Can We Bridge the Dem Progressive/Moderate Divide? Please?

I mostly agree with what E.J. Dionne writes today, although I have some quibbles. In Progressives and moderates: Don’t destroy each other — The enemy is Trump, not Clinton or Obama, Dionne writes,

The Democratic campaign was destined to entail an argument about the party’s direction for the next decade. Is this election about restoration, after the madness of Trump’s time in office? Or should the accent be on transformation, to grapple with the underlying problems that led to Trump’s election in the first place? …

… Like so many of the binaries in politics, the restoration/transformation optic captures something important but is also a false choice. The country can’t simply pick up where it left off before Trump took office. The radicalized conservatism that dominates the Republican Party will not go away even if he is defeated. The inequalities of class and race that helped fueled Trump’s rise have deepened during his presidency. You might say restoring the norms that Trump threatens requires transformation. And the majority that opposes Trump is clearly seeking a combination of restoration and transformation. They want to bring back things they believe have been lost as a prelude to moving forward. What they want most to restore is progress.

I think this is true. While many people who aren’t politics nerds may be skeptical of Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, they do know they want change. People are frustrated out of their minds, and have been for many years, with government that takes their taxes but doesn’t ever seem to do anything for them. And I think that’s true across the political spectrum. Where we differ is how we understand the source of the problem. Leftists tend to blame massive corruption and the influence of big money. Those on the Right appear to have more amorphous fears of foreigners, racial minorities, and multiculturalism.

Progressives and moderates need to realize that at this moment in history, they share a commitment to what public life can achieve and the hope that government can be decent again. They reject overt appeals to racism that have been Trump’s calling card and an approach to politics based on dividing the nation. Together, they long for a politics focused on freedom, fairness and the future.

Let’s assume for now this is true.

What should bring moderates and progressives together is an idea put forward long ago by the late social thinker Michael Harrington: “visionary gradualism.” The phrase captures an insight from each side of their debate: Progressives are right that reforms unhinged from larger purposes are typically ephemeral. But a vision disconnected from first steps and early successes can shrivel up and die. Vision and incremental change are not opposites.

I have developed an allergy to the word “incremental.” In theory, it sounds reasonable. In practice, it means not challenging the status quo at all but settling for minor tweaks to policies that need serious overhaul. At this point whenever some candidate extols the virtues of “pragmatism” and “incremental change,” I hear, but don’t expect me to do shit. Perhaps lip service is paid to what a glorious thing we might do “some day,” but some day never arrives.

And one reason some day never arrives is that the Democratic incrementalists are so lacking in vision they aren’t leading anyone anywhere. They win an election and maybe undo some of the damage the Right has done, and they call that a success. And then in the next election cycle the frustrated public votes for the Right again.

This is the pattern we’ve been dealing with for a long time. If Republicans screw up enough Democrats may win the White House and even hold a majority in Congress for a brief time, and then in the next election the Right will take Congress back because voters are still frustrated with the status quo and Democrats don’t seem to be addressing those frustrations. And every Republican administration that has taken the White House back from the Democrats has been more extreme and more corrupt than the last one. This is the pattern that’s got to stop. But it won’t stop as long as the “restorationists” and “incrementalists” are in complete charge of the Democratic party and refusing to listen to those who want change to start happening now, not some day.

What about the progressives, or “transformationists” as Dionne calls them? Although my sympathies are with them, many have naive ideas about how, and how quickly, transformation can happen even if Their Favorite Presidential Candidate is elected president. Presidents have no Constitutional power to write and pass laws that make transformational change, in spite of what Donald Trump thinks. The next Democratic president may push Congress in a more progressive direction, or not, but ultimately what we’ll get is what Congress passes, not necessarily what the President promised as a candidate. I agree with what Paul Walman wrote here:

Whether you think a social democratic revolution of the kind Sanders promotes is good or bad, the realities of Congress will make it impossible to bring about. In fact, if Sanders is elected, the major policy contours of his presidency will be nearly identical to those of almost any other Democrat.

That’s true to a great degree of Warren as well (though she has done more thinking about how to use regulatory power to achieve progressive ends). And to be clear, I’m not saying the individual in the Oval Office doesn’t matter. There will be differences in what they prioritize, whom they put into key executive branch positions, and how they react to crises.

But on the big picture, any Democratic president will do most of the same things.

Consider health care. Sanders wants immediate passage of what would be the most generous single-payer system in the world. So what will happen when he puts out that plan?

The answer is: basically nothing. Sanders believes he can pass Medicare-for-all through reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes instead of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. But even if Democrats take the Senate, the absolute best-case scenario would get them 52 seats. And not only aren’t there 50 Senate votes for Medicare-for-all, there probably aren’t even 40 votes. Maybe not even 30.

So what does a President Sanders do then? If history is a guide, he’ll compromise. For all we think about Sanders as a purist ideologue, in the Senate he has been happy to support things he considered half-measures, such as the Affordable Care Act, when it mattered. He has always had a pragmatic side. So after Medicare-for-all failed, he’d probably say, “Okay, let’s start with a public option.”

