Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who has thwarted many liberal aspirations, told CNN: "We can't go too far left. This is not a center-left or a left country. We are a center – if anything, a little center-right country."
"Cue the latest anti-Manchin outrage," reported The Washington Post after his comments. "The kind of people who have been bemoaning Manchin's obstinance immediately cried foul."
Those critics are wrong, and Manchin is right. Liberals have long dwelled in a bubble of self-delusion, convincing themselves that this is somehow a left-leaning nation. But that has never been true, and it isn't today. If Democrats don't recognize this blunt and basic fact, they are dooming themselves to more defeats like the one they suffered in the Virginia governor's race, where they lost a state President Biden had carried by 10 points. They could even be opening the way for their worst nightmare: Trump Redux in 2024.
Even the editorial board of The New York Times, normally a bulwark of liberal orthodoxy, recognizes this truth. "Familiar takeaways like 'wake-up call' and 'warning shot' don't do justice here because the danger of ignoring those trends is too great," they wrote after the Virginia debacle. "What would do justice, and what is badly needed, is an honest conversation in the Democratic Party about how to return to the moderate policies and values that fueled the blue-wave victories in 2018 and won Joe Biden the presidency in 2020."
"This is a country that generally elects middle-of-the-road ideas and middle-of-the-road thinking," Democratic strategist Dan Sena added in the Post. "And the party has to think about how it's preventing itself from reaching a larger swath of the electorate."
The numbers reinforce their conclusions. The latest Gallup poll drew this picture of the electorate: 36 percent conservative, 35 percent moderate and only 25 percent liberal. Exit polls last year produced similar results. And the "honest conversation" advocated by the Times has to start with the growing domination in the party of what demographer Ruy Teixeira calls the "cultural left."
"The cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic Party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and, of course, race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter," he writes on the website The Liberal Patriot. "That's a success for the cultural left, but the hard reality is that it's an electoral liability for the Democratic Party."
"Cultural leftism" covers many issues, but take just one: crime and public safety. "Defund the police" might rank as the stupidest political slogan of the last decade, especially to voters who live in dangerous neighborhoods and want more police protection, not less. A USA Today poll last summer found 77 percent support for deploying more police to street patrols and 70 percent support for increasing police department budgets. Only 22 percent supported slashes in police funding; even among Black voters, the idea was strongly rejected, 60-38. The toxic nature of the "defund" movement was highlighted last week when voters in Minneapolis, home of George Floyd, soundly defeated a ballot initiative to dismantle the police force. The two wards with the highest number of Black voters joined the majority.
Another dimension of "cultural leftism" that showed up in Virginia: how race is taught in public schools. Yes, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin inflamed and distorted the issue, but many well-meaning parents – including suburban moms who backed Biden last year – were sincerely disturbed.
During the campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported, "Some voters interviewed in Virginia, including suburban white women who were important to Democrats' improved performance here and in other states that President Biden carried, said they felt national conversations about race and equity were divisive and often cast all white people in a negative light. Others were concerned that their children would come home from school believing their parents are racist."
The Journal quoted Karen Mineo, a school teacher in suburban Loudoun County, who attended a meeting where she was "told to be aware of implicit bias that comes with being white." Her reaction: "They are trying to make me feel bad about me, for who I am, that I can't help." Biden won her county by 25 points, but Youngkin cut that margin to 10 points – a key to his victory.
These results strongly reinforce Teixiera's conclusion: "The Democrats' dilemma is this: They cannot have both cultural leftism and political dominance. Eventually they will have to choose."
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.