On December 4, Kirsten Gillibrand joined the pageant of presidential hopefuls jockeying for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Not formally, but in the way these things are often done now — with a bold statement, calculated to go viral, that would energize supporters and attract mainstream attention. That statement, on Twitter, was liked over 32,000 times:
Our future is:
Powered by our belief in one another.
And we’re just getting started.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 5, 2018
The tweet instantly became controversial. Was she saying that men wouldn’t be included in her view of the future? Van Jones asked her if she could understand how people might hear it that way. “Yes, and they just don’t get it,” Gillibrand replied unhelpfully. And what to make of the appearance of the word “intersectionality”? The tweet immediately felt like a cultural touchstone — a statement that signaled a shift in what is expected of a candidate seeking the leadership of the Democratic party.
The shift that Gillibrand’s tweet signaled is the rise of a class of progressive activists who now hold unprecedented power on the American left. Their power is not in numbers, which are few. It comes instead from a monopoly on legitimacy. They are kingmakers, holding the moral authority to anoint Democratic leadership. They are the arbiters of good and evil, the marshals of the social-media messaging war that prospective candidates are desperate to win. They are why Gillibrand, a former pro-gun immigration hawk, felt that she could whip up excitement by invoking a term that remains almost wholly unknown outside progressive academia. They also might be killing the Democratic party’s chance to win the presidency.
Who is this class of people? Earlier this year, More in Common, a civil-society research initiative, released “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” The report is an extensive survey of American “core values” and discovered distinct ideological clusters within the electorate. The views of one cluster on the left wing of the electorate are sharply differentiated from the rest of the survey pool. This group is christened “Progressive Activists” and described as “younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.” They make up 8 percent of the population and their demographics are predictable: disproportionately white, educated, and wealthy. They are more than twice as likely as other Americans to report that politics is a “hobby.”
Their views cut sharply against the grain of popular consensus. Seventy-eight percent of Americans describe themselves as “proud to be an American,” whereas 69 percent of Progressive Activists report that they are “ashamed to be an American.” Seventy-three percent of Americans value the American Dream, but only 44 percent of Progressive Activists do. Eighty percent of Americans agree that political correctness is a problem, a view that only 30 percent of Progressive Activists hold. On substantive policy matters, too, the views of Progressive Activists differ from those of the majority. They are the group least likely to identify “jobs and the economy” as a highly important political issue; the rest of the electorate identify it as more important than any issue except “poor leadership.” Americans are evenly divided on whether immigration is good for the country — but 99 percent of Progressive Activists believe that it is.
Progressive Activists are not representative of the American electorate, but they have been remarkably successful at turning their policy priorities into litmus tests for national Democratic figures. Last year, “abolish ICE” (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) was an obscure Twitter hashtag confined to the far Left. But activist groups applied pressure to Democratic candidates to support the campaign, which got sign-ons from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren. Data for Progress, a far-left think tank, insisted that the issue was a political winner.
But Republicans, sensing that the “abolish ICE” position was out of step with the electorate, were only too happy to signal-boost the campaign. Donald Trump quickly began using “abolish ICE” activism as a talking point at rallies to skewer “radical left Dems,” and congressional Republicans offered to schedule an immediate vote on a Democratic “abolish ICE” bill, predicting disaster. As quickly as Republicans seized on the issue, Democrats backed off. Their midterm candidates stopped talking about it, while GOP candidates did the opposite and mounted attack ads. Gillibrand and Warren walked back their support, the latter explaining that she only meant that ICE should be “reformed.” In the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, the issue is dead.
This month, a new prospective litmus test emerged on the activist left: the Green New Deal, described by its supporters as an ambitious government-led plan to meet 100 percent of the country’s energy needs with renewables in ten years and to provide a jobs guarantee to anyone who wants to work on the transition. Like “abolish ICE,” the Green New Deal has been memed into existence by activists who can marshal their large social-media audience. Like “abolish ICE,” the Green New Deal has attracted the support of Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democratic leaders. Data for Progress insists that this issue, too, is a political winner. Indeed, the Green New Deal currently attracts broad support in polls — but those same polls show that 80 percent of voters have no idea what it is, and none of its supporters have attempted to describe what the plan would look like.
In this, it may mirror “Medicare for all,” another progressive article of faith whose strong support in polls tends to collapse when voters learn about the implementation details. Americans support the concept but don’t know much about it — half of them believe, incorrectly, that they would be able to keep their existing plan if the U.S. adopted a single-payer system. This voter confusion is understandable, since Democratic politicians use “Medicare for all” as a check-the-box slogan to appeal to progressives — meanwhile, progressive heroes such as Andrew Gillum and Ayanna Pressley refuse to take questions about it. In the absence of a definitive policy proposal, “Medicare for all” functions as little more than an empty vessel for voter frustrations, easily cracked by Republican counter-arguments. In a 2017 poll, opposition to “Medicare for all” leapt from 40 percent to 60 percent when respondents were told that the plan would require Americans to pay more in taxes. This proved too much to conquer even for Vermont: The state abandoned a “Medicare for all” initiative when it was found to require increases in state payroll and income taxes.
