Stop Scapegoating Progressives

An illustration of several pointing fingers and a donkey
Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 11:01 a.m. ET on December 3, 2020.

For weeks, President Donald Trump has spread misinformation by playing up the significance of voter fraud during the election without evidence, while playing down the significance of COVID-19, despite the evidence all around him. He has left his followers infected in more ways than one, harming themselves and others.

But misinformation is hardly new for the birther theorist, for the wall builder who said some Latino immigrants were animals and rapists, for the chanter of “Lock her up” and “Send her back,” for the caster of neo-Nazis as very fine people, for the framer of peaceful demonstrators as looters and anarchists, for the denier of climate change and racism.

And misinformation is hardly new for many other Republicans. Long before Trump ran for president, Republicans were claiming that climate change is a hoax, that tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy, that Black and Latino people benefit the most from government welfare, and that the United States is post-racial—defying all evidence to the contrary.

Trump is the monstrous head of a historically long and politically old snake. Misinforming Americans is what Republicans do.

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But what about Democrats? Misinforming Americans is what many Democrats do, too. They are not just like Trump. But in the weeks since the election, they have misinformed the public, like Trump.                               

Democrats handily won the White House, but unexpectedly failed to flip all 12 state legislative chambers they’d targeted. They lost at least 12 seats in the House of Representatives, and although they made gains in the U.S. Senate, they may still fall short of a majority. Moderate Democrats falling east and west began searching for explanations for these disappointing results in the postelection haze. They could not blame the other swing voters, those who swing between staying home and voting, as they normally do—the surge in turnout included many people who hadn’t cast ballots in 2016 voting for Democrats in 2020.

Moderate Democrats could have pointed to the unprecedented number of Republican voters and the difficulty of defending “very competitive and often Republican-leaning districts in a nationalized election,” an explanation the political scientists Ryan Williamson and Jamie L. Carson advanced. They could have pointed to GOP voter-subtraction policies or Republican gerrymandering, which prevents Democrats from translating their popular-vote edge into electoral victories in congressional and local districts. They could have highlighted all those split-ticket voters who voted for President-elect Joe Biden and congressional Republicans. They could have blamed Biden for not delivering down-ballot wins as he and his allies said he would in the primaries.

All of these factors are grounded in good evidence but not good politics. It appears politically untenable for moderate Democrats to criticize the president-elect or white swing voters in their districts, or to underscore the devastating reach of voter suppression.

Instead some, though certainly not all, moderate Democrats zeroed in on a different factor, one that deflected blame and made overtures toward conservatives in their districts. They blamed the party’s down-ballot losses (or narrow wins) on progressive policies like Medicare for All and slogans like “Defund the police,” which they believe alienated voters. Moderate Democrats generalized anecdotes from constituents and failed to provide any measurable proof to substantiate their claims (outside of perhaps South Florida).

At the same time, Trump blamed his election loss on widespread voter fraud in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Detroit. He generalized anecdotes of his supporters and failed to provide any measurable proof to substantiate his claims.

In the postelection period, the American people were told that voter fraud made Trump lose but not down-ballot Republicans, that progressive policy proposals made down-ballot Democrats lose but not Biden. The politics mattered, not the hypocrisy.

In fact, moderate and progressive Democrats came together in 2020 to mobilize more voters than any other national electoral campaign in American history. Progressive policies were likely decisive in mobilizing some individuals to vote, and to vote for Democrats—and they likely alienated some individuals who chose not to vote or to vote for Republicans. However, moderate Democrats have yet to prove that progressive policies alienated more voters than they mobilized. They have yet to prove that Republican misinformation tying moderates to progressives swung a decisive number of voters in swing districts, and didn’t simply give a decisive number of Republican-leaning voters a reason to do what they were going to do anyway.

Perhaps some moderate Democrats, like Biden, ran good campaigns, and that’s why they won handily. Perhaps other moderate Democrats ran bad campaigns, and that’s why they lost or barely won. Perhaps still other moderate Democrats ran excellent campaigns, but barely won or had no chance of winning with Trump on the ballot. In the end, some moderate Democrats refused to recognize the source of their electoral struggles. They looked at the American people and spread misinformation about Democrats, just like Trump did.

In 2016, some Democrats blamed “economic anxiety” for their losses, instead of admitting that racist ideas, more than any other factor, distinguished Trump voters. It was politically sound for Democrats to dismiss the racist ideas of voters they hoped to win over in 2018. In 2020, they are blaming progressives, for much the same reason.

