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Joe Biden’s first hours as president-elect were met by his supporters with spontaneous dance parties, champagne showers and car parades that wound through several blocks. But amid the “Biden-Harris” placards and T-shirts dotting a diverse crowd gathered in front of the White House last week, there was a creeping sense that the source of their shared jubilation had less to do with the dragon-slayer than the dragon slayed.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA © Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her campaign team in the Bronx on election day. Progressives accused moderates of failing to capture the imagination of the voters.

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Since the moment Donald Trump was sworn in as president, Democrats aligned to plot his removal. They resisted, organized and mobilized, unified around the goal of removing a president they believed was uniquely dangerous. They succeeded. But their success also marked the end of an election-season truce that at times obscured deep ideological and generational differences.

Democrats face a reckoning, four years in the making, after an election that accomplished their mission but did little to resolve urgent questions about the party’s political future and serious internal divisions.

The first order of business is a “deep dive” into why more Americans than at any moment in the nation’s 244-year history voted for Biden and yet, despite bold predictions of a unified government come January 2021, Democrats ended up with a weakened House majority and an uphill battle to take control of the Senate.

“What’s clear is that voters did not feel comfortable giving Democrats every lever of power,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice-president for social policy and politics at the centrist thinktank Third Way. “And the question is, why not?”

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask.

A tense conference call among House Democrats, in which moderate members blamed the left wing for costing them congressional seats, opened a fiery public debate over how to turn a majority coalition into governing majorities.

Moderates argue that Biden’s success, which included reclaiming three states in the Rust Belt Trump won in 2016 and expanding the map to Sun Belt battlegrounds, was evidence that a moderate who rejected liberal appeals was best positioned to build a winning coalition.

“There are clearly some parts of the Democratic brand that voters across the country did not feel comfortable with,” Erickson said. A post-election analysis by Third Way found that Republicans effectively weaponized ideas like defunding the police and Medicare for All against Democrats in competitive districts, even if they did not support such policies.

Far from being tempered by the congressional setbacks, progressives are emboldened. In a series of interviews, op-eds and open letters, they blamed unexpected losses on an embrace of “status quo centrism” that failed to capture voters’ imagination and faulted moderate candidates for not developing strong enough brands and digital strategies to withstand inevitable attacks.

“They are dead wrong,” Bernie Sanders, the progressive senator who lost to Biden in the Democratic primary, wrote in an USA Today op-ed. He noted that every House co-sponsor of Medicare for All and all but one co-sponsor of the Green New Deal were re-elected, including several competitive districts.

“The lesson is not to abandon popular policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, living wage jobs, criminal justice reform and universal childcare,” Sanders wrote, “but to enact an agenda that speaks to the economic desperation being felt by the working class – Black, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American.”

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Biden won the primary after refusing to move left, but as the nominee embraced a sweeping economic vision that drew comparisons with FDR’s New Deal. In remarks after the election, Biden said that his resounding victory had given him a “mandate for action” on the economy, the pandemic, climate and racial inequality.

But the breadth and contours of that mandate are up for debate. The election returned a complicated tableau of wins and losses for Democrats that defy sweeping conclusions about the electorate.

Biden won Arizona and is set to take Georgia, after years of organizing by progressive Black and Latino activists in the traditionally Republican states. At the same time, sweeping advances with moderates and independents in the suburbs around fast-growing metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Atlanta helped secure his lead.

It was moderate Democrats who flipped Senate seats in Colorado and Arizona, the party’s only additions so far, even as a number of battleground states voted for progressive ballot measures that included legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and taxing wealthy Americans to fund public education.

© Provided by The Guardian Kamala Harris with Joe Biden on Tuesday. Centrists and progressives are vying for influence on multiple fronts. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

In the muddled aftermath, lawmakers, activists and the party’s grassroots are all vying for influence. Battles have flared on multiple fronts: the makeup of Biden’s executive branch, the new administration’s legislative agenda and the approach to a pair of Georgia runoff elections which will determine control of the Senate. If they fall short, there is deep disagreement over the extent to which Biden should work with Senate Republicans and Mitch McConnell, a take-no-prisoners tactician.

“Biden must not allow McConnell veto power over how he constructs his administration,” leaders of the Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress wrote in an open letter last week. They implored Biden to embrace the same hardball tactics wielded against him in the eight years he was Barack Obama’s vice-president, circumventing the Senate confirmation process entirely if necessary.

Biden, an institutionalist whose bipartisan friendships were a prominent feature of his campaign, has repeatedly promised to govern as a “president for all Americans”. But Republicans’ unwillingness to congratulate Biden publicly – while admitting privately that Trump’s refusal to concede is based on meritless claims of voter fraud – demonstrate the constraints he will face from the opposition party.

Yet amid the clashes over messaging and policy, there were some signs of agreement. Senator Doug Jones, a moderate Alabama Democrat who lost re-election, said his party needed to invest in grassroots organizing if it wanted to compete in conservative states.

Democrats’ campaign apparatus spends “too much time investing in candidates and not the electorate”, he told Politico, echoing a sentiment expressed by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives: “They don’t invest in House districts, they don’t invest in states.”

Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso and candidate for the presidential nomination, offered the same diagnosis in a memo to supporters after a disappointing showing in Texas. Transforming the political trajectory of a state requires year-round attention, he wrote, “so that voters don’t just hear from us during an election.”

Democrats will have an opportunity to test their competing theories of change before Biden takes office, via Georgia’s Senate races in January. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if Democrats pull off upset victories, the Senate will be equally divided, with vice-president Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

“Georgia really should answer all these questions,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter Fund, credited with helping Democrats turn Georgia “blue”.

“Because this is the debate we’ve been having here for at least a decade now.”

That a Democratic presidential candidate is poised to carry Georgia for the first time in nearly 30 years is proof that mobilizing the party’s diverse, progressive base works, Albright said.

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“Black and brown folks in Georgia right now, we feel like we could put somebody on Mars,” Albright said of Biden’s edge in the state. But he warned that “all of that energy will disappear” if Democrats spend the next two months appealing to Republicans and not their base.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, who became the first – and so far only – Democrat to flip a competitive Republican-held House seat, said her victory in a diverse, suburban Atlanta district demonstrated the importance of grassroots organizing and cross-party appeal.

In the Georgia Senate races, where her district will play a crucial role, Bourdeaux suggests an approach that she admits is neither “sexy or fancy”.

“Voters are looking for reasonable policy solutions and people to get the job done,” she said. “They want to know you care about them, that you’re listening to what their concerns are – and they want to know that you are passionately committed to addressing those issues.”

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