The Green New Deal and “Medicare for all” may end up being more successful than “abolish ICE”— the country is moving to the left on economics — but their support is meaningless until they can be translated from abstract concepts to concrete, feasible policy proposals. Otherwise, they will add to the pile of aborted memes that cost Democrats support in winnable districts.
Rallying cries such as “abolish ICE” and the Green New Deal may be of questionable value in turning red districts blue, but they are quite effective at turning blue districts bluer. As highly educated cosmopolitans concentrate in a handful of metropolitan areas, a growing share of the Democratic electorate forms its political identity in relative isolation from Republicans and independents. Political identity is a social tool used to navigate status hierarchies and form in-groups, and progressives living in metropolitan areas therefore develop a politics designed primarily to impress other progressives. A competition to signal far-left identity emerges, familiar to anyone who attended college in the Northeast. Because so many progressives are shaped in this crucible, they hold a distorted idea of what policies the rest of the country will accept. And because these same progressives are largely responsible for the activism and social-media messaging that influence Democratic leaders, the party winds up beholden to ideas that are disliked by everyone except voters whose support was already assured.
Naturally, such progressives were surprised when their favorite candidates suffered almost uniform defeat in the 2018 midterms —Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and other far-left heroes achieved success only by primarying moderate Democrats in deep-blue districts. But their convictions are undampened, and they’re applying them to the 2020 presidential nomination. Prominent activist leader Amy Siskind went viral with her announcement that she would not support a white male candidate in the primaries — despite the deep popularity of both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. (She also appears to have tried to get a critic of her statement fired from his adjunct-teaching job at Boston College). Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery declared that Sanders’s unpopularity with black women means that he will “never be the nominee.” Meanwhile, Vox pundit Matthew Yglesias called for a constitutional overhaul to enable the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to run for president. And Elizabeth Warren evidently valued the opportunity to signal a non-white identity so highly that she thought a DNA test was a risk worth taking.
This is the outcome of a growing demand among the activist class for explicitly tribal appeals to race and identity. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign slogan was “It’s time for one of us.” It has become fashionable to argue that seeking to appeal to the white working class is a kind of racism. “There’s always been something problematic about the Democratic Party’s fixation on white working-class voters,” writes CNN political commentator Sally Kohn, who sees it as motivated by “racial bias or even white supremacy.” This take exists symbiotically with open calls for the Democratic party to just wait for the white working class to die off.
Whether a Democrat can win in 2020 without support from the white working class is an empirical question — but many progressive activists view it as a moral one. If their moral prohibitions collide with political reality, Democrats may find themselves hobbled in 2020. Given that Hillary Clinton would today be our president if she had merely equaled Barack Obama’s very modest level of support among white non-college voters, it’s a plausible scenario.
One nominee who would easily exceed that threshold is Bernie Sanders, but activist pressure has weakened him as a candidate. When Ezra Klein asked him in 2015 whether immigration to the United States should be “sharply increased,” Sanders correctly intuited that such a proposal would harm his working-class base. He passionately condemned it as a “Koch brothers proposal” that would “bring in all kinds of people working for $2, $3 an hour” and “do away with the concept of the nation-state.” That was unacceptable to the far Left, and today Bernie is woke on immigration — he is now a convert to the unpopular “abolish ICE” campaign. Perhaps he still believes that high levels of immigration harm the working class, but it’s safe to say that he’ll no longer be telling the public that. It is yet another reminder that in a contest between voter interests and activist pieties, Democrats are under increasing pressure to favor the latter.
It’s easy to hijack liberal empathy. Jonathan Haidt’s research indicates that liberal voters place singular importance on protecting the weak from harm and ensuring that the system is fair to all. These are essential, noble commitments. But this concern can be exploited by a subset of activists who demand that all politics be collapsed into a question of oppressor and oppressed. If your morality revolves around helping victims, then someone with a confident, complete narrative about victimhood is in a position to capture total moral authority. The basic problem is that what becomes socially prestigious among progressives may also be politically toxic in the rest of America. Republicans know this. “I want them to talk about racism every day,” said Steve Bannon last year. “If the Left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” If they are to avoid this fate, Democrats everywhere should undertake a simple task: Stop trying so hard to impress one another.