We’re all prone to making mistakes. I was wrong when I feared that a moderate Democrat would lose to Trump. I wrote a book that shared the times I was wrong about race. Progressives can be wrong; moderates can be wrong; conservatives can be wrong. But how many times do politicians admit they were wrong when they lose—that they were wrong for their constituents? It’s far more comfortable to find someone else to blame.

For Trump, the misinformation started long before Election Day. For Democrats, it started two days after Election Day. “The No. 1 concern in things that people brought to me in my [district] that I barely rewon was defunding the police,” Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger told her colleagues during a heated three-hour House Democratic Caucus conference call, claiming that such concerns had cost the party votes. Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib countered, “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.”

The attacks and counterattacks went on. House Speaker turned peacemaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus that the results weren’t as bad as they seemed. Democrats held on to 70 percent of the 30 Trump districts they’d won in 2018, she said. But peace did not come. The attacks from moderate Democrats (and the progressive counterattacks) traveled from the postelection call to social media to the news, and into the commentary of pundits, academics, and consultants.

“There has to be a reckoning within our ranks about this because a lot of Justice Democrats don’t give a damn about the Democratic Party,” one anonymous lawmaker told The Washington Post. “They’re all about purity and orthodoxy, and it is damaging our opportunities.”

Moderate Democrats wanted the phrase defund the police to be buried, and on the postelection call Spanberger urged her colleagues to “not ever use the words socialist or socialism ever again.” But progressives are all about purity and orthodoxy? The truth is, there are orthodox ideas and policy positions among both moderates and progressives. Instead of acknowledging their differences, moderate Democrats paint progressives as inflexible and divisive and present themselves as flexible and unifying—when both moderates and progressives can be inflexible and flexible, divisive and unifying.

And both can misinform. “Four years ago, Democrats’ final messaging was ‘which bathroom one could use,’” the Democratic consultant Dane Strother told The New York Times. “This year it was Defund the Police.” Similarly, the political scientist Bernard Grofman wrote, “‘Defund the police’ is the second stupidest campaign slogan any Democrat has uttered in the twenty first century. It is second in stupidity only to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables.’”

In fact, Clinton did not use “basket of deplorables” as a campaign slogan in 2016. Progressive Democrats hardly used “Defund the police” as a campaign slogan in 2020. Even though a majority of Democrats (55 percent) support defunding the police, only one in 10 Republicans and only one in three Americans support that goal, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll. So few Democratic candidates were actually saying “Defund the police” on the campaign trail that Republican operatives and candidates demanded they “break their silence” on the issue.

Neither moderate nor progressive candidates generally ran on socialism or defunding the police. Republican candidates, though, commonly ran attack ads declaring that all Democrats from Biden to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were far-left socialists seeking to defund the police. But instead of uniting with progressives to attack Republican misinformation after the election, some moderate Democrats attacked progressives, thereby spreading Republican misinformation.

“The far left is the Republicans’ finest asset. A.O.C. and the squad are the ‘cool kids’ but their vision in no way represents half of America,” Strother told the Times. Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania told the Times’ Astead Herndon, “I’m giving you an honest account of what I’m hearing from my own constituents, which is that they are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking. And I, as a Democrat, am just as frustrated. Because those things aren’t just unpopular, they’re completely unrealistic, and they aren’t going to happen.”

If the main line of Republican misinformation right now is voter fraud, then the main line of Democratic misinformation is that progressive policies are unpopular. Just as Donald Trump’s claims of fraud have proved to be a self-soothing delusion, moderates’ attacks on progressives are untethered from the reality of increasing support for progressive policies.

Progressive policies succeeded in swing states and red states during this election cycle. Florida voters passed a $15 minimum wage. Voters in Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana legalized recreational marijuana. Arizona raised taxes on the rich to fund public schools. Colorado voters instituted 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Progressive policies, with the exception of defunding the police, are fairly popular. The majority of Americans and the majority of low-income Republicans favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15. The majority of respondents to an Ipsos poll this year, including 46 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats, said a $1,000-a-month “universal basic income” would make a difference in “their community in building a strong economy that gives everyone a chance to succeed.” A Fox News poll conducted the week before Election Day found that 70 percent of respondents were concerned about the effects of climate change; 77 percent said racism is a serious problem in U.S. society; 72 percent said racism in policing is a serious problem; and 67 percent said the criminal-justice system needs major changes or a complete overhaul. According to a Fox News exit poll, 70 percent of voters favored changing the health-care system to allow Americans to buy into a government-run plan. In another poll, by Climate Nexus, 59 percent of respondents supported the Green New Deal, while only 25 percent opposed it. Two out of three respondents in yet another recent poll supported some form of widespread student-loan forgiveness, including 58 percent of Republicans.

