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Americans this year vote in a very consequential election in which all sectors of society appear to have a large stake. The incumbent Republican President Donald Trump has forced serious and difficult conditions on the body politic and his rhetoric and policies have caused disunity and confusion. On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, seems to have gained the support of different sectors of the electorate, including many conservatives who oppose Trump’s haphazard domestic and external political conduct.
One of the voting blocs this year is an emerging progressive trend within the Democratic Party that is beginning to influence how the party looks at American domestic and foreign policy. This bloc will undoubtedly influence the outcome of the 2020 election. This paper looks at the role of progressives in this election. First, however, it will explain what the progressive vote is, how progressives have voted historically, and what past evidence can suggest about how they will behave in the upcoming election.
What Is the Progressive Vote?
The word “progressive” is thrown around often but it isn’t always clear what it means. While this is a constituency on the left half of the American political spectrum and Republicans and conservatives would not identify as progressives, there remains some ambiguity beyond that. Among Democrats and liberals, mainstream politicians do not want to be seen as either anti-progressive or far to the left. Perhaps the best way to think about what defines progressives, across issue areas, is the relative speed and scale at which they see change as necessary. Progressives tend to rally around approaches to change that are broader than their more centrist counterparts. Instead of expanding access to healthcare markets, for example, they prefer universal healthcare through a government run program. Instead of incremental increases in minimum wage that take into account regional disparities in income, they prefer a higher across-the-board national wage. Instead of making college more affordable by incrementally making tuition free for specific income brackets, they prefer universal free college at public institutions.
Beyond public goods and the social welfare system, the unique history of race and settler colonialism, militarism, and capitalism in the United States shapes certain progressive positions. On race relations, progressives are increasingly calling for more systematic solutions to the problems of police brutality, for example, while their more centrist counterparts focus on more limited reform. On immigration, progressives are more likely to support major overhauls of the entire system that separates it from the issue of security. On the environment, progressives back bold, large-scale responses to the climate crisis that include massive investment to revolutionize the American economy away from fossil fuels. Finally, on foreign policy, they are far less likely to support militarism and intervention and focus instead on human rights accountability.
In recent years there has been growing public support behind a number of these policy positions, and they have propelled the political candidacy of several political figures to newfound prominence. Most notable among these has been Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who usually votes with the Democrats in the Senate. Sanders has had a long career in Washington but can hardly be described as an establishment figure. Instead, he helped found the Congressional Progressive Caucus which has grown significantly and has sought to pull the Democratic Party further to the left. After years in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. His candidacy, in some ways similar to that of Donald Trump, was never taken very seriously by most commentators and analysts on American politics. But both Sanders and Trump tapped into political currents in the United States that had been growing for years and can be broadly characterized as an aversion to establishment politics.
While Americans remained divided on what the best policy path forward was, there was a growing sense––among opponents of regular politics––of who shouldn’t be leading that journey; specifically the people who had been at the helm of American politics for the past several decades. Ahead of the 2016 election, disapproval of Congress stood at nearly 75 percent. Large percentages of Americans were willing to consider third-party options. Sanders and Trump were beneficiaries of these currents that rejected the traditional politics of the two-party system. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was so quickly identifiable with establishment politics and particularly the Democratic Party’s old guard that she was a weaker candidate for it. In her 2008 race against then-Senator Barack Obama, the party and later the country voted for a relative newcomer that was to Clinton’s left and re-elected him in 2012.
Sanders’ success in 2016 showed that there was growing support for a more progressive policy platform. He won millions of votes and drew massive crowds at his events while raising campaign funds through small donations. While he came up short in the primaries and lost to Clinton, his model inspired many other candidates, including a younger cohort of new members of Congress who were elected in 2018, and another batch that won primary battles in 2020. In Sanders’ 2020 campaign, these newcomers endorsed and campaigned for him before he conceded the primary to Joe Biden. In this four-year span, the progressive movement that Sanders led and helped grow became a political force to be reckoned with and could no longer be relegated to the margins of American politics.
This shift also coincided with a major ideological shift in American politics that has been marked by significant polarization. In 2014, for example, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who held ideologically mixed views (sometimes liberal on issues, other times conservative) dropped significantly from where they were in 2004 and a decade before that as well. In 1994, for example, Pew’s snapshot of the United States in Bill Clinton’s first term found that 49 percent of Americans held mixed ideological views while only 3 percent were consistently liberal and 7 percent consistently conservative. By 2014, the center dropped noticeably, with only 39 percent holding mixed views. Where did that 10 percent go? Mostly to the left. By 2014 some 34 percent held a mixture of left-of-center views while and the percentage that held consistently liberal views quadrupled over 20 years from 3 percent in 1994 to 12 percent in 2014. The center of the Democratic Party had shifted left and the fastest growing sector of its base was on the left as well.
How Have Progressives Voted in the Past?
