Opinion | The Law of Unintended Political Consequences Strikes Again

Instead of looking for a knockout punch, Kramer argued, “with neoliberalism dead, something will replace it. The challenge is to find something better than ethnonationalism — a way to think about the relationship of government and markets to people that is better suited to a 21st-century economy and society.”

Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine, wrote an essay in late November on the dilemmas of the Biden presidency, “Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze,” in which he argued that progressive foundations

have churned out studies and deployed activists to bring left-wing ideas into the political debate. At this they have enjoyed overwhelming success. In recent years, a host of new slogans and plans — the Green New Deal, “Defund the police,” “Abolish ICE,” and so on — have leaped from the world of nonprofit activism onto the chyrons of MSNBC and Fox News. Obviously, the conservative media have played an important role in publicizing (and often distorting) the most radical ideas from the activist left. But the right didn’t invent these edgy slogans; the left did, injecting them into the national bloodstream.

Nonprofits on the left, Chait argued, “set out to build a new Democratic majority. When the underpinnings of its theory collapsed, the movement it built simply continued onward, having persuaded itself that its ideas constituted an absolute moral imperative.”

Chait went on:

The grim irony is that, in attempting to court nonwhite voters, Democrats ended up turning them off. It was not only that they got the data wrong — they were also courting these “marginalized communities” in ways that didn’t appeal to them. For the reality is that the Democratic Party’s most moderate voters are disproportionately Latino and Black.

The defeat of Democratic candidates up and down the ticket in the 2021 Virginia election renewed the intraparty debate.

ALG Research, the major polling firm in the Joe Biden campaign, conducted, along with Third Way, a postelection study of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, in which Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, defeated Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee. The ALG study of swing voters, which I have reported on in past columns, found, for example, that Republican highlighting of critical race theory had a subtle effect on voters:

CRT in schools is not an issue in and of itself, but it taps into these voters’ frustrations. Voters were nearly unanimous in describing the country as divided and feeling that politics is unavoidably in their faces.

While the voters ALG studied knew that critical race theory had not been formally adopted as part of Virginia’s curriculum, the report continued,

they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.

As my colleague Jeremy W. Peters wrote in a postelection analysis last year, critics

have argued that Democrats are trying to explain major issues — such as inflation, crime and school curriculum — with answers that satisfy the party’s progressive base but are unpersuasive and off-putting to most other voters. The clearest example is in Virginia, where the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, lost his election after spending weeks trying to minimize and discredit his opponent’s criticisms of public school education, particularly the way that racism is talked about. Mr. McAuliffe accused the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, of campaigning on a “made-up” issue and of blowing a “racist dog whistle.”

But, Peters continued:

about a quarter of Virginia voters said that the debate over teaching critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that has become a stand-in for a debate over what to teach about race and racism in schools, was the most important factor in their decision, and 72 percent of those voters cast ballots for Mr. Youngkin, according to a survey of more than 2,500 voters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization.

For leaders of the Democratic Party, these developments pose a particularly frustrating problem because they pay an electoral price for policy proposals and rhetoric that are outside party control.

Some might argue that Republicans have the same problem in reverse, but that is not the case. The Republican Party cannot rein in its radical wing and has shown no real inclination to do so. Worse, to succeed in 2022 and 2024, it may not need to.