What with the anti-incumbent mood abroad in the country these days, with both Democrats and Republicans on the receiving end, expectations were high that the left wing of the Democratic Party, and its allies in the labor movement would be able to take out objectionable moderates such as Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Jane Harman in California. Why shouldn’t the Democrats’ left be able to do what the Republican right did in Kentucky, for example, when they put Rand Paul across, in defiance of the GOP establishment?
Well, there’s a very simple reason. There are twice as many conservatives as liberals in the country, and that’s been the case for a very long time, as shown in a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Moreover, about two-thirds of Republicans identify themselves as conservatives, while more Democrats call themselves moderates than liberals.
Thus, it was not at all surprising that Senator Blanche Lincoln, a centrist from the relatively conservative state of Arkansas, could withstand the attacks of outside liberal groups and the national labor movement, even though she was unpopular enough to have been forced into a runoff with Lt. Governor Bill Halter. In the end she was able, with help from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to mobilize her base, including African Americans.
Rep. Jane Harman’s very substantial victory over Marcy Winograd is a bit more surprising, if only because her Southern California district has got to be more liberal than Arkansas (very few places outside the South aren’t more liberal than Arkansas). But when we note that Harman had previously defeated Winograd by a similar margin, we can conclude that support from national liberal groups created a buzz but didn’t change the outcome much, if at all.
The Democratic Party just is not a mirror image of the Republicans. It’s true that partisans have become steadily more polarized in the last generation: the Republican Party really is a conservative party today, in a way that it wasn’t even in the days of Richard Nixon. The Democrats are distinctly more liberal, but they are not a liberal party in the same sense as the GOP is conservative.
The current US House of Representatives illustrates the point. There are enough centrist Democrats like Harman to make the difference between majority and minority for the Democrats. All of these centrists, of course, are on the right wing of their party, but at the same time virtually all of them are measurably more liberal in their voting record than ANY Republican. The House Republicans simply do not have a significant body of centrists, unlike the Democrats.
This puts the Democrats in a very strong position to attract the growing number of political independents, who also tend to identify themselves as moderates. This is the task of Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, after defeating Sen. Arlen Specter. Sestak needs to get across to moderate voters just how ideologically extreme is his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey.
All this is very frustrating to those of us on the progressive side, because of course we think we think we know the best direction to take the country. But we haven’t yet done the job that the conservatives have done, to convince well over a third of all voters. We have, at best, a fifth. We need to keep trying to convince more; in the meantime, we should accept that we won’t be able to jerk the Democrats around as the Tea Partiers are doing to the Republicans.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University