It’s already been a bruising summer for the Democratic Party in America. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions undermining liberal priorities, most obviously by overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion. President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell below 40 percent—according to an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, “the worst of any elected president at this point in his presidency since the end of World War II.” And a recent New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Democratic voters don’t want Biden to run for re-election. Things got worse last week when the latest effort to pass significant elements of Biden’s domestic agenda fell apart in the U.S. Congress: New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait—a center-left journalist who’s long tended to support the Democrats—concluded that “by realistic or even minimal standards of performance, this two-year term, almost certain to be the last period of Democratic-controlled government for the foreseeable future, has been a failure.” Progressives are blaming moderates, and Biden is fending off criticism from the left. Meanwhile, as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported last month, some of the country’s leading progressive advocacy groups are riven by internal workplace fights—often between younger staffers and older managers—over questions of race, gender, identity, and the future of their movements. All in all, there’s a lot of conflict on the American left. What’s behind it?
Ruy Teixeira is a U.S. political analyst who worked for almost two decades at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and is joining the center-right American Enterprise Institute next month—still a Democrat but disenchanted by the state of the Democratic Party and progressive activism. Teixeira sees generational differences—and the acute ideological divisions that now tend to map onto them—as not merely driving conflict within progressive groups but affecting the culture and decision-making of the Biden administration, mainstream corporations, and a variety of other social institutions in which younger people on the left have gained influence. While Biden’s moderate inclinations helped him win the presidential primary in 2020, Teixeira says, his desire to gratify his party’s left—or even avoid criticism from left-wing activists—is preventing the party from adopting rhetoric and policies that would better align them with mainstream America on issues like crime, immigration, and the newly vital question of abortion. But while a lot of the left remains highly invested in its current orthodoxies, Teixeira is starting to see evidence of new dissent and debate—and new alliances across the American political mainstream.
Graham Vyse: How do you see the current tension between the Biden White House and progressive activists?
Ruy Teixeria: That tension goes back to the very beginning of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. The activist groups—and the kind of politics they represented—heavily influenced almost all the other Democratic candidates. You had a lot of weird talk from them about decriminalizing illegal crossings at the border, “Medicare for All,” and other ideas that may not have been in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, much less of the country. The were all trying to outdo one another in showing progressive bona fides on race, gender, and immigration issues. Biden almost had the moderate lane to himself, where he could take more nuanced positions and say things more consistent with the center of gravity in public opinion in his party and in America. Ultimately, he was rewarded for that.
After he won the Democratic nomination, however, he made what was arguably a fateful decision. He decided he would try to co-opt the left—moving leftward on many issues rather than making a more traditional move to the center. As he came into office—without as big a mandate as he thought he’d have—he started talking about creating another New Deal and having a transformative presidency, though he only had a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Biden’s administration included junior, mid-level, and even some senior staffers who were well to his left on various issues, especially on questions of race, gender, identity, and crime. All of this meant that there was built-in tension for his administration, stemming from the campaign and the early days of his presidency.
Vyse: How has Biden been navigating this tension?
Teixeria: He's been trying to figure out how to do and say popular things while placating the left within his administration and outside of it. It’s been a very difficult struggle. He hasn’t been able to change the Democratic Party’s image on issues like supporting the police and cracking down on violent crime, which is what most Americans want their leaders to do. Meanwhile, immigration activists have hammered Biden for turning people away at the border, despite the fact that there’s quite an immense problem with historically high levels of illegal-immigration attempts. Some of these people are getting released into the U.S. There’s still abuse of the asylum system. Everybody knows this. Yet activists won’t abide the president doing anything about it. They don’t really want to hear about border enforcement.
Another issue to consider is abortion, which is newly salient. The overturning of Roe is unpopular among activists, within the Democratic Party, and across the broader country. You’d think this issue would be a perfect opportunity for Democrats to take a moderate, reasonable position, with a careful approach to moving back toward greater abortion rights in the U.S. Instead, Biden has been under immense pressure from activists to somehow—through some unspecified method—legislate the right to abortion through Congress.
Biden’s administration included junior, mid-level, and even some senior staffers who were well to his left on various issues, especially on questions of race, gender, identity, and crime. All of this meant that there was built-in tension for his administration, stemming from the campaign and the early days of his presidency.
