From Zoom kindergarten to one-way grocery aisles, risk analysis has consumed Americans for the last year. Mainstream Democrats have also focused on mitigating risk, in their case in high-stakes elections amid threats to democracy.
Most significantly, Democratic primary voters nominated Joe Biden, whose moderate brand led them to see him as the most electable candidate — a view confirmed by general election voters, which allowed Democrats to reclaim the White House.
Meanwhile, a small but vocal group on the far left has differentiated itself not only through electorally questionable dogmatism, but also through Silicon Valley-like disruption that embraces risk: "Move fast and break things." Except it isn't looking to disrupt business models and consumer goods, but the Democratic Party.
In just a few short years, an interlocking group of political entrepreneurs has launched more than a half-dozen related nonprofits, PACs, LLCs, think tanks and polling outfits aimed at mounting primary challenges against mainstream House and Senate Democrats and influencing local races. As outlined in their "Future of the Party" report, they believe the Democratic Party "simply cannot move to the center" on policies and must win without the "mushy middle."
Case in point: the news last week that the vanguard of this wing launched the No Excuses PAC to run negative ads against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and recruit a primary challenger in 2024. Manchin has drawn the ire of progressives for his insistence on keeping the filibuster and pushing for fewer stimulus checks, but his value to the party is hard to overstate: He's been called an "electoral miracle" for winning a state Donald Trump took by some 40 points. (In contrast, his primary challenger, Paula Jean Swearingin, who was backed by the founders of the new PAC, lost to Manchin by 40 points in 2018. In 2020, she won the primary against a different competitor but then lost the general election by 43 points.)
Attacking Manchin and other senators crucial to preserving the Democratic Party's one-vote Senate majority is not simply a tactical blunder. It is also a misguided strategy driven by those whose security and confidence allow them to indulge in utopianism even though their program has shown few signs of success in swing districts. Giving this faction more sway not only could jeopardize the Democratic Party's political fortunes, but it also could divorce it from the concerns and realities of other Americans.
The left flank of the Democratic Party has attracted a dramatic increase in highly educated voters in recent decades. From 1994 to 2015, the share of Democrats holding postgraduate degrees who were "consistently liberal" — the most left-wing of five categories identified by the Pew Research Center — more than tripled, from 16 percent to 54 percent. This creates tension with the general electorate, just 13 percent of whom identified as "consistently liberal." But it creates intraparty tension, too, as just 11 percent of Democrats with high school diplomas or lower share those views.
The Democratic Party is also increasingly attracting the affluent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton passed a milestone by winning the wealthiest 4 percent for the first time since 1964. Wealthy suburban areas also swung significantly toward Democrats in the Trump era, with Biden picking up counties with the highest incomes.
The attention to this demographic divide has mostly overlooked the connection such affluence has with tolerance for risk, even though that dynamic has tremendous implications for how people approach policy and politics. Research has shown that greater levels of education and greater wealth can be correlated with greater financial risk-taking.
The in-depth study Hidden Tribes, which the international anti-polarization nonprofit More In Common conducted with the polling firm YouGov among more than 8,000 Americans in 2017-18, detailed the political inclinations of the country's most liberal voters and just how detached this segment is from the median American.
The report found that only 8 percent of Americans fall into what it called the "Progressive Activist" typology, marked by "strong ideological views, high levels of engagement with political issues and the highest levels of education and socioeconomic status." Four-fifths of members are white, more than a quarter are under 30, they are twice as likely to be college graduates, they are twice as likely to make six figures, and they are half as likely to believe the world is becoming more dangerous.
The authors hypothesize about how these privileged circumstances translate into the constituency's eagerness to overhaul American politics, come what may. The study notes: "Their own circumstances are secure (they feel safer than any group), which perhaps frees them to devote more attention to larger issues of justice in society around them. They have an outsized role in public discourse, even though they comprise a small portion of the total population."
The founders of the Manchin-attacking No Excuses PAC typify the high-status, strongly ideological, highly engaged and secure people described in the Hidden Tribes report. For instance, millionaire Saikat Chakrabarti graduated from Harvard in 2007 and then worked on Wall Street and found success in Silicon Valley before joining Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2015.
From there, he co-founded the Justice Democrats PAC, which recruited progressive congressional candidates, and worked as an aide to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He believes in what he calls a "startup mentality" and explicitly appeals to the venture capital portfolio model in which Justice Democrats would be "OK losing 90 percent of our races" as long as the wins have huge returns.
Though many of the Justice Democrats politicians, such as Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York City and Cori Bush of St. Louis, are diverse and don't always come from advantaged backgrounds, prominent Democratic leaders of color have observed that the far-left foot soldiers don't generally hail from the party's traditional base. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that socialists, for instance, were more likely to be white men.
"The socialist left is on the rise, particularly in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents are being gentrified out of existence," said Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the fifth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House. Newly elected Rep. Ritchie Torres, a self-described "pragmatic progressive" from the Bronx, has said, "It's a fact that the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] has the most robust membership in wealthier, whiter, gentrified neighborhoods."
Risk-takers are an essential part of our national story. In progressive politics in particular, those with the means and courage to take risks have improved countless lives. There was a reason the 20th century in America has been called the Democratic Century, and it wasn't because FDR and JFK and LBJ didn't take risks. It was because those risks were managed.
If today's far left wants to continue that history of policy impact, it needs the Democratic Party as a whole to succeed. For the startup progressives, that requires developing a self-awareness about how their privileged circumstances can equate to blindness to the risk they pose for the people they want to help. Those less fortunate can't afford to gamble on the future of the Democratic Party.
A Democratic candidate for the North Carolina state Senate told the No Excuses PAC founders: "Everywhere is not interested in becoming left. ... All that education, and y'all still don't get it." Until they do get it, Democrats who seek progress need to rein in the far left's free-wheeling excesses. There are too many people moving fast and too many fragile things to break.