When the Democrats defied recent political history by facing down a long-predicted “red wave” in the 2022 midterms, a battery of insta-takes sought to establish single-bullet theories for the surprising outcome. The balloting was a referendum on Donald Trump, we were told—or on the Dobbs decision, or on the GOP’s multifront assault on democracy. Of course, it was all these things and more, as one would expect to be the case for more than 600 contests for national and statewide office in a sprawling, divided country. But it’s worth lingering a bit on an issue that many polls and pundits expected to favor Republicans: the specter of inflation, widely taken to be a surefire driver of public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy. The actual returns registered little of this alleged outrage; indeed, economic populists of the left performed better than conventional, centrist Democrats. Left-leaning candidates secured major statewide offices in Pennsylvania and helped Democrats hold the line in key Western contests. Even where a marquee economic populist lost—as Tim Ryan did to J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate race—it was close enough to buoy several House candidates in the state. (It’s also worth noting that Ryan ran to the right on some economic issues; unlike Pennsylvania Senator-elect John Fetterman, he came out against President Biden’s student-loan-relief package.)
The populist successes of 2022 contrast sharply with the Democratic failures of the 2010 midterms. Then, rising right-wing anger over the recently passed Affordable Care Act combined with the flagrant bailouts of the financial sector in the wake of the 2008 meltdown to create an economic referendum on the Democrats, as unemployment hovered near the double-digit mark. But the 2022 results should serve notice that full-employment conditions, backed by strong income supports and forward-looking policies like student-loan forgiveness, can trump anxiety over inflation—contrary to the conventional wisdom of the macroeconomic austerity measures that the investment class marshals to combat it.
More than that, the populist wins of 2022 point to a broader appeal that can help unite the disparate elements producing hard-fought victories for the Democrats in other battlegrounds. By stressing the robust conditions of equality that can be secured under a populist political economy, astute Democrats can draw on the understanding of reproductive choice as a foundational economic right, press the case for racial justice in steeply unequal housing and jobs markets, and lend much-needed urgency to the party’s rhetoric around the democracy crisis. By focusing on the abuses of oligarchy—the rampant migration of top-heavy economic power into political life—Democrats can build on the outcome of the 2022 midterms to make an argument for expanding provisional, pandemic-era commitments to social democratic justice into the broader spheres of working life and civil society.
Oligarchy is at the heart of the Republican governing project, which cynically exploits a racialized brand of pseudo-populism to mask an agenda that serves the interests of the wealthy. Calling out this unholy fusion is central to defeating it. “It’s the alliance between the very wealthy and very powerful economic players, oligarchs and wannabe oligarchs, who want to convert their wealth to political power,” says University of Texas law school professor William Forbath, a coauthor of the recent study The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution. “We’ve seen this alliance move from nativist and racist dog whistles to full-bore white nationalism at the same time that it wants to shore up a neoliberal and anti-regulatory politics—that’s a hell of a trick.”
What has allowed that trick to take hold is the chronic diffidence that savvy inside-the-Beltway Democrats show toward class-based politics, a failing that dates back to the 1994 midterms. It wasn’t until recently that Democrats found renewed footing in such appeals. In the final 2022 election push, “President Obama was the closer,” says David Kusnet, a speechwriter who worked for the Clinton White House. “His speech in Philadelphia made the closing argument well, melding personal freedom and defending democracy with economic populism and social inclusion. ‘Freedom’ resonates with the Black freedom struggle, and ‘democracy’ resonates with resisting oligarchy and plutocracy—building the strength to fight for social and economic justice.” Obama bolstered the case by striking a combative note, Kusnet says: “The issue isn’t judging the record of the last two years after a medical and economic catastrophe—Obama squared the circle there by presenting that record as the first part of the fight ahead.”
To build on that message, the Democratic Party will need to reckon with just what sort of constituency it sees itself serving over the long haul. “It’s no secret to those of us who advocate for populist campaigns and populist governance that the donors pull Democratic candidates one way and the voters pull them the other way,” Kusnet says. “If you listen too much to the donors, there’s no way to pull back.”