The Past and Future of the Left in the Democratic Party

We need to not ever use the word socialist or socialism ever again,” argued Representative Abigail Spanberger during a now-infamous House Democratic caucus call just two days after the 2020 general election. Spanberger, who just won a close reelection in Virginia, is one of several prominent moderates within the party who are blaming progressives and the left for why Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to gain a majority in the Senate. Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb, who also survived a close race, is another. He concluded in a recent interview, “Moving forward, we can’t be talking about socialism and defunding the police. We need to talk about things people like the sound of, things we can get done.”

After several years of leftist grassroots mobilization, including a historic summer of unprecedented racial justice protests (ones that saw liberals marching alongside leftists), moderates are pushing hard to move the party away from the left. But in trying to distance itself from slogans such as “Defund the police,” Democratic centrists (and some liberals) are conjuring a caricature of the left that distorts more than reveals the reasons for the party’s minority status and for its losses down-ballot. This is because the Democratic Party’s past electoral and legislative successes were largely achieved by members who expanded the coalitional boundaries and political imagination of the party because of their identification with the left. The Democratic Party has achieved electoral success because of, while remaining internally hostile to, the left—and left-wing activists—for much of its history since the New Deal.

Many of the Democratic Party’s historic victories—on civil rights, women’s rights, and economic justice—are due to the leftward shift after the Great Depression of many of its members who entered the party as liberals and embraced leftist ideas or who eschewed (or left) the Democratic Party as self-identified leftists but continued to work alongside liberal Democrats. From W.E.B. Du Bois to Henry Wallace to Shirley Chisholm to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the party is indebted to those progressive leaders—particularly progressives of color—who, when faced with growing inequality in a time of unprecedented prosperity, transformed their personal politics, and the United States in the process. Their demands were often labeled extreme by centrist or “moderate” members of their own party, but they continued to push the ideological boundaries of liberalism. Democrats should not turn away from their collective legacy.

This history of the left within the Democratic Party is presently obscured by moderates immobilized by visions of appealing to a well-defined bloc of center-leaning voters—dreaming that a cadre of virtue-minded crossover GOP voters will save the party on Election Day. This isn’t a new fiction; Democrats have long sought to attract voters with bipartisan rhetoric that simultaneously distanced the party from the left while appealing to the “center.” In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton told voters, “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal; in many ways it’s not even Republican or Democratic. It’s different. It’s new. And it will work.” These moderates campaign and govern the way they do because they are haunted by the ghosts of George McGovern and Ronald Reagan. They implicitly accommodate and impart the conservative notion predominant since the 1960s that Americans dislike “big government.” The Democratic Party has resisted forming a meaningful alliance with politicians and activists on the left; and it has ceded ground to moderates reluctant to grant institutional space to leftists to build coalitions within their ranks.