Moving to the Left

If pearl clutching were an Olympic event, American political pundits would own the podium. Over the past several days I’ve seen one op-ed after another warning Democrats to not move too far left and lose the midterms and 2020.

And it’s not just Democratic Party centrists. Paul Waldman writes today about the warnings coming from outside the party — James Comey, for example.

Paul Waldman:

What the concern trolls are advocating is that Democrats go back to being afraid of their own shadows the way they were for so long, convincing themselves that the American public is extremely conservative and if they don’t become more like Republicans then they have no hope of winning. It’s a belief shared by pretty much every losing Democratic presidential candidate for the last few decades; all of them radiated a sense of insecurity, apologizing for their beliefs and those of their party. It’s something Republicans never do.

My quibble with this is the assumption that Democrats ever stopped being afraid of their own shadows. When might that have been? It certainly wasn’t in 2016. Clinton was the ultimate “safe” candidate, from the perspective of the Democratic establishment. The only difference was that Clinton didn’t apologize for her beliefs; she simply failed to articulate any sort of vision or direction for the future of the country at all.

Matt Taibbi wrote a few days ago,

The notion that Democrats need to look and act more like Republicans to win elections has been practically a religious tenet in Washington for more than 30 years. From the embrace of NAFTA to welfare reform to triangulation to repealing the Glass-Steagall Act to slobbering over Wesley Clark (instead of opposing the Iraq war) to hiring infamous Republican media hitman David Brock, this soul-sucking drift has been sold to voters as an electorally necessary compromise. …

… This is the Democratic Party that lost the presidency in 2016 to a crypto-fascist game-show host with near-record negatives — only ex-Klansman David Duke in 1992 was a more roundly-despised candidate than Trump — and legislatively has for a decade now suffered mass losses on the national and state levels.

Here are some true words on the past several decades of politics in America, in a nutshell:

When the Democrats abandoned their reliance on labor in the Eighties, and began to be funded by the same big companies that backed Republicans, our politics devolved into a contest between two employer-supported factions. Neither really cared about the numerical majority of poor or working-class voters, so they had to get creative with their politics.

The Republican pitch was an open con: the CEO sect hoovering Middle American votes by trotting out xenophobic Bible-thumpers who waved the flag and pretended to love beer, chainsaws, snowmobiles and shooting foreigners, while mostly just deregulating the economy.

The Democratic pitch revolved around social issues like choice and was far less transparently fraudulent. But the party’s proponents had one bad habit that kept putting them in a hole. Repeatedly, when asked to make policy changes favored by sizable majorities of Democratic voters (and often by majorities of all voters), party leaders said: We can’t do that: we need to win!

Taibbi recalls, for example, when a majority of Democratic voters oppose the invasion of Iraq, but 29 Democratic senators voted to let Bush invade, anyway. That was an act of political cowardice that, ironically, hurt the political careers of the cowards more than it helped. Yes, John Kerry and, eventually, Hillary Clinton got Democratic presidential nominations, anyway; even so, those votes in October 2002 would haunt them the rest of their careers. They would have been better off, politically, listening to Democratic voters and voting “no.” I strongly suspect that if Kerry had voted “no” in 2002 he’d have beaten Bush in 2004.

David Atkins writes,

This week has seen a bonanza of concern trolling by centrist factions against the energy and activism coming from the left. The shocking election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th district was followed by the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of progressive challenger Kevin De Leon over longtime incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein. These two events have precipitated a frightened backlash among editorial boards, corporate think tanks like Third Way, and even public figures like James Comey and William Saletan who believe that the movement toward a bolder progressive agenda is bad for the country, heralding doom for Democrats in the midterms and in red districts.

The argument goes that if Democrats move too far to the left, then they won’t hold onto “the center” which presumably contains the majority of Americans. But this worldview stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the electorate, particularly the few remaining persuadable voters in it. It also represents a failure to grasp the reality of the movement, which is not so much about right and left, as it is about solving problems that the centrists in both parties have studiously ignored or avoided.

What about those “centrist” voters?

There are many kinds of cross-pressured voters. Some are the handful of vaunted fiscally conservative, socially liberal suburban centrists the Third Way puts on a pedestal. Some hate abortion but want higher taxes on the rich; some want low taxes but want to preserve a woman’s right to choose. These people are not more moderate than partisans, but rather have strong opinions on certain issues that force them to make a choice between two sides they like in some respects and dislike in others. A party typically loses as many of these cross-pressured voters as it gains by moderating its stances, which is part of why Republicans haven’t suffered from their march rightward.

But far more numerous are the disaffecteds who feel that neither party listens to their concerns or solves their problems. They are attracted to blunt-talking populists who promise to shake up a system that they believe is rigged and tilted toward the elites. This is why Trump did so well with right-leaning independents, and why Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama both performed so well with left-leaning independents. Many white independents who vote for both Democrats and Republicans tend to have prejudiced views on race and gender, but are willing to vote for Democrats and people of color because their economic concerns often outweigh their bigotries if their kitchen table issues are addressed in the right way.

In other words, listen to your voters, Dems.

It is very hard to argue that incremental centrism is the answer. On the contrary, most of these voters are desperate for solutions to problems that they believe both parties have ignored. What are these problems? In no particular order, we can name a few crises:

student debt crisis that threatens to destroy the future of an entire generation; a climate change crisis that could end civilization as we know it if bold action is not taken immediately; a housing crisis that is preventing young people in cities from building savings or wealth, or even living with dignity and being able to afford children; an automation crisis that has most Silicon Valley billionaires simply assuming the end of capitalism and promoting radical socialist policies just to keep the pitchforks at bay; an inequality crisis that will certainly destroy democracy itself if left unaddressed–not just by bringing up standards of living at the bottom and in the middle, but by actively bringing down and redistributing the wealth at the top; and so on.

And health care? Commiting to not cutting social security? A living wage for everyone with a full-time job? I sincerely believe taking a strong stand on these issues would bring a substantial number of the infamous white working-class voter into the Democratic fold, even those living in Trump country.

There’s an article I’ve been wanting to call attention to at Washington Monthly — “Winning Is Not Enough” by Paul Glastris. Why isn’t it enough? Glastris makes the case that Dems have a pattern of winning Congress and/or the White House when people get really fed up with Republicans, only to see that victory snatched away in the next election cycle. The Democrats need to think beyond taking back power; they also need to think about keeping it. They must do this because the Republican Party plainly has become undemocratic and is working to undermine the very supports of liberal democracy, to turn the U.S. into an authoritarian regime.

The dilemma for Democrats is that many of the issues that resonate with their base–gun control, racial justice, support for immigrants–hurt them in exurban and rural areas. That leads many moderates to advise downplaying “identity politics.” The problem with that advice is that, besides being wrong on principle, following it would risk alienating the base voters whose votes are crucial to winning.

How, then, do Democrats square that circle?

The answer is twofold. To maximize the voting power of its core supporters, the party must get over its squeamishness and aggressively push policies designed to raise turnout among young people and minorities. At the same time, to expand its geographic reach, it needs to introduce new ideas into its agenda that appeal both to the base and to rural and working-class whites, or at least to the persuadable among them, such as the millions who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.

Fortunately, if Democrats do take back at least one house of Congress in November (and I’m well aware that this is far from guaranteed), they will have a powerful platform from which to formulate new ideas. The question is whether they will use that power shrewdly. The future of American democracy may ride on the answer.

And my fear is, even if Dems take back Congress in November they’ll do nothing in particular except issue a few platitudes about how “now is not the time” to do blah blah blah, and Republicans will win in 2020.