It’s no secret that the Democratic Party’s slim majorities in both the House and Senate are in a precarious position with the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon. Coupled with the historical trend of the president’s party virtually always losing ground in midterm elections, the situation is made even more grim for the Democrats by recent Republican-friendly redistricting and President Joe Biden’s tanking approval ratings. There are a variety of other factors that appear to doom the Democrats’ chances this November, including the persistence of the pandemic, inflation, and widely publicized roadblocks facing Biden’s key initiatives, such as the Build Back Better plan. According to a Gallup poll, the Democratic Party’s support dropped by seven percent in 2021 alone, the largest swing in over 30 years. It doesn’t have to be this way—but as long as the Democratic Party chooses to wax poetic about bipartisan compromise and carefully dodges any possibility of bold, progressive action, it will continue to be out of touch and will continue to lose.
During his 2020 campaign, Biden ran on the promise of unifying the country and returning to bygone eras of bipartisan compromise. The prospect of returning to political unity is a fool’s errand—chasing a political culture from over 30 years ago that will never return. From a logistical standpoint, this approach boxed Biden and the Democrats in from the start. Biden essentially wasted the first six months of his term on fruitless negotiations with Congress and walked out of his first 100 days with little to show for it.
The problem with a down-the-middle approach is that it leaves everyone dissatisfied—the conservative side of the party, like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, view many of the president’s initiatives as too progressive, while the progressive side of the party sees a graveyard of bold policy proposals that were abandoned in favor of the myth of bipartisanship. Ultimately, the hyper-fixation on the unattainable standard of unity exacerbates existing ideological fractures and has served to create even more congressional gridlock.
From a rhetorical standpoint, grand narratives about the ideals of bipartisan compromise appeal to the well-off liberals who have a more low-stakes relationship with public policy. They are the “margaritas and kickboxing” sect of the Democratic Party like White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, who can afford to view politics as a game they can watch from afar, rooting for their favorite side to win but ultimately losing nothing in the process. For those who don’t have access to health care, the ability to work from home, or livable wages, lofty talk about unity rings hollow and uninspiring. The moderate approach to governing severely underestimates the gravity of the issues faced by marginalized people, and the stubborn insistence on unity by the Biden administration and congressional Democrats gives them the appearance of oblivion to the material conditions facing the majority of the country. It is unsurprising that a recent ABC News poll showed that 62 percent of registered voters view the Democratic Party as out of touch.
Among key demographic groups that make up the Democratic base, the disenchantment toward Biden’s approach to governing is visible in recent polling. The populations that Democratic politicians take for granted—namely young people and people of color—have had their needs and policy priorities abandoned by the administration and have hardly any reason to be energized for the 2022 midterms. Biden’s promises of delivering student loan debt relief, a priority among young voters, have fallen by the wayside, and basic voting rights legislation has similarly failed.
The electoral strategy of the Democratic Party, or lack thereof, has recently taken the form of demanding that key demographics within the base, such as young voters and people of color, have a moral imperative to vote blue, but the Democratic establishment offers no forward-looking ideas or material progress to these voters in return. In 2020, Democratic politicians emphasized to voters that they needed to support Biden because it was the “most important election of our lifetime,” but this framing will only work once. Especially since it is no longer viable to frame the 2022 election as a reaction to former President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party needs to offer some incentive for people to turn out to vote for it, and vague talk of unity and normalcy are not going to cut it this time around.
In order to turn around the grim 2022 forecast, Democrats need to abandon the fantasy of unity and reorient toward achieving progress for the voters who delivered their victory in 2020. Unity is an amorphous ideal that Biden will never be able to reach, and he should abandon the futile efforts to control the level of bipartisan support he garners. Instead, the Biden administration should focus on what it can control: student loan debt forgiveness, drug policy reform, and strengthening anti-trust regulations, to name a few major policy strides Biden could achieve without needing Congress on board. The era of bipartisanship and unity has come and gone, so now it is time to focus on delivering results for working people.
Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab/ Heights Editor