When Herndon pointed out to Lamb that polls show progressive policies to be rather popular, Lamb did not correct himself. “At the end of the day, it’s individual candidates that have to win races, and then work with their fellow officeholders to pass bills into law and change people’s lives,” he said. “So you can tell me all the polling you want, but you have to win elections.”

But candidates in swing districts supporting progressive policies did win. “Every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed #MedicareForAll won re-election or is on track to win re-election,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. In the House, California’s Katie Porter, Josh Harder, and Mike Levin; Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright and Susan Wild; Oregon’s Peter DeFazio; and Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick all supported Medicare for All in swing districts and prevailed.* None of the Democrats who lost their reelection bids for the House supported Medicare for All. Among the 93 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal in the House, only one lost reelection. Four co-sponsors who represent swing districts ranging from very slightly Democrat to moderately Republican won reelection.

Moderate Democratic House candidates in swing districts who did not support progressive policies also won elections. Lucy McBath (Georgia), Jared Golden (Maine), Kim Schrier (Washington), Haley Stevens (Michigan), Andy Kim (New Jersey),  and Colin Allred (Texas) all won despite being falsely accused of siding with “extreme liberals who want to defund the police” in Golden’s case, or supporting a “plan for socialized medicine” that “would eliminate 100,000 doctors and nurses” in Stevens’s case, or being a “deranged socialist Democrat” in Schrier’s case. None of these moderate Democrats expressed support for defunding the police, and the majority came out against doing so. Perhaps Democrats should be asking why some moderates won and others lost when they all weathered a similar avalanche of Republican misinformation.

No Democrat faced more Republican misinformation than Biden. “The Radical Left Democrats new theme is ‘Defund the Police,’” Trump tweeted on June 4. “Remember that when you don’t want Crime, especially against you and your family. This is where Sleepy Joe is being dragged by the socialists. I am the complete opposite, more money for Law Enforcement!”

Biden came out against defunding the police in June. But the truth hardly mattered. Trump spent the final months of the campaign framing himself as the “law and order” candidate and Biden as the “defund the police” candidate, consistently fearmongering in speeches and ads with lines like “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

It didn’t stick. Biden won with a record number of votes.

No one knows for sure what effect Republican misinformation really had at this point, but neither Republican misinformation nor progressive policies were universally fatal for Democrats. If it continues, though, Democratic misinformation will be fatal for Democrats.

I expected GOP misinformation to portray moderate and progressive Democrats as anti-American extremists—which GOP operatives are doing now to the Democrats running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. I didn’t expect moderate Democrats to first decry GOP misinformation and then turn around and misinform Americans about progressives. I didn’t expect moderate Democrats to contribute valiantly to the remarkable campaign to eject Trump from the White House, then follow that up with a postelection misinformation campaign that could cause a recurrence of Trumpism in the House in 2023, and of Trump himself in 2025.

Freeing American politics of misinformation would help free American politics of Trumpism. Americans can’t just vote out Trump Republicans. Americans must insist that elected officials—no matter how conservative, moderate, or progressive they may be—speak from the evidence even when it is against their political interests. Our representatives in government should admit that their own campaigns are to blame when they lose or barely win. We need elected officials to do what Trump never did: Accept responsibility. Absorb criticism. Come back and campaign better.

I don’t expect elected officials to be perfect. They will misinform. We will misinform. They are not all knowing. We are not all knowing. Their ignorance and our ignorance will breed misinformation. They will make mistakes. We will make mistakes. We must have a forgiving culture. We must have a learning culture, because widespread ignorance makes us vulnerable to widespread misinformation.

But was the postelection misinformation campaign about ignorance? Or was all that misinformation about power? Are we witnessing the craven attempt of Republicans to maintain power amid the rising tide of Democratic voters in this country? Are we witnessing the craven attempt of moderate Democrats to maintain power amid the rising tide of progressive voters in this country? Time will tell.

Right now, it is excruciating to watch a president ignore a viral pandemic and chase down the ghosts of voter fraud. It is harrowing to watch millions of unmasked Americans run with him on the pavement of misinformation—sometimes to their own death, often toward the death of their livelihoods, and always toward the death of democracy.

Yet it is just as harrowing to watch some Americans who ran against Trump paving new paths of misinformation that Trump could use one day to return to office.

Trump did not usher Trump into the White House. We did, by refusing to face the truth. And we’re suffering the consequences.


*A previous version of this article misstated that Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey supported Medicare for All.