Socialism Doesn’t Win American Elections

A recent round of bad poll numbers for U.S. President Joe Biden in matchups against former President Donald Trump have triggered a new round of speculation about potential fixes to Democrats’ short-term electoral prospects. A new book claims to offer a magical formula for Democratic victory not just in the Electoral College, but in practically every state.

A recent round of bad poll numbers for U.S. President Joe Biden in matchups against former President Donald Trump have triggered a new round of speculation about potential fixes to Democrats’ short-term electoral prospects. A new book claims to offer a magical formula for Democratic victory not just in the Electoral College, but in practically every state.

The book is Where Have All the Democrats Gone? The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes by John Judis, editor-at-large at Talking Points Memo, and my colleague Ruy Teixeira, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Where Have All the Democrats Gone? The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, Henry Holt, 336 pp., November 2023.

The magical formula presented in the book is for the Democratic Party to adopt the policy positions and attitudes favored by the authors: the unreconstructed socialism of the 1960s and 1970s, stripped of cultural liberalism. It is a remarkable example of what Matthew Yglesias calls the pundit’s fallacy: the belief “that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively.” (As a supporter of statehood for Cuba and Haiti, and of a trans-Atlantic union with free movement of capital, goods, people, and services, I stay clear of this fallacy without much effort.)

The book makes its case for the magical formula in two parts: roughly half of the book covers what the authors think Democrats should run on (socialism), and half is about what they should reject (reparations, immigration, trans rights, and the Green New Deal). The authors claim they should do these things for two reasons: because they would win elections, and because they would be good for America.

The first half of the book, effectively The Case for Socialism, reviews the past 50 or so years of electoral politics at the federal level. Judis and Teixeira argue that whenever Democrats have embraced what we might call post-Keynesian economics and, in particular, organized labor, they have done well at the polls. When they embrace the free-enterprise system and find common ground with the business community, as the authors believe Democrats did ever more between 1973 and 2019, they do poorly.

The argument requires some serious acrobatics. Democrats won one state plus D.C. in 1972, then won after Watergate but lost in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Since Bill Clinton’s embrace of the Third Way, on the other hand, Democrats have only lost the popular vote once, after 9/11. Maybe the real question is where all the Republicans have gone.

Judis and Teixeira are not idiots, so instead they argue that what Democrats have lost is not voters, per se, but working-class voters. At first, it was white working-class voters. Their departure, so they argue, was sparked by Democratic support for desegregation, fueled by Jimmy Carter’s turn away from union interests and toward neoliberalism, and completed in 1994 when congressional voting patterns became aligned with presidential ones.

While it is broadly accepted that Democratic support for desegregation did, in fact, drive away white working-class voters (and other white voters in the South), the rest of the story is less plausible. If what we witnessed was driven by a working-class backlash against gradually increasing Democratic support for the free-enterprise system and free trade, why did it not affect nonwhite working-class voters in the same way? While nonwhite working-class voters have started to move toward the Republican Party somewhat in recent years, there is little evidence of that shift before the 2010s—as the authors acknowledge.

International evidence points in the same direction. As socialists and social democrats in Western Europe moved to the center on economic policy in the 1990s, their electoral prospects only improved—as perhaps is best illustrated by New Labour’s string of victories in the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2005.

The argument against the Democratic Party returning to the authors’ preferred economic policies does not stop there, though. It is not just that the party discarded them, successfully, for electoral gain: Voters were right to reject them on substantive grounds. Judis and Teixeira argue for a worldwide system of corporate taxation without foreign tax credits, which would make American businesses woefully uncompetitive. They would then impose across-the-board import quotas to prop up these no-longer-competitive businesses. Loose monetary policy would be matched with a federal jobs guarantee, à la Modern Monetary Theory, and inflation would be dealt with through price and wage controls. They do not engage with the arguments against these policies, which large majorities of economists oppose.

Each of these measures would make America poorer and weaker. Together, they would bring back the stagflation that made Carter move away from them. To go back to the electoral argument for a moment—imagine thinking what ailed Carter and harms Biden is that inflation and prices are too low.

The second half of the book makes a facially more plausible case: It suggests that Democrats should move to the right on a set of issues less directly related to class warfare: race, trans rights, immigration, and climate. (You will notice that abortion, a winning issue for Democrats in recent years, is missing from the list.)

Unfortunately, where the first half of the book provides concrete suggestions for Democratic campaigns—policies to propose and embrace, bad as they may be—much of the second half is simply an airing of familiar grievances. In their brief discussion of abortion politics, the authors highlight the linguistic choices of several outside groups. Most of the chapter on race deals with various essayists and protest movements that elected officials do not control and have little influence over.

There is an entire chapter on trans rights that concludes with the assessment that Democratic support for what the authors refer to as “gender ideology” is unlikely to matter outside the occasional school board race. The main policy advice in the chapter on climate policy is to embrace Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s call for energy permitting, which a large majority of Democratic senators already do—and which runs counter to the economic vision of the first half of the book.

The one exception is immigration. Here the authors do discuss specific policies, but they do so frustratingly poorly. Take this description of the Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans humanitarian parole program, perhaps the Biden administration’s signature new immigration policy: “In January 2023, Biden announced a plan to limit surging entrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to thirty thousand a month who legally apply for asylum and enter through Mexico.” The list of countries is wrong; applications under the program are for parole, not asylum; and a primary goal of the program is to let parolees avoid entering through Mexico.

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Later on, the authors discuss the 1965 Hart-Celler Act and argue that it dramatically increased legal immigration. In reality, it imposed quotas on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere for the first time. Does anyone really believe immigration flows would have been smaller had hemispheric free movement been preserved?

Or take their discussion of the 2017 Cotton-Perdue immigration bill. Judis and Teixeira claim that the bill, which would have cut legal immigration by half, would have reduced legal immigration “slightly.” They argue that the bill “gave priority to skilled immigrants.” In reality, it would have put central planners in charge of selecting immigrants instead of the American families, firms, and universities who do so now. Those central planners would of course be mostly lawyers: Under their point system, anyone with an American law degree would have been classified as more “skilled” than someone with a STEM doctorate from Cambridge or ETH Zürich.

And it would not have increased the number of immigrants with advanced degrees at all—if anything, it cut the number of skilled immigrants by limiting the duration and renewals of H-1B visas as well as reducing family-based immigration (which also cuts skilled workers who happen to enter on that pathway). I do not doubt that the public is similarly poorly informed about immigration policy, but that is not the point the authors try to make with these sections of the book.

It is hard to shake the impression that the same zero-sum thinking that drives the authors’ opposition to the free-enterprise system also motivates their anti-immigration views. And that’s fine, I suppose—but I would then prefer to see a direct defense of that zero-sum thinking instead of a series of poorly executed proxy arguments.

And that is the book’s ultimate problem. It calls for a reorganization of the Democratic Party around the authors’ values and priorities, and then attempts to support that call with electoral and, in particular, policy arguments. But those arguments are an afterthought, and it shows. One can certainly envision a book that makes a plausible case for a Democratic shift to the right on a large number of issues. I can also imagine a book that explains why replacing working-class voters with more bougie voters is electorally inefficient. This book is neither.


Stan Veuger is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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