Why don’t they try smaller things? Why not try guaranteeing the right to an abortion if there’s a threat to the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest? After all, we know the median voter in the U.S. generally supports abortion being available in the first three months of a pregnancy and then—in cases of rape and incest or other distinctive circumstances—even later on. Is this what Democratic officials are focusing on? It’s not. Which is yet another example of the tension between Biden’s moderate inclinations—to do popular, effective things—and the desire of activists to push a maximalist agenda.
On many issues related to race and gender, the administration has been pressured into talking and acting in a way that’s inconsistent with the mainstream of American public opinion but very consistent with what activist groups and a lot of progressive administration staffers want. This creates conflict, but Biden’s inclination isn’t to confront that aggressively; he wants to make everybody happy. He wants somehow to get everyone in his party moving in the same direction by giving something to everyone, but that never works. He’s shown an inability to send clear signals, and he’s been hurt repeatedly by it.
Vyse: You say Biden hasn’t been able to change his party’s image on the issue of crime and policing, yet he did say that America must “fund the police,” rejecting the “defund the police” slogan of progressive activists. Isn’t that precisely the sort of thing you believe he should be saying?
Teixeria: Sure, but he doesn’t do enough of that sort of thing. The administration—and the Democratic Party—doesn’t do enough of it. To the extent that they’ve been willing to talk about crime, they’ve tended to talk about guns: We’ve got to do something about all these guns. It’s a way of responding to the issue of crime—a major issue on which Democrats have a terrible image—without actually talking about getting criminals off the streets and putting them in jail. It’s a way of responding to the issue without saying you oppose what some of these progressive prosecutors have been doing. Biden won’t say that, nor will most Democrats, even though it’s what most voters want to hear. Americans aren’t opposed to criminal-justice reform—they don’t want rogue cops—but they do want their communities safe. Some of those who most suffer from urban crime are in poor Black and Hispanic communities. By refusing to talk about getting criminals off the streets, you’re hurting the people you say you’re protecting.
Americans aren’t opposed to criminal-justice reform—they don’t want rogue cops—but they do want their communities safe. Some of those who most suffer from urban crime are in poor Black and Hispanic communities. By refusing to talk about getting criminals off the streets, you’re hurting the people you say you’re protecting.
Vyse: What other rhetoric or policy stances are you seeing Biden adopting, against his inclinations, under pressure from the left and progressive activist groups?
Teixeria: Biden and his administration have talked repeatedly about how racial equity must be part of every single policy—including universal programs, which might disproportionately benefit Blacks and Hispanics, but have nothing to do with racial equity. Biden has talked about “white supremacy” and “systemic racism,” which is a kind of language that’s broadly unpopular in the country and not of interest to most voters in the political middle.
Think about the voting-rights bill he promoted—another example of kamikaze legislation he felt he had to push, because people in his party and activist groups wanted him to push it. It included every activist-group priority, and it was doomed from the start. Democrats were concerned about Republicans’ changes to voting procedure in Georgia, which made it a little less easy to vote, but all the data showed that these changes were likely to have a negligible effect on voter turnout. They weren’t that big a deal, yet Biden went down to Georgia and described the changes as a new Jim Crow—totally over-the-top rhetoric. Besides, if you’re really worried about the subversion of elections, the key is to avoid making the vote-counting and certification progress into a partisan affair, and the best way to do that in the immediate future is to reform the Electoral Count Act.
Vyse: It may get reformed. Bipartisan negotiations are advancing in the U.S. Senate.
Teixeria: I’ll believe it when I see legislation. In the meantime, let’s face it—updating that act hasn’t been the focus of the Biden administration or these activist groups pushing for election reform. They’ve been focused on all this other stuff, which is just ridiculous.
I’ll give you another example, which is what transpired in Congress with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the president’s larger domestic-policy agenda, Build Back Better. The bill passed the Senate and went to the House. All the House had to do was vote on the damn bill. Instead, left-wing Democrats spent six months holding the legislation hostage amid endless negotiations on this massive, hugely expensive Build Back Better initiative, which gradually decreased in size. The chance of ever getting anything like that through Congress was small, yet Democrats went through all these terrible, roiling negotiations that nobody could even keep track of. Meanwhile, inflation was spiking, there were supply-chain problems, and Covid wasn’t entirely under control. It was an enormous missed opportunity. It looked to the median voter like Democrats were fiddling as Rome burned—because of the demands of the left and activist groups.
