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My friend Samuel Kimbriel and I have been curating a series of pieces and conversations on democracy at Wisdom of Crowds, a blog by The Atlantic’s Shadi Hamid and The American Interest’s Damir Marusic. Not long ago, I had a conversation with Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic about the state of “American democracy” and the nature of the threats to it that they’ve run in two parts. Reductively, it’s a chicken or egg debate about whether the design of our institutions or the prevalence of anti-democratic attitudes is primarily responsible for the fix we’re in.
Personally, I tend to think our institutions have played a major role in reinforcing anti-democratic attitudes on the right, as I explained in my last piece as a staff writer for The New Republic, “The End of American Politics.” I haven’t been encouraged by political events since it ran, but I do think the structural turn I describe there has been a net positive. You can hear more of my thinking on the piece in this very groggy interview I did with NPR’s Here and Now.
We’ve entered another round of debates over the Democratic Party’s woes and how they might overcome them. In a recent blog post, Kevin Drum argued that progressives and leftists are to blame for much, if not most, of the polarization many pundits have attributed to extremism on the right over the past decade. Read it if you’d like; you already know the takeaway. “It is well within our power to break our two-decade 50-50 deadlock and become routine winners in national politics,” Drum writes. “All it takes is a moderation of our positions from ‘pretty far left’ to ‘pretty liberal.’ That's all.” Purely for the sake of fresher argument, let’s assume that Drum is fully correct — that whatever one believes about moderate liberal policymaking in substance, it really would be politically wise for Democrats to hew closer to the center in their cultural rhetoric and culturally relevant policies.
The good news for Drum and those who agree with him is that this is precisely what the Democratic Party is doing. That ship has fully sailed; the left’s bid for control of the party has failed. As bereft as the center might be of novel, agenda-shaping domestic policy ideas, the party’s moderates have won the fight for political power and won it decisively. Joe Biden is president. The two pivotal figures in the Democratic congressional majority are a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and an Arizonan who left the left and made herself a more viable candidate for her state’s moderate electorate. Every major policy push the party has made in Congress has been initiated with bipartisan overtures; we seem to be on the cusp of passing a long-sought bipartisan infrastructure deal. The Biden administration has increased, not decreased funding for our police departments. It has balanced liberal changes to immigration policy with messaging aimed at dissuading the undocumented from coming to America, a reluctance to fully address migrant detentions, and an extended deployment for the troops Donald Trump sent to the border ahead of the midterm elections in 2018. And as liberals and progressives continue to debate how negatively to regard our history and national identity, Democratic leaders have stuck to an inclusive and optimistic patriotism — messaging, in the words of Matt Yglesias, “better for winning elections, obtaining political power, and wielding that power to improve people's lives.”
It’s true that prominent progressive politicians and activists are off message. But all are members of a politically defeated minority faction that will not be scolded or posted fully out of existence; self-styled political realists have no business pretending all the parts of a large, hyperdiverse, and inherently unwieldy political coalition might someday march in lockstep under the same banner. The simple truth is that most of the things moderate liberals tend to argue Democrats should be doing and saying are, in fact, being done and said by the Biden administration, Democratic leaders in Congress, and the vast majority of Democratic elected officials. This is about as good as party unity is going to get — it can no longer really be said that the Dems are in disarray. And with an aviator-donning Biden in the driver’s seat, Democratic moderates have ample reason to sit back, relax, and look forward to a good midterm election and many more Democratic victories to come on the road ahead. Instead, they’re getting sweatier by the day. Why?
The most important thing to note about Drum’s contention that Democrats should ditch progressive rhetoric and connect with voters in “the vast middle part of the country” is that the Democratic Party has done little else for at least the last forty years. The real and imagined deviations from that approach are very recent developments; Drum’s recommendation has long been the party’s default strategy. And it’s been the default strategy partially because it genuinely did work, politically speaking, for a long time. Democrats controlled half of the Reagan & H.W. Bush congresses, were competitive with the white working class in the Clinton years, and kicked off the outro to the W. Bush years with a House victory in 2006 won by Rahm Emanuel’s moderate recruits. Not long afterwards, Barack Obama spent a critical stretch of his first year in office presiding over a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority that included moderate to conservative Democrats like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. Arkansas’ Senate delegation was fully Democratic.
