When New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world by unseating a 10-term incumbent in a Democratic primary in 2018, some analysts believed the victory might foreshadow a party shift to progressivism.
But three years later, the evidence for the great turn leftward is scant.
In fact, looking at elections since 2018, the Democratic Party seems to be more firmly bolted to the moderate wing of the party.
Let’s start with presidential politics. Back in 2016, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders surprised everyone with a strong run against the eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. And in 2020, progressives thought Sanders had a shot at capturing the nomination.
But that didn’t happen. Sanders wound up being the strongest liberal voice in the field, but he wasn’t able to garner enough support. Instead, after a slow start, Joe Biden won big in South Carolina, starting a winning streak that would culminate in winning all but eight states, including many states Sanders won in 2016.
Two big questions going into 2020: would Democratic primary voters opt for the Biden option because they thought moderates had the best chance of beating then-President Donald Trump? And freed of the fear of a second Trump term, would Democrats then pivot to progressives?
So far in 2021, there’s no sign of a pivot. In a series of special elections, moderate Democrats have won their primaries against more liberal opponents.
In April, Troy Carter defeated Karen Peterson in the race to fill the vacant seat in Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, which had been held by Cedric Richmond, who joined the Biden administration. Carter campaigned as a moderate who would work across party lines to get things done, while Peterson fashioned herself as a progressive who would shake things up. Richmond endorsed Carter.
Last week in Ohio’s 11th District, moderate Democrat Shontel Brown defeated Nina Turner, a former state senator who built a reputation on working closely with Sen. Bernie Sanders. Brown tied herself to President Joe Biden and won the race, though Turner raised far more campaign cash. That seat had been vacated by Marcia Fudge, who also joined the Biden administration.
The strength of the centrists extends beyond the fight for power in Washington. At the municipal level, voters in Democratic strongholds are also embracing the center.
In July in New York City, a wide 13-person Democratic primary included a long list of liberal voices, including former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and lawyer Maya Wiley. But it was Eric Adams, a former police officer, who prevailed as the nominee. Adams’s campaign prioritized the issue of public safety, and he is the overwhelming favorite to win the general election this fall.
And just this week in Detroit, voters turned back an effort to revise the city’s charter to make it more “equitable.” The proposed changes would have pushed for better access to broadband internet, greater water affordability and a civil rights task force addressing reparations and justice for African Americans. It failed by a two-to-one margin, 67 percent to 33 percent.
So how Democratic are these cities? In the 2020 general election, Biden won four of New York City’s five boroughs with more than 70 percent of the vote. In Detroit, Biden captured more than 93 percent of the tally. In other words, these are places where Democrats don’t have to worry about tacking to the center to capture votes. Voters went to the center because that’s what they wanted.
Add it all up, and a different message from the post-AOC election sentiment seems to emerge. Liberal voices on social media and in Washington may score more headlines, but the Democratic Party looks like more of a haven for the moderate left than a home for a new revolutionary liberalism.