Democrats took all the wrong lessons from Tuesday’s elections

Sorry, but losing in Virginia is not progressives’ fault.

CHANTILLY, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 02: Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes ...
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In his concession message to Republican Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday morning, Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe paraphrased Minister Theodore Parker’s famous vision of the universe’s moral arc, claiming that “the long-term path of Virginia is toward inclusion, openness, and tolerance for all.”

This sort of dignified optimism is largely the norm among electoral losers not named Donald Trump, ostensibly serving to dull the acute pain of what any clear-eyed observer would accurately diagnose as “a full-on ass kicking.” But like any intended anesthetic, McAuliffe’s platitudes only mask what actually occurred under his and the Democrats’ watch: a definitive victory of Trumpian bigotry and seditionism, despite Youngkin’s slick, well-produced efforts to hold himself at arm’s reach from the more crass, odious MAGA-fication of the Republican party.

McAuliffe and his allies’ efforts — both substantive and painfully inept — to link Youngkin with the former president paradoxically helped Youngkin maintain this balancing act between reaping the benefits of being associated with Trump, while rarely having to overtly make the connection between the two himself. He is, in a sense, a partial fulfillment of the dire prediction that someday Republicans will run someone with the same politics as Trump, but free from Trump’s baggage of alleged sexual assault, business failures, mental lapses, and racism. He is proof that the GOP of 2021 (and beyond) is such that just because he doesn’t personally need to salute a flag carried during the Jan. 6 insurrection doesn’t mean he can’t willfully benefit from those who do so in his name — regardless of whether or not he officially denounces the act.

Youngkin is shrewd enough to couch his bigotry in terms of buzzwords like “critical race theory,” which has been flattened to meaninglessness in the mouths of conservatives, and the spooky specter of children having to read mildly challenging books during their senior year of high school. His strength is appealing to both the bombastic wing of the Trump GOP, while maintaining enough of a veneer of respectability to not turn off the party’s more politely bigoted moderates. He is a template for the GOP as it struggles with how best to move forward in the wake of the inimitable Donald Trump.

Despite this, the chattering class of professional pundits and Democratic Party operatives have nevertheless seized on Youngkin’s victory and the defeat of other leftist priorities (like Minneapolis voters choosing to not abolish the city’s irredeemably racist police force) as proof that somehow that it’s progressives who are actually tanking the party’s chances ahead of the 2022 midterms. Nevermind the fact that McAuliffe represents the purest distillation of the Clinton-era Democrats (he ran Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign!) in a political environment that has shifted dramatically over the past three decades. Nevermind that his political positions are generic enough to have been created in a lab, without even the tiniest hint of excitement or deviation from the middle-of-the-road Democratic norm. In McAuliffe, Democrats ran a boilerplate Man-In-Vest without the slightest concern that he represented an era of politics wholly irrelevant by today’s standards.

“Democrats are coming across as annoying and offensive and out-of-touch,” CNN’s Van Jones opined Tuesday night, as results began rolling in. “I think there is a message here.”

“The [Democrats’] messages tend to be moralizing,” agreed David Axelrod, the one-time Obama administration strategist-turned-podcaster.

Despite what the well-paid talking heads of cable news would have you believe, blaming progressives for the broader failures of the Democratic Party is hardly a new opinion. If anything, it’s the regular response from a party that can’t break free from its addiction to running painfully mediocre older white moderates for statewide races, in a kamikaze attempt to woo moderate Republicans a fraction of an inch to the left so they can become Democrats in name only.

Meanwhile, the animated, excited, activist wing of the party — the wing willing to push for big, swing-for-the-fences change — sits waiting to be courted, or at least treated as something more than just a nuisance to be tolerated (at best) or an obstacle to be defeated (at worst). To blame progressives for McAuliffe’s loss is extra laughable the moment you actually look at McAuliffe, and consider how much of his campaign was spent attacking Youngkin instead of making a case for why he deserved another chance to truly affect change in his state. (Oh yeah, by the way, McAuliffe was already Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018.) You can’t make a conscious choice to run one kind of election, and then complain when it becomes clear that another kind would have been more effective.

Herein lies a fundamental problem for the Democratic Party as it exists now: Rather than proudly champion ideas and solutions, it contorts itself into impossible positions agonizing over how it will come across to people who have already demonstrated their interest in voting Republican. The GOP, meanwhile, has no such hang-ups — especially in the post-Trump era, wherein the party is as much animated by unrestrained id as it is any sort of coherent policy slate. “Here’s our shit, in all its xenophobic, fear-mongering, glory,” Republicans exclaim. “Take it or leave the country.” There’s no hesitation or ambiguity — even Youngkin’s savvy hedging was a matter of optics, not substance.

Democrats, on the other hand, can’t even hope to pass a watered down version of their party’s chief legislative priority without needing to get kicked in the teeth first — even though they currently run a unified federal government. Attempts to spin even narrow victories for the Democrats, like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s barely-there win, as somehow good for the party’s priorities overall feels particularly pathetic and hollow. To say “now that the Democrats have gotten their asses kicked means they’ll be able to get the things done they couldn’t do before” ignores the fact that they still got their asses kicked.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, then, this sense among some corners of the liberal pundit-verse seems to be fueling the growing chorus of commentators who insist on claiming that Democrats are poised to finally take the hint, and pull it together before the midterms. Maybe! I’d like to hope so. But the truth is, every time Democrats lose, there are demands to take it as a “wake up call” or a warning or a kick in the pants to do better next time. And yet, here we are, again, with Democrats very likely to lose both chambers of Congress in the 2022, and quite possibly lose the White House in 2024 — perhaps even to Donald Trump, again. So at a certain point, the “wake up call” isn’t really that anymore. It’s just a loss. A painful, depressing loss. And until Democrats can actually figure out how to actually champion ideas and deliver on them without getting wrecked at the polls first, that’s all these losses will ever be: kicks in the teeth until there are no more teeth left to kick.