How Centrism Killed the Democratic Party

Today’s must read, by Ibram X Kendi at The Atlantic: When Will Moderates Learn Their Lesson? If centrists can’t move past their doctrine and recognize when their candidates are unelectable, then how will Democrats ever beat Trump?

Although I have a couple of small quibbles about this article, IMO it is mostly spot on. Kendi argues that the “centrists” who dominate Democratic politics are incapable of recognizing their own failures and learning from their own mistakes.

Since McGovern, moderate Democrats have a losing record in presidential elections: six losses to the five wins by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama (who ran a more progressive primary campaign than Hillary Clinton in 2008). But this history is lost in discussions of electability. It is as if moderate nominees are undefeated. It is as if the last time a Democrat lost was when the party nominated McGovern in 1972.

Moderate Democrats blame progressive candidates for losses, but they can’t seem to blame moderate candidates for their losses. Moderates can’t seem to reflect on the historical electability of their candidates, as they implore progressives to reflect on the historical electability of their candidates. Moderates recognize how progressive candidates alienate certain voters, but they can’t seem to recognize how moderate candidates alienate certain voters. Moderates implore progressives to give moderate candidates a chance, but they can’t seem to give progressive candidates a chance.

The one part of Kendi’s argument that I thought could use a closer look is Walter Mondale’s epic loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale claimed even fewer electoral college votes than George McGovern in 1972. In centrist mythology, Mondale lost because he also was “too liberal.” But Kendi counts Mondale among the centrists. Who is right?

The one thing everyone remembers about Mondale’s campaign is that he promised to raise taxes, so if you consider “raising taxes” for the sake of raising taxes to be a bedrock liberal policy view, maybe. But it isn’t. Mondale wasn’t calling for a tax increase to pay for new progressive programs. He was, instead, a deficit hawk. Reagan’s tax cuts had blown a hole through revenues and jacked up the federal deficit. Deficit reduction was a centerpiece of Mondale’s campaign. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did,” Mondale famously said in his nomination acceptance speech. (And, indeed, Reagan did raise taxes in his second term, as much as Republicans like to pretend he didn’t.)

Mondale’s was a centrist, even a conservative, position. Although he maintained traditionally liberal positions on civil rights, on many other issues he was part of the movement pushing the Democratic Party to the right at the time. One of Mondale’s advisers in the 1984 campaign was William Galston, whose thinking would be a foundation of the “New Democrats” movement that culiminated in Clintonism. “During the last two decades, most Democratic nominees have come to be seen as unacceptably liberal,” Galston said in 1989. Another was Robert Rubin, a long-time Goldman-Sachs executive who served as President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary. Rubin is mostly known for wanting to deregulate the financuial sector, and he led the charge to repeal the Glass–Steagall Act.

How was Mondale “too liberal”? This gives us a clue:

Mondale and the Democrats … were blamed for prioritizing “special interests” (mainly racial minorities) over working-class white voters. (It’s a narrative that continues to plague Democrats.) In her study, Hershey cites a leading Democratic consultant at the time who said shortly after the election:

We have to realize that we’re getting out of touch with normal, regular people. We’re forgetting that the white middle-class is rejecting us. We’re being wagged by the tail of Jesse Jackson, of feminists or gay activists. The average voter is saying, “What about me?”

That election postmortem was echoed by political scientist Phil Klinkner in his 1994 book on election losses. Quoting a handful of different Democrats heavyweights, Klinkner finds the inability to court working-class white voters to be a constant source of intraparty frustration. “The perception is that we are the party that can’t say no, that caters to special interests and that does not have the interests of the middle class at heart,” said Dick Lodge, Tennessee’s Democratic chair. Harry McPherson, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, complained to Klinkner: “Blacks own the Democratic Party…. White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species.” One unnamed party leader was even more crass: “We ought to be just as concerned with the farmer on the tractor as that guy with an earring in his left ear.”

In other words, if you weren’t a working-class white man, you were a “special interest.” And I can’t say everyone in the Democratic Party is more enlightened today.

So, yes, Mondale was a centrist in most things. As much as I like him, Jimmy Carter’s economic policies were Reaganism lite. Mike Dukakis boldly admitted he was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and proposed a universal health care bill, but he was otherwise pretty centrist. Al Gore promised to continue Bill Clinton’s neoliberal economic policies. John Kerry was thought to be serious on national security, making him “electable.” Don’t get me started on Hillary Clinton.

After Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976, which came about mostly because Gerald Ford flubbed a debate question, the Democrats’ big success stories were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I argue that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was successful because it evoked a resurgence of progressivism — yes we can — even though the details of his policy proposals as spelled out on his web site were not that different from Hillary Clinton’s. Even so, were it not for the 2008 financial crisis, John McCain might have won. And if Mitt Romney hadn’t been such an obvious plutocrat, he might have won in 2012. But all those “special interest” voters (young people, women, nonwhites) came out for Obama because they were terrified of Romney.

But, one more time: during the Obama Administration the Democratic Party lost a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats, along with 12 and 64 seats in the U.S. Senate and House, respectively.