It should be said too that this was a strategy tested by an earlier round of today’s culture wars. All those trembling over the impact a mild-mannered white diversity trainer from Seattle might be having on party activists should consider that Democrats managed to stay competitive back when the successors to the leadership of the civil rights movement and members of the Democratic coalition in good standing were willing to join Louis Farrakhan, the head of an anti-Semitic religious sect known for the belief that white people were the intrinsically evil creations of the mad scientist Yakub, for a march that brought nearly a million demonstrators to Washington. That period also saw high profile riots, a crime wave we now use as a yardstick for social dysfunction, and the arrival of “political correctness” as an all-purpose buzzword — all eagerly amplified by the media to an electorate that, by all available measures, was far more racist and culturally conservative than the electorate we have today. This is the era moderates remember as the good old days — an era when Democrats might take their licks and the occasional drubbing from the right, but were never very far from power and the voters who confer it.
How did they do it? Part of the answer, of course, was a set of popular policies backed and partially co-authored by the current president, that horrified the left and are widely criticized even by Democratic moderates today. Those moderates do often hint that certain culturally-relevant policy pushes might bolster the party’s fortunes this time around too, but they’re invariably vague on this point beyond suggesting that Democrats should take the approaches on immigration and policing that they are, again, already taking. Drum’s own piece doesn’t offer a single policy recommendation for Democrats in Washington; he shares with his peers a sense that the party’s primary problem is political messaging. But the messaging from most Democrats has also been spot on by their standards — enough so that liberal pundits needn’t waste their idle moments monitoring tweets from the Sunrise Movement.
So what, if anything, should they be worried about? Well, for starters, Republicans may well ride redistricting alone to control of the House in 2022 and they’ve taken a keen interest in undermining the integrity of elections beyond. Democrats haven’t done anything about this — it turns out, funnily enough, that the moderates Democratic majorities are built upon are also the primary legislative obstacles for those majorities to overcome. Not ideal, but them’s the breaks. Really, the logjam on federal reforms isn’t so bad from a “do popular things” perspective. The suite of proposals that might save the party — killing the filibuster, adding new states, packing the courts — actually isn’t especially popular with the electorate at large and even many Democrats. Here again, savvy moderates with their finger on the pulse of the average American have gotten their way.
I haven’t been a moderate Democrat for some time, but I can think of a few other things that would weigh upon me if I were. It would concern me, for instance, that Democratic underperformance in 2020, which moderates have generally blamed on an ascendant left, was preceded by significant Democratic defeats in 2016, 2014, and 2010. It would concern me that the Democratic defeat in that last election, which robbed the last Democratic president of his governing majority, preceded “defund the police,” the Squad, “abolish ICE,” the Sanders campaigns, Ferguson, and even Occupy Wall Street. It would concern me that this election represented a major backlash not to an ascendant left, but the passage of a healthcare bill crafted by party moderates and the election of one of the most eloquent evangelists for America’s national ideals since Abraham Lincoln. It would concern me that his criticisms of contemporary identity politics and attempts to ease racial tensions didn't prevent him from becoming one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. It would concern me that his deportation of 5 million undocumented immigrants and investments in “border security” didn't prevent the Republican Party from running on nativism and boosting the salience of immigration policy in subsequent elections. It would concern me that his populist rhetoric and well-justified efforts to characterize Mitt Romney as an out of touch corporate raider in 2012 didn't actually prevent Romney from improving upon John McCain’s numbers with white working class voters. It would concern me that every Democratic presidential campaign between 2000 and 2016, save Obama’s mid-financial crisis victory in 2008, performed worse among white working class voters than the last. And it would concern me that the Democratic Party left the Obama years with 11 fewer Senate seats, 62 fewer House seats, 12 fewer governorships, and nearly 1,000 fewer state legislative seats across the country. It would concern me, in short, that the “vast middle” approach Drum and others are advocating had already shown signs by the end of the last Democratic administration that it would no longer work as reliably as it once did — that the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects have been in decline for reasons unattributable to progressive figures and ideas that arrived on the political scene practically yesterday.