So how have progressives voted in the past and what does that voting behavior tell us about what we can expect from progressives during the upcoming general election? Prior to the ideological shifts that have come to characterize the partisan divide in the United States over the last twenty years, those on the left who supported some of the ideas that progressives support today were relegated to the margins of American politics. The pathways toward enacting policy agendas through the Democratic Party, the one of two main parties in American politics, were closed. However, that started to change in 2016 with the support around the Bernie Sanders campaign. The success the campaign saw changed the perception about what was possible through the Democratic Party.
Sanders, an unabashed socialist, competed fiercely for the party’s presidential nomination despite many obstacles that favored the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. That support and energy shattered the perception that the Democratic Party could not be a vehicle for a progressive agenda. Progressives still had their work cut out for them, but the 2016 primaries showed that the ideological shifts that were taking place across the country were beginning to manifest themselves into political possibilities that previously did not exist. Before this, progressive candidates had little prospects as national contenders and progressives might have felt alienated enough from the party to vote for a third party candidate or not vote at all.
A heated primary campaign in 2016 did not end until the party convention in July when Clinton won the nomination essentially by securing the support of the superdelegates––elected party officials at the convention. In the general election, polling showed that only 10 percent of voters who backed Sanders in the primary voted for Trump instead of Clinton. This is a rather small percentage, given that some migration is always likely to happen. In 2008, for example, 25 percent of voters who voted for Clinton in the primary against Barack Obama ended up voting for the Republican candidate Senator John McCain against Obama in the general election later in the year. But what makes this more complicated is that votes in the primaries are not always limited to party members, and independents can sometimes vote in them, depending on the rules of the individual states. Sanders did particularly well among independents during the primaries. An analysis of this data showed that partisan affiliation had much to do with how former Sanders primary voters voted in the general; those who identified strongly as Democrats were far more likely to vote for Clinton while those who identified strongly as independents were more likely to vote for Trump.
Elections Between 2018 and 2020
More evidence of growing pathways for progressives through the Democratic Party was on display in congressional and other elections in 2018 and in 2020. In the 2018 elections, for example, Democrats took back the House of Representatives by picking up 41 seats. The bigger story for progressives, however, was that a number of progressive candidates won primary elections in that year, beating establishment Democrats. Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, all of whom had the backing of Senator Bernie Sanders in their primary elections, made it to the House of Representatives. In 2020, that trend continued with several progressive candidates defeating or replacing establishment Democrats. Long time Democrats like Eliot Engel, William Lacy Clay, and Dan Lipinski, who have served a combined 67 years in Congress, lost to resurgent progressives like Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Marie Newman. Other progressives won primary elections elsewhere as well.
The ideological shift in America has translated into a shift in power within the Democratic caucus over the years. The Congressional Democratic Caucus, which was co-founded by then-Representative Bernie Sanders in 1991 along with about a dozen members, has today grown into the largest caucus within the party, amassing about 97 out of the party’s 233 seats in the House. The remainder is split between two ideological factions, the centrist New Democrats, the second largest and at near parity with the Progressive Caucus and the more conservative Blue Dog Democrats whose numbers have dwindled significantly over the years. The 2020 election is likely to continue this trend and produce even stronger numbers for the House Progressive Caucus. This newfound muscle will likely prove very consequential as 2022 arrives when Nancy Pelosi is expected to step down as Speaker of the House and a battle will most assuredly ensue for the speakership which will shape the Congress for years to come.
What to Expect in the 2020 General Election from Progressives?
A wide range of issues divide and animate Republicans and Democrats such as healthcare, social welfare, climate change, immigration, security, and others. What makes 2020 unique is that none of these issues are at the fore ahead of the election. Rather, this election is overwhelmingly a referendum on Donald Trump. During the primaries, exit polls showed that voters chose Biden over Sanders because they felt Biden had the best chance to beat Trump and beating Trump was more important than any other issue, even though they were more likely to agree with Sanders over Biden on policy issues. Recent polling by Shibley Telhami affirms this trend, with nearly 70 percent of Democrats saying they are voting for Biden against Trump and only 22 percent saying they are doing so mostly because they genuinely agree with Biden’s policy positions.
Progressives may not have preferred Joe Biden during the primaries and most likely would have rather seen Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) at the top of the ticket, but they will overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Biden in November. There are two important reasons why this will be the case. First, progressives are overwhelmingly Democratic and have cast their ballots for the Democratic Party nominee in the past and that trend will continue. Secondly, even the small number of disaffected progressives who might have been turned off from the party after a particularly bitter primary contest in 2016 are likely to unify around the party candidate because the primary ended much earlier and its legitimacy was not called into question.
Most importantly, however, the primary reason why progressives will line up behind Biden is that this election is about Trump and the danger he represents, not just to Democrats, but to the American system of government in its entirety. With Trump out of the way, the struggle for power within the Democratic Party will surely continue, but that is a fight for another day.
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