I don’t want progressives to take a knee-jerk stance towards what Kevin Drum is saying. Yes, his argument has some serious shortcomings, but there is enough meat on the bone that he has to be taken seriously.

To begin with, it should be acknowledged that the primary motivation for what he’s saying is that he wants Democrats to win elections and, just importantly, does not Republicans to win them. He’s issuing what he considers an important–urgent, even–warning that if the Democrats aren’t careful they’re going to lose to right-wing maniacs and we’re all doomed.

Now, he’s marshaling some data to make the case that the Democrats have moved farther left since 1994 than the Republicans have moved right. That might seem crazy on its face considering the Republicans just stormed the Capitol based on a heat-fever delusion full of crackpot lies and tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election. But Drum is looking at some specific (mostly cultural) issues, and the data support him up to a point. I mean, if we measure support for authoritarianism or representative democracy, it’s clear that the GOP has moved far out of the mainstream and the Democrats haven’t changed much at all. Yet, if we look as other issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, defunding the police, immigration, taxes, and guns, the Democrats have shown more movement than the Republicans.

One result of this is that the Democrats have lost support from less-educated voters–first whites and then in 2020, nonwhites. For Drum, the solution is clear and painless: “All it takes is a moderation of our positions from ‘pretty far left’ to ‘pretty liberal.’ That’s all.”

Sounds very easy, right?

Most of the reaction to Drum will probably focus on his insistence that the real problem is woke (or cancel) culture. I honestly don’t know why he mucked up his analysis on this point. For example, plenty of evidence exists to support the idea that a lot of Latinos are turned off by socialism, particularly Cubans and Venezuelans who’ve fled socialist regimes at home. That’s one reason that Biden performed worse in Florida among Latinos than in other states. So, why does Drum make it sound like Latinos moved toward Trump in 2020 entirely because of social and policing issues?

Recently, white academic theories of racism—and probably the whole woke movement in general—have turned off many moderate Black and Hispanic voters.¹ Ditto for liberal dismissal of crime and safety issues. Hispanics in particular moved in Trump’s direction despite—or maybe because of—his position on immigration and the wall.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the totality of Drum’s argument just because he is going too far in his ideological battle against the far left. He’s absolutely right when he says (citing socialist “data geek” David Shor) that Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives don’t subscribe to intellectual theories of racism and that this can cost the Democrats votes. He and Shor are also right when they note “since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue.”

I’ve been dealing with the issue of white progressives professing to know what inner city minorities want and being wildly off base since I left ACORN in 2005 and joined the progressive blogosphere. There’s been a disconnect for a long time, especially over religion and attendant social issues, but also on policing and some economic issues.

Another thing that needs to be taken seriously is that it’s possible to be right about something and still have a losing political position. Drum says at the top that he’s “personally happy about most of ” the leftward drift of Democratic politics. Then he insists “that doesn’t blind me to the fact that ‘personally happy’ means nothing in politics. What matters is what the median voter feels…”

I think what’s driving him is less ideological than partisan.

Our election victory in 2020 was razor thin even though (a) the economy sucked, (b) we were in the middle of a pandemic, (c) voters had had four years to see just what Donald Trump was really like, and (d) our candidate was bland, amiable, white, male Joe Biden. This should scare the hell out of liberals.

He’s right. The 2020 election was a total disappointment masked by the fact that the Democrats won the White House and narrowly held onto both houses of Congress. People should be pissed and they should be scared. They most definitely shouldn’t be satisfied. It’s important to learn what went wrong because future elections will certainly not be fought on such favorable turf.

But it’s not so easy to moderate positions from ‘pretty far left’ to ‘pretty liberal,’ as Drum recommends. He isn’t being very helpful either. He complains about woke/cancel culture and “intellectual” theories of racism, but other than identifying the police defunding issue he doesn’t explain what position the Democrats should abandon. He notes that the Democrats have moved very far left on gay rights, immigration and abortion, but what does he feel the correct positions should be?

On issues like guns and climate change, it’s hard to argue the country is not in crisis, so how much trimming should the Democrats do to stay close to the median voters?

In the end, he’s not justified in arguing that we should blame liberals (or progressives) for the culture wars. He’s focused too much on what the median voter thinks about particular issues and not enough on other factors that drive polarization like social media, partisan news, and the incentive/reward system that politicians operate within. He doesn’t discuss how non-competitive gerrymandered districts turn primaries into the real elections or how going viral is the most effective short-cut for raising gobs of money.

It’s one thing to adopt an almost agnostic stance about who’s on the right or wrong side of history in deference to a result-based analysis, but you have to at least account for all the factors that drive political behavior. And if you’re going to upbraid the left for leaving the mainstream, you have to have the courage to identify which interests and constituencies need to be shortchanged to get back to the middle.

If all Drum were saying is that white progressives are out of touch and needlessly alienating people, I’d agree with that. If he stuck to warning the left that they’re more vulnerable than they realize, I’d applaud his efforts. But he’s taking some useful information and squandering it by his focus on “wokeness and cancel culture” to the exclusion of everything else.

He should rip this piece up and start over by identifying areas of immigration, abortion, policing, gun policy etc., that he thinks go too far. And when he complains that progressive whining makes “even moderate conservatives feel like their entire lives are being held up to a spotlight and found wanting,” he should tell us what parts he believes aren’t wanting.

If you want people to change, especially when you think it’s for their own good, you have to be more precise about what you want them to change.

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