In fact, at that point he’d probably take the position Warren has during the campaign: Do a public option first, and if it works well, in a few years the public and Congress will be more open to Medicare-for-all. And every other Democratic candidate, including “moderates” such as Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, has also committed to pushing a public option. We don’t know whether that can pass either, but any one of the Democrats would wind up in the same place.

I know this isn’t what many Sanders supporters want to hear, but what Waldman describes is far more likely than any scenario in which Medicare for All becomes the law of the land in 2021. And this is why all the trashing of Liz Warren’s “gradual” plan and screaming that she “sold out” on Medicare for All is seriously stupid.

As Will Short wrote recently, candidates’ policy plans need to be taken seriously but not literally. “Whatever is typed in a report in 2019-20 won’t be what emerges from the sausage grinder of Capitol Hill,” he wrote. What’s important is that our leaders have a clear vision of the transformation change that is needed and will keep pushing to get us there.  Some of our more moderate, “incrementalist” candidates fall short in that regard, I fear, although of course they’d still be a huge improvement on Trump.

However, if we achieve victory in November, and take back the White House and both houses of Congress, if the tweakers remain in charge be prepared to lose Congress again in the 2022 midterms. (I don’t even want to think about what will happen if Republicans keep control of the Senate, frankly.)

A transformationist president could use the bully pulpit of the presidency to sell people on the benefits of transformational change. In that case, some day might arrive before the end of this decade instead of never.

That may be frustrating to the young folks, but most of you young folks will still be here at the end of this decade. Will change be happening then, or will you still be butting your head against the same wall? This really is up to you. If Millennials voted at the same rate as us geezers, the U.S. would be reborn.

Dionne goes on to consider the difference between “shrewd pragmatists” and “unprincipled sellouts.” Often that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Barack Obama, for example, got some things right but failed in other ways. His administration was successful in many ways, but some of what he failed to do helped set us up for Trumpism. This is something the incrementalists, and the current Democratic Party establishment, need to acknowledge instead of treating the Obama Administration as some kind of golden age.

Dionne’s column ends with his account of a  meeting with the Third Way organization, which emerged from the neoliberal New Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s. Third Way has been a stone around the neck of the Democratic Party for at least two decades now, and frankly I want to round them all up and deport them. These are people who want to enshrine the status quo in marble, in the name of “bipartisanship.” But surprisingly, even the executive vice president of Third Way, Matt Bennett, admitted to Dionne that the New Democrats had been wrong about some things.

“We need to be working to tame capitalism at this moment, because it is not functioning well,” Bennett told me. “We need to do in this century what the progressives and New Dealers did in the last century.”

Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious. But for a Third Way guy to admit that maybe capitalism needs taming is evidence that the messaging of Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren is breaking through their thick heads. And that’s something.

What I’m asking for here is for all of us to be both more visionary and more pragmatic.

The “centrists” need to understand that their lack of vision and tone deafness to voter frustration has a lot to do with their failures to win certain demographic groups (see: Hillary Clinton, 2016). To beat Trump a centrist candidate will need the votes of progressives, so bashing them throughout the primaries will hurt you in the general. If a centrist Democratic candidate wins the White House, that person needs to bring progressives into the cabinet and take their views seriously, or else Dems will continue to play defense and the next Republican president really will be Mussolini and not just a moronic wannabe.

And I’d say a lot of the progressives need to be more pragmatic, or at least realistic, and understand that there really aren’t enough progressive voters now to make all of our policy ideas popular and viable (although a big millennial voter turnout would help). To beat Trump and win the presidency, a progressive nominee will need the support of establishment Dems and the votes of skeptical centrists. So treating people who don’t see eye to eye with you in every detail as the “lesser of two evils” is not smart. Temper your rhetoric.

Political activists do tend to be passionate and opinonated, but as we get into the primaries please try to conduct yourselves in ways that don’t utterly alienate people whose votes and support Your Candidate, if nominated, will need in November. (And I’m looking right now at all you centrists who keep posting “Stop Bernie because he’ll lose” crap. That could backfire very badly. And the next time I see a Sanders supporter call for  Liz Warren to drop out “because she can’t win,” that person will be blocked. I’m serious.)

Trust the process, and may the best candidate win.

9 thoughts on “Can We Bridge the Dem Progressive/Moderate Divide? Please?

  1. Yes! This. We need some big changes, and they will have to be made in ways they can be made.  Winning the Senate is as important as winning the presidency, IMO.


  2. You're a person truly gifted in expression through the written word, but I think you missed a word that expresses the idea behind this post. The word is 'trend' which can be a noun or verb but describes the direction we're going. My opposition to Trump isn't personal but I despise the trends he's started. Hostility toward minorities and public policy overtly hostile to people according to religion, complexion, gender and sexual orientation. It's a huge step backward socially. The counterpoint to that melody is the way Trump identifies with tyrants and treated with contempt the leaders and institutions of the democratic world.  So there's a trend you can track.