Bill Clinton’s is the centrists’ only unadulterated success story since 1972. Bill is a brilliant politician, and in spite of the investigations and scandals his administration was mostly successful. And it came to pass that the Clintons and people who came up through the ranks with the Clintons came to dominate the Democratic Party and its many sub-organizations, such as the DNC. Among party leaders and elites, the Clinton approach to politics is not to be questioned, even though it has been twenty years since Big Bill left the White House.

I have argued that Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” centrist approach was a good strategy for 1992. “Movement conservatism” was still growing. Reaganites still dominated the national political conversation. I doubt a genuine progressive could have beaten Reagan’s former vice president, George H.W. Bush, in 1992. But it ain’t 1992 any more.

Now, finally, back to Ibram Kendi.

Moderate Democrats have been consistently inconsistent for decades. They have been rightfully critical of the prospect of a progressive presidential nominee: A progressive could alienate centrist voters, drive up voting rates among conservatives, and imperil the reelection chances of House Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016. Moderate Democrats have wrongfully refused to be self-critical of the prospect of a moderate presidential nominee: A moderate could alienate progressive voters into not voting or voting third party, drive down the voting rates of the party’s younger and nonwhite base, and fail to win back young or liberal white working-class swing voters who swung from Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. To be a progressive in a party with a moderate is like being on a team with someone who sees all your deficiencies and does not see any of his own deficiencies, who always takes the credit when he wins, and never accepts blame when he loses.

The critic’s refusal to self-critique is the tragic enigma of the moderate Democrat: It could cost the Democratic Party the most consequential presidential election in recent memory. Moderate Democrats have lost presidential elections again and again, even as the doctrine of the electable moderate wins Democratic primaries again and again.

I not only fear a moderate Democrat losing to Trump in November; I fear moderate Democrats refusing to accept blame for the loss.

Clinton loyalists are still clinging to her popular vote win as vindication and blaming everybody but Clinton for her loss.

My fears are rooted in what the doctrine of the electable moderate conveniently misses: the crucial importance of the other swing voter in swinging elections in the 21st century. The traditional, white swing voter oscillates between voting Republican and Democrat—the be-all and end-all for moderate Democrats. Some Americans never vote. But I worry about the other swing voter, the one who swings between voting Democrat and not voting (or voting third party).

Despite all the talk of the 6 million Obama-to-Trump voters winning the election for Trump, more Obama voters in 2012 swung to not voting (4.4 million) or voting third party (2.3 million) in 2016. These other swing voters were more likely to be younger and people of color—and especially young black people. Today, they are likely to favor progressive candidates. They are likely to be turned off by moderate candidates, turned off by the records of Biden, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on issues of race and gender.

If Democrats nominate a moderate who loses a decisive mass of young black voters in November, then I suspect most moderates will not blame the party’s choice for Trump’s reelection. I suspect they will blame those other swing voters who swung to not voting.

In the centrist Dem hive mind, someone who votes third party is giving away a vote that rightfully belonged to Centrist Democratic Candidate. Disloyalty! And choosing not to vote because neither candidate is acceptable somehow doesn’t count.

But yes, it’s absolutely maddening that we’re still being lectured about how the too-far-left candidate can’t win, when one hasn’t been tried for, well, nearly 50 years now. I think a majority of American voters have been hungry for a genuinely progressive, activist government for a long time. I think they were hungry for one in 2008. They were still hungry in 2016, and when Hillary Clinton promised to be the Keeper of the Status Quo, some people turned to the guy who was making big promises of big change — Donald Trump.

And having lost to Trump in 2016, the Clintons and their allies and surrogates are all over media warning us to nominate another moderate. Michael Gerson — former speechwriter of George Dubya Bush — is at WaPo shrieking that A Trump-Sanders election would destroy our politics. The neoliberal Jonathan Chait warns that If Democrats Aren’t Terrified of Bernie, They’re Not Paying Attention. Also at WaPo, Max Boot — who thought invading Iraq was a grand idea, remember — warns us Vote for Bernie, elect Trump. I’m sick of it.

I’d be the first to say that of the original 800 or so candidates for the 2020 nomination, I wouldn’t have guessed Sanders would be a front runner. And of those people, I wouldn’t consider him the safest choice, although the remaining crew is looking a bit frayed. Right now it’s still possible someone else will catch fire and walk off with more primary votes than Sanders. But the crew at FiveThirtyEight is predicting Sanders will walk off with many more Super Tuesday wins than anyone else. So what if he’s the nominee, and the Dem elites and media figures have been screaming doom and failure? Wouldn’t they have been doing to the nominee what they (falsely, I say) claim Sanders did to Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Eugene Robinson:

Deal with it: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is not even a Democrat, is leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it looks possible that none of his rivals will be able to catch him. If you want to get rid of President Trump, prepare to get behind Sanders and do everything you can to make him president.

Well, yes. It’s perfectly okay to argue in favor of another candidate at this point. Please do. But predicting that a Sanders nomination would destroy civilization will make it really hard for the predictors to pivot and support him if he’s the nominee. And that’s a strong possibility right now.