Vyse: You’re obviously a critic of the left wing of the party and progressive activists, but let’s try to channel their thinking here. How do they understand the approach they’ve taken to Biden?
Teixeria: Today’s progressive left believes that the Democratic Party has failed in a massive way by not pushing aggressively for bold left-wing policies, which would change the public debate and achieve transformative reforms. They believe the party hasn’t thought big enough—that it’s been captive to neoliberalism and taken over by business interests. Some of them just think the Democrats are cowards.
Biden has talked about “white supremacy” and “systemic racism,” which is a kind of language that’s broadly unpopular in the country and not of interest to most voters in the political middle.
They also believe that if the Democrats were to stand for bold ideas—ideally turning some of them into law but even just shouting loudly enough about them—that would galvanize masses of Americans who would turn out to vote in droves. This turnout would more than compensate for any loss of voters who might think Democrats are going too far in a progressive direction.
Every part of this thinking is wrong. Americans’ appetite for policy change evolves gradually, and it can’t be revolutionized overnight. Over time, voters may decide they want more aggressive government action in certain ways. By and large, they’re more open to government action than they were 15 years ago. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for everything progressives say they’re ready for. People tend to be relatively conservative about how much change they can absorb at any given time. You can expand the realm of permissible policy discourse, but it’s not infinitely elastic.
There’s also limited evidence suggesting that most elections are decided by turnout. People on the left tend to assume they can galvanize turnout among their voters with their big, bold ideas, yet they also assume this will somehow have little effect on their political opponents. The other side gets to vote, and it will often respond by increasing its turnout, too.
Vyse: How do you see some of the more debilitating dynamics within influential progressive groups—those causing the fractious internal workplace conflicts described in Ryan Grim’s reporting at the Intercept—different or similar to the dynamics between Biden and the left?
Teixeria: Well, you have a cohort of people coming into a lot of progressive organizations whose views on identity-politics issues—and political issues generally—are different than the views of the people who’ve been running these groups. Typically, if you’re running an abortion-rights organization, you’re focused on abortion rights. If you’re running an environmental-protection organization, you’re focused on protecting the environment. Yet a lot of the people now joining these groups tend to view the problems they’re trying to solve as reflecting what they see as America’s patriarchal, cis-hetero-normative racial capitalism. This leads them to push their organizations to embrace a much broader range of issues and use a much different kind of rhetoric.
So you have environmental groups suddenly talking about racial capitalism and white supremacy. You have an abortion-rights organization like NARAL Pro-Choice America beginning to talk a lot about transgender issues—saying that transgender women are women and maybe you shouldn’t even use the word “women” when discussing abortion rights. The new employees often believe they must get rid of oppressive hierarchical structures, which they believe exist within their organizations as well as in the outside world. They often see the structures of their progressive organizations as guilty until proven innocent. And this tends to lead to an enormous amount of pressure on how these organizations run, their ability to promote employees on the basis of merit, and their ability to work efficiently.
You have a cohort of people coming into a lot of progressive organizations whose views on identity-politics issues—and political issues generally—are different than the views of the people who’ve been running these groups.
It’s a little bit of a mystery as to why the people running these groups can’t get keep this stuff under control. Do they really believe it’s effective? Funding may be a factor in what’s going on. Consider the American Civil Liberties Union, which has become a kind of all-purpose lefty organization and is swimming in money. There was a transitional moment for a lot of these progressive organizations after Trump’s election, when you had an influx of money from people who wanted to be part of the “Resistance.” Groups may have used some of that money to hire more staff, including the new kind of people I’m talking about. The problem isn’t as bad as you think; it’s worse, because organizations that used to be at least somewhat effective are now roiled by endless debates and doing things that are actually counterproductive to their supposed goals.
Vyse: You worked for a long time at a progressive organization. Why did you leave the Center for American Progress?
