The 2021 elections are over, and Democrats lost. The party’s stalwarts are desperate to avoid a course correction, and they’re talking themselves into knots in the effort to evade reconciling with the cold, hard reality that confronted them last night. But the reasons why Democrats lost are not complicated or hard to understand.
The results of the off-year elections weren’t about money. Democrats are rolling in campaign contributions and, with some exceptions, largely outspent their Republican opponents. It wasn’t about candidate quality. Many of the Democrats that voters turned out to vote against were disciplined, well-known, and backed by an enthusiastic base of support. It wasn’t about Trump. His absence from the ballot was as relevant to Republican voters who turned out in droves as was his looming presence in the minds of the voters who wish he’d go away. It wasn’t a reaction to Democratic legislative failures. The party cannot get its agenda passed because that agenda lacks broad public support.
Republicans did not win the governorship, lieutenant governorship, and attorney general’s races in Virginia, an increasingly blue state, because Democrats failed to “engage with young voters.” Democrats did not almost lose the governorship of New Jersey because they failed to “recruit a more diverse slate of candidates.” That state’s incredibly powerful and entrenched speaker of the Senate isn’t on the verge of losing his seat to a truck driver who spent $153 on his campaign because Democrats failed to mobilize “voters of color and women under 50.” Democrats did not lose the mayoral race in Buffalo to a write-in candidate, blow a Minneapolis referendum redefining police as “public safety,” and sacrifice seats on New York’s city council because of America’s enduring racism. Democrats weren’t routed on Long Island because they haven’t added hearing-aid coverage to Medicare, and they didn’t lose every judicial race in Pennsylvania because they’ve failed to impose clean-energy mandates on power providers.
To talk yourself into any of these narratives is to wildly overthink these election results. The simplest explanation for these events is that Democrats have turned in a terrible performance over the last ten months. Voters have noticed, and they’re not happy about it.
Americans don’t like to be humiliated abroad, as we were in Afghanistan. They don’t like surrendering to terrorists, and they don’t want to reward an administration that freely admits its actions have made the threat of transnational Islamist terrorism more urgent. Voters don’t typically reward policies that make them feel both mortified and unsafe.
Americans don’t enjoy having to sit through lectures about how terrible the United States is. Americans actually like their country quite a bit. The constellation of vaguely academic notions that make up critical race theory are, we are told, exceedingly complex and nuanced. To average observers, they look like simple anti-egalitarian race essentialism. Those ideas are contributing to racial divisions and ethnic conflict in America. Voters don’t like racial conflict. They will do what they can to avoid or defuse it whenever possible. Democrats have not given voters that option.
Americans do not believe the diminished life they’ve been forced to lead since the onset of COVID is preferable to the status quo ante, and they want a way out of the truncated experience they’ve had to endure. For weeks, polling has indicated that the pandemic is no longer a pressing priority for voters, partly because most of the country has moved on from the oppressive mitigation strategies that prevail mostly in unrepresentative Democrat-dominated urban enclaves. Americans are tired of the moving goalposts, and they want a way out. Democrats refuse to give them a way out, so they’re shopping around for someone who will.
Voters do not reward the party in power for presiding over rising rates of violent crime. They would be disinclined to do that even if the governing power was doing everything it could to fight crime, which Democrats most certainly are not. After a year spent demonizing law enforcement at almost every given opportunity—an impulse occasionally accompanied by legislative efforts to “reimagine” police out of existence—voters have noticed the disconnect, and they resent it.
Americans don’t want to spend trillions of dollars on nebulous progressive legislative priorities to the point that it inflates the currency, reduces their purchasing power, and destabilizes the economy. And voters are making that connection. As pollsters Joel Benenson and Neil Newhouse learned last month, 71 percent of independents agreed with the statement, “People will continue to pay more money on everyday expenses unless the government becomes more fiscally responsible.” Americans know how to balance a budget. They don’t borrow themselves into arrears just because interest rates are low, and they don’t expect their country to do that either.
If the voting public is going to reward they party in power, voters need to feel secure, respected, and satisfied that their prospects for success and prosperity are not artificially circumscribed by government. When they don’t feel that way, they will punish the party that’s responsible. That is the lesson of 2021. It’s not hard to comprehend. Whether Democrats will get the message, however, remains to be seen.