent identify as “liberal,” 35 percent identify as “moderate,” and 12 percent identify as “conservative.” Biden could have ostensibly been part of a Liberal Party back in his previous iterations as vice president and senator. But the party has shifted left and with that shift, Biden has moved left as well.
- At the same time, Biden indulges his bipartisan ethos, in part as a reflection of his waxing poetic of a less partisan past but also to appeal to so-called moderate and conservative Democrats like Manchin from whom he needs their support for progressive agenda items.
How Progressives vs. Moderates Plays Out in Policy
In coalition management, Democratic leadership plays the role of market makers in trying to gulf any ideological divides in crafting legislation and executive actions.
- While AOC and Manchin may have differing visions for infrastructure policy, they are both unified in a desire to have Democrats get something done. Progressives need moderates for reconciliation and moderates need progressives for the bipartisan infrastructure deal. It’s up to party leadership to bridge the bid-ask spread between the two sides. Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have a keen eye for where the center of the party is and will put all their political capital for finding that middle ground on spending and taxes in what they view as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to get long-standing Democratic priorities passed.
- The White House has given far more latitude to progressives when it comes to appointments (see Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission, Rohit Chopra at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and backing down on nominating Michael Barr as Comptroller of the Currency). One way to manage this is through offering a slate of nominations rather than a single one. If Biden wants to renominate Jay Powell for another term as Federal Reserve Board chair, he can placate certain progressives who have qualms over his background and insufficient support for combating climate change by simultaneously nominating more progressive personnel to the open Fed Board seat and replacing Randy Quarles as vice chair for supervision.
- Biden’s executive order on promoting competition last Friday also speaks to a certain balancing act for placating the ideological breadth of the party. Its short-term political messaging is meant to assuage progressives over delayed regulatory appointments but its long-term policy objective sets progressive regulatory priorities across industries once appointees are installed.
- Biden’s progressive institutionalism limits the means he’s willing to take for progressive ends. Upending the filibuster, changing the norms of budget reconciliation, packing the Supreme Court, and expanding executive powers are all items Biden is not eager to embrace. He may pay lip service to commissions studying the structure of the Supreme Court and thinking about reforming the filibuster but he’s not going to lean into such institutional changes, providing cover to moderates in the Senate who would rather work within the current constraints (as challenging as that may be).
How Progressives vs. Moderates Plays Out in Elections
2021 has so far continued the trend of competitive Democratic primaries that has the far left looking to take down more moderate figures. While moderates prevail more often than not, it’s not always the case, leaving national Democrats thinking about how they want to be defined heading into the midterm elections.
- Elections don’t always provide clear ideological takeaways. There are plenty of hot takes about how the victory of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the NYC mayoral Democratic primary was a stinging defeat for progressives. Yet while Adams won the Bronx by 29 points, leftists like AOC and Jamaal Bowman defeated Democratic incumbents in the Bronx by seven points in 2018 and 25 points in 2020, respectively. The summer hot takes could soon have a 180 degree turn based off of the August 3rd special election primary for Ohio’s 11th congressional district, a majority-Black district in Cleveland. Here, a defund-the-police leftist, Nina Turner, is seen as holding an advantage over Shontel Brown, who has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and establishment figures like Hillary Clinton.
- The involvement of establishment Democrats in the OH-11 race represents a concern about how to define the Democratic Party among the broader electorate. Just as Democrats are seeking to categorize the Republican Party as the “party of conspiracy theorist radicals” like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the GOP is looking to define the Democratic Party as the “party of radical socialists” like AOC. However, as the late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, we are mostly in a period of known unknowns and unknown unknowns for what will define the 2022 midterms. Biden’s approval rating, the state of the pandemic and economy, and some other unforeseen issue will likely all be more important to midterm dynamics than the news cycle battles a year-and-a-half out.
- Democrats face a historical, geographic, and redistricting disadvantage in the midterms. But if they are to succeed, it will require keeping the Democratic coalition — from progressives to moderates and those in between — happy and motivated to turn out. Midterm elections are about turning out the base more than winning new voters, and turning out the base requires Democrats to both accomplish legislative milestones and sell those milestones to the public. To the second point, a pro-Biden super PAC recently sounded the alarm that voters in key battleground states are largely unaware of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the Democratic infrastructure agenda. Failure to convey what’s getting done in DC will almost certainly leave a Democratic base less eager to turn out.