    Compare that with the previous administration which didn't deliver on a lot of progressive fronts but it did get AHC without a public option. It did include standards for the minimum a plan has to be in what must be included and ended pre-existing conditions. We moved from don't-as-don't-tell to an inclusive military and same-sex marriage. Obama was a global leader, respected abroad with huge influence in global consensus. Paris Climate Agreement, for one thing. 

    And I agree with Maha's aversion to the word 'incremental' particularly as a synonym for preventing progress. That kind of obstructionist can be tarred and feathered figuratively or literally. I can respect someone who opposes my views but I have nothing but disdain for someone who pretends to agree while plotting to sabotage progress. 

    Which brings me to vision and expectations. I love young people with a clear vision of what they want the world to become. They can realize that vision but it won't happen overnight. It won't happen without pain and it won't be free. To have some things in the short term, other things will be delayed. (Climate change may take centuries to stabilize, with the best policies in place.) Parts of the vision you won't ever experience personally but future generations will. That's NOT the same as  'incremental progress' mouthed by quislings who mean never.

    And it's an unfortunate truth that though 'we' as a people can have it all eventually,  most of us who are working our hearts out for the vision won't live long enough to see much more than a distinct change in the trend of humanity before we die. For me, that will be enough.

  3. Democrats are a diverse lot, not so spoiled as to always expect to get everything their way.  We will stand together when the time for bickering is done.  

  4. Warren appeals to me for many of the reasons cataloged here. She is clearly planning on what can pass a senate that has even Wyden saying no to M4A. Add on that she was helping progressive down ticket candidates as early as spring 2019 (and not using “not a super pac” Our Revolution to fail in a wave election – IN-09 is a swing district that was one example of OR failing in 2018 in what should have been a red to blue district)… Warren would give us a progressive that gets things done, and moves the Overton window, possibly to the left as far as it was during the Nixon administration. Which could mean an ahistorical 2022 midterm and more progressive Congress, and 2024 election giving us progressive laws passing in 2025. The demographic changes amplify this possibility.

    Bernie just has too much hand waving on how he will actually govern. And the heart of his campaign is the existing party is irredeemable – which I fear would lead to wholesale purges if he becomes the nominee, with catastrophic consequences down ticket.

  5. Maha, many thanks for this. By rights we ought to be able to wallop hell out of Trump and at least even up the Senate if not narrowly take it… but we won't if we use up our money & energy against each other instead of against the common enemies. Personally I'm on the left side of the Dems, but I'm here to tell you that any conceivable D candidate for any office from Pres on down will get my little dab of dough, vocal support, and early vote (at my age, one should vote early… you never know). 

  6. I would like for someone to explain what "Medicare for all" really means.  I am just a simple country girl so complicated language doesn't appeal to me.  I am on Medicare and I like it.  There is no requirement for people to sign up for medicare once they reach a certain age.  It is basically a personal choice.  Perhaps if I had millions of dollars I could depend on private insurance but I don't.  Also,medicare  is not free.  I have a premium deducted from my SSA check each month.  I can envision not having an age requirement for medicare.  This doesn't mean people have to sign up.  In my mind, it is somewhat like the public option.  It is a fact that as people get older, they have more medical issues so if younger people were paying a premium but not using the services, it would work just like the private insurance companies work.  I am not  an economist so I will leave the calculations to others as to how it would affect taxpayers.  However, there wouldn't be a CEO getting an outrageous salary.  So, that is my thinking.  Tell me where I'm wrong.

    • There are several “Medicare for All” plans, but what most people mean by it is to expand the current Medicare program into a comprehensive single-payer system that covers everyone. Details vary.

  7. "Incrementalism" and "centrism" are dishonest words when used by Democrats. What they really mean is "conservatism" in its traditional form, as defined by Edmund Burke around the time of the French Revolution. The crux of conservatism is measured political change as opposed to violent revolution.

    Republicans abandoned conservatism completely with Reaganism and the "Reagan Revolution". Trump is only an inevitable result. Republicans were first to fully realize the old liberal left / conservative right definitions weren't useful in 20th century politics and turned to a more advanced strategy. It's based in part on the discoveries of political psychology that began in earnest after WWII. The Democrats' "good government" rhetoric was no match. Their knee-jerk opposition to revolution in its new sense was misguided.

    You're right that "[t]hose on the Right appear to have more amorphous fears of foreigners, racial minorities, and multiculturalism." It's not only an appearance, it's what defines them as "right" and what has determined Republican political appeals. Reagan's "welfare queens" and GHW Bush's Willie Horton ad are two examples. They take advantage of two personality characteristics of "right" thinking people; intolerance of differences and the view that life is "zero sum". That is, others' gains can only be made if they themselves lose something.

    The other main component of modern Republicanism is new uses of money as a force multiplier rather than just a concern of economics. Republicans see a modern republic as sustainable only through a plutocracy, and have arguably established one mostly through the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.

    Democrats are finally beginning to develop a new political language in response.  It's still clumsy and often off-putting. However, a future of what Republican anti-democratic, authoritarian, illiberal rule would mean is now clear.



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