Teixeria: I’d been dissatisfied with CAP, at least to some extent, for a long time. CAP initially prompted itself as an incubator of the next generation of ideas for the center-left—and there was some attempt at that early on—but relatively quickly the think tank became much more oriented toward the discourse taking place within the Democratic Party and trying to provide more educated talking points and somewhat better policies. In other words, it was more about serving the center of gravity of the party than about putting forth genuinely new ideas, and that disturbed me a little bit. Still, I was able to do my thing, so it wasn’t so bad.
Things changed after 2016 when CAP totally bought into the “Resistance.” I’d been arguing for a long time—despite being widely ignored—that Democrats were making a big mistake by not taking more seriously their need to appeal to white, working-class voters and people outside cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. In the 2016 election, Democrats were unable to hold onto some of the white, working-class voters Obama won; that’s how Trump was able to get elected. I was concerned with trying to understand who these Trump voters were and why they voted for him, but I found, very quickly, that the conventional wisdom on the left was that the kind of people who’d vote for him were a bunch of racists and xenophobes and Democrats shouldn’t worry much about reaching them.
Some Trump voters were stone-cold racists but a lot of them were people fed up with what was happening in their communities, fed up with what was happening to their children’s prospects, and fed up with elites in both parties—but especially in the Democratic Party—who looked down on them. But between 2016 and 2020 the Democratic Party moved increasingly toward endorsing forms of identity politics and wasn’t paying a lot of attention to reaching more moderate voters, particularly non-college voters.
Some Trump voters were stone-cold racists but a lot of them were people fed up with what was happening in their communities, fed up with what was happening to their children’s prospects, and fed up with elites in both parties—but especially in the Democratic Party—who looked down on them.
Vyse: Still, your political views—which you describe as social-democratic—would seem to be an unconventional fit for the center-right American Enterprise Institute.
Teixeria: AEI is willing to hire someone like me and others with divergent views. I disagree with them on lots of things, but I can have a conversation. Are places like CAP willing to have Republicans on their staffs to offer different ideas—people with heterodox conservative perspectives? I don’t think so. It’s to AEI’s credit that it’s willing to hire someone like me—and it’s not to the left’s credit that it’s become such a monoculture. Some of the most interesting thinking about public policy in America is taking place on the heterodox center-right.
Vyse: Some of the trends within progressive organizations that we’ve discussed are also manifesting themselves in other institutions of society such as mainstream corporations. How do you understand that phenomenon and its implications?
Teixeria: The trends have spread to the realm of corporate capitalism as well as to parts of the nonprofit sector that have nothing to do with politics, especially the arts. People are being subjected to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion regimes that don’t make a lot of sense and can result in compelled speech and behavior. After all, you’re supposed to say and do certain very specific things the DEI trainers tell you to say and do. It creates a bad workplace atmosphere. You don’t have to be a Marxist to ask who benefits when workers are turned against each other—reporting each other for sins, real and imagined. You might wonder why capitalists are so enthusiastic about these workplace regimes. They could care less whether their employees are happy so long as they’re in line. That’s part of what’s going on, at least in areas of the corporate world.
Another dynamic is that, once you create bureaucracies, they tend to perpetuate themselves. That’s true in corporations, universities, and other organizations. It’s like a Diversity Industrial Complex, feeding on itself and always finding new things to do. Does this result in better workplaces or better institutions that are actually less racist, for example, in any real sense? I don’t think so. It’s unproductive, and it’s unfortunate, and the backlash to it is starting.
Vyse: Where do you see these trends going?
Teixeria: I've learned not to make predictions, especially about the future. It’s clear that some of these dynamics peaked a while ago. It used to be that nobody said a discouraging word about new progressive orthodoxies, because people were so intimidated. Now we see more heterodox voices emerging and the willingness of people like me to go on the record about our disagreements.
That said, there are still tons of people who are “with the program”—and determined to keep people who aren’t with the program in line—and that produces a lot of preference falsification. Real change would require what’s known as a preference cascade—enough people coming forward renouncing their preference falsification and creating a permission structure for a much larger number of people that results in a cascade effect. We’re not there yet. It may require a shock to the system—such as Democrats losing badly in the midterms—that would force some rethinking. I do believe change is probably coming; I hope it’s not bad change.