From Trump to Biden III: Political Contagion

Disunity in the Democratic Party

Here’s the quick summary:

Trump got more votes than the pollsters expected; equally importantly, the Democrats lost several seats in the House and gained only one seat in the Senate which remains in Republican control unless the Democrats win both the runoff elections in Georgia.

If success can buy loyalty, failure prompts infighting. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, better known as AOC, ends this interview with the NYT with the following line:

But I’m serious when I tell people the odds of me running for higher office and the odds of me just going off trying to start a homestead somewhere — they’re probably the same.

That’s a dramatic display of disaffection isn’t it? In the same interview, she also said about one of her ‘moderate’ colleagues:

And so we know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns. Some of this is criminal. It’s malpractice. Conor Lamb spent $2,000 on Facebook the week before the election. I don’t think anybody who is not on the internet in a real way in the Year of our Lord 2020 and loses an election can blame anyone else when you’re not even really on the internet.

As it turns out Conor Lamb eked out a victory. He had this to say in response to AOC:

She doesn’t have any idea how we ran our campaign, or what we spent, to be honest with you. So yeah, her statement was wrong. But there’s a deeper truth there, which is this — that our districts and our campaigns are extremely different. You know, I just leave it at that.

Sounds like a schoolyard fight to me. The big question underlying this cat fight is the following:

Should Democrats become more moderate or more progressive?

Both Trump and Pence spent a lot of time trying to paint all Democrats as Green New Dealing Police Defunding Socialists. Some of them might well be so, but Biden took great pains to reiterate that he doesn’t stand for defunding the police or for banning fracking. Kamala Harris is a law and order Democrat, though also a Senate co-sponsor of Green New Deal legislation. It doesn’t look like supporting the GND is a liability even in swing districts.

But the more important lesson I am drawing from this debate is what I call political contagion. Politics - except for the presidential race - was famously local. Media endorsements that mattered were local newspapers and magazines - no one in Pennsylvania cared who the NYT endorsed. But social media is changing the local nature of elections. Defunding the police in Oakland can become a liability for Conor Lamb in Pittsburgh.

That, by itself, would be interesting but not dramatic, if it were not compounded by the fact that asking for the police to be defunded might make you a stronger candidate in Oakland and therefore, your incentives might be aligned with adopting a more progressive stance (as AOC’s are). Therefore, the very same dynamics makes AOC stronger and Conor Lamb weaker as a candidate and if Conor Lamb loses, the party has one less moderate and strengthens the hand of the progressives.

The Republicans have seen this happen over the years with very few moderates left - especially in the Northeast. Looks like the same is phenomenon is happening in the Democratic party as neoliberalism bites the dust. In sum:

Expect the nationalization of local elections when there’s a national candidate on the ballot. Even more important: expect the emergence of ‘national’ candidates whose local importance exhibits a positive feedback loop with their national importance.

The US has a national referendum every four years with the presidential election. One reason why incumbents have a great advantage is because they are the default ‘national’ candidate; their opponent has to become a national figure while trying to defeat a sitting president. But will that change with the emergence of national candidates in many house and senate seats? Will it make it easier to win against an incumbent president?

I predict the future will see more turnover.