Progressives Can Win Only One Kind of Election

The American left has a romantic self-conception as a movement of the masses. But its actual strength is concentrated in the minority of the population that is highly educated. This tension has led to an odd dynamic: To put it bluntly, the fewer people paying attention, the better the left does.

Consider last week’s election in New York City, which saw the largest turnout for a primary since at least 1989. A long-planned progressive breakthrough fizzled as left-wing candidates Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer and Diane Morales combined for a disappointing 30% of first-choice ballots in a field dominated by tough-on-crime ex-cop Eric Adams. Wiley is still technically still in the hunt under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, but a victory is unlikely.

In contrast, progressives did well in a number of down-ballot races in New York City, including for Brooklyn borough president and Manhattan district attorney. And in the less-covered and lower-turnout race happening upstate in Buffalo, socialist India Walton scored a stunning upset against the longtime incumbent mayor.

This speaks to the left’s current source of strength in American politics: Its adherents are highly educated and engaged, and can deploy their social and cultural capital to great effect in low-turnout or low-salience races.

“Social media does not pick a candidate,” Adams quipped at his quasi-victory party last week. “People on Social Security pick a candidate.” That’s true only if the people on Social Security know a lot about a race already.

But with both the quantity of local news coverage and the audience for it in decline, social media is in fact a key vector for political information in many races. A Pew study last fall found that 10% of Twitter users are responsible for 92% of its content. Of that 10%, 69% are Democrats. And heavy-tweeting Democrats are younger, better educated and further left than Democrats as a whole.

Candidates such as Adams (or Joe Biden) can crush tweeting leftists when voters are highly engaged, as they were last week. The benefits of the left’s online engagement are evident down ballot.

It’s conceivable that this dichotomy can work to the benefit of the party as a whole. In the 2020 cycle, for example, Democrats running in special elections for state legislatures beat Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016 by 4.7%. This year so far, the pattern of Democratic overperformance is holding up. And sometimes engagement works even in a highly publicized race with large turnout, such as the two U.S. Senate elections in Georgia at the beginning of the year.

Conventional wisdom long held that high turnout benefits Democrats. But the pattern seems to have changed as Democrats have added college graduates to their coalition while Republicans have picked up non-college voters. These new Trump Republicans appear to be disproportionately low in social trust, socially isolated, and disengaged from civic life. In short, they seem to be more interested in conspiracy theories than in voting in obscure races.

This helps to explain the Republican strategy of ensuring that there is no such thing as an obscure race. And it may lead to a perverse conclusion for Democrats: The key to success in 2022 may be to keep races obscure enough that they have a chance, yet not so obscure that not enough Democrats vote.

The real impact of the Social Capital Gap, however, is evident outside of elections. Essentially any white-collar setting will, in practice, exclude the big conservative-leaning cohorts of senior citizens, rural residents and people who didn’t attend college. That means corporate HR policies, redesigned curriculums or new public-health initiatives are likely to skew left. Conservatives can win by dragging things into the arena of electoral politics, where their constituents have a voice.

The left may relish its self-image as the force that mobilizes the masses to exert more democratic control over elite-led institutions. But the right is in fact acting as that force. And while the left’s tactics may strain Democratic Party politics, the right’s pose a fundamental challenge to the core ideological tenets of conservatism. Whither free markets, decentralization, localism and limited government if the right’s game plan is to fight “woke” institutions by extending government control into as many spheres of life as possible?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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