The midterm elections are more than eight months away, but with Democratic defeat all but inevitable, the finger-pointing has already begun. That, at least, is one explanation for Axios’s Mike Allen’s latest bite-size piece of what passes for analysis inside much of the Beltway. Titled “Squad politics backfire,” it is best understood as a preemptive strike on the Democratic Party’s left flank from its establishment: If the midterms are a bloodbath, it’s the progressives’ fault, not ours!
According to Allen, Democrats are on the brink of defeat due to “the hard-left politics of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the so-called ‘Squad,’” which are now “backfiring big-time.” What hard-left politics? “The push to defund the police, rename schools and tear down statues has created a significant obstacle to Democrats keeping control of the House, the Senate and the party’s overall image,” Allen continues.
This is, to be fair to Allen, the consensus among a large swath of the commentariat: Democrats have lost control of their messaging, which has been taken over by radicals and junior staffers, who have promptly driven the party off a cliff. It is a neat and convenient explanation, and one that Democrats have been returning to for decades: Whenever their electoral prospects dip, it must be the fault of the party’s left flank. What’s the solution? Look no further than the electoral success of Bill Clinton—or, for that matter, Joe Biden—and the answer is clear: The party’s only hope of success is by tacking rightward.
There are several problems with this analysis. For one, the members of “the Squad,” for all of the media attention they receive, are still backbenchers with little sway over the party’s legislative agenda: They are but six of the 222 Democratic members of the House. They’re also far more focused on creating equitable economic policy than on any of the things mentioned by Allen. Nor, it’s worth underlining, are they the engines of those policies. “Defund the police” emerged from activists and has hardly been embraced by the Democratic Party. Renaming schools and tearing down statues emerged in similar fashion—both were seen as the bare minimum during the unrest over police brutality that defined the summer of 2020, something Allen does not mention—though both have more support within the party’s mainstream.
Instead, Allen is making a common mistake: He’s taking one recent election and making wild extrapolations from it. In this case, a recent San Francisco School Board recall election is a stand-in for the politics of the nation. “The latest sign of the backlash was the landslide (70%+) recall this week of three San Francisco school board members, who were criticized for prioritizing issues like the renaming of 44 public schools—including ones honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—over a return to in-person classes,” Allen notes. “The most liberal city in the most liberal state decided that liberal activists had gone too far.”
There are signs that San Francisco’s school board did go too far. Attempts to rename the city’s schools were badly managed. The crowd-sourced process ensnared Senator Dianne Feinstein and Lincoln, for instance, while abrupt changes to the admission process of the school district’s honors high school angered parents. “Reform was always going to be contentious and messy but needed to be public and transparent,” Mother Jones’s Clara Jeffery wrote in a lucid piece. “Instead the board rammed through a change without allowing for public input, apparently violating state sunshine provisions and triggering more lawsuits.”
Virginia’s gubernatorial election, another of Allen’s data points, is yet another case study: There, the party was punished for its “failure to appreciate parents’ skepticism about public schools’ mask mandates, policies on transgender rights and approach to teaching about race.” Allen cites an opinion piece and a report from Loudon County, the epicenter of the state’s anti–critical race theory movement, but not any data backing this up. That the critical race theory panic is largely invented gets nary a mention.
None of that is great for San Francisco’s School Board. It certainly wasn’t good for Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s defeated Democratic nominee for governor. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with the national Democratic Party, which isn’t advocating for any of the stuff Allen says it is, or for the Squad, which is also primarily engaged in other arenas. Instead, it more accurately reflects a political problem for the Democratic Party, one that Allen’s myopic piece neatly illustrates.
Republicans have been remarkably successful in recent years at using the activist left to tar the Democratic Party by suggesting that it stands for, among other things, open borders, defunding the police, and teaching students that white people are inherently evil. They have been successful doing this in part because of reporters like Allen, who treat the fact that these smears are successful as proof that they’re true—or at least that the fact that they’re successful makes it not matter if they’re true or not. The same, it should be said, rarely happens with Republicans, who are not being forced to answer for the book bans that are happening across the country. A case could be made that Republicans are getting more of a pass for the attempt to overturn the 2020 election—something many of the party’s sitting members of Congress refuse to publicly condemn—than Democrats are for policies like “defund” that they don’t even support.
Narratives are politics, and the narrative that Democrats support issues like “defund” may very well play a role in November’s impending bloodbath. But other issues unmentioned by Allen will, as well. The party promised to pass a transformative set of economic policies and has thus far failed to do so. The failure to extend the child tax credit is already causing an increase in poverty. These failures, however, stem from the party’s leadership and from its moderate center. No wonder they rarely get mentioned as the cause of the party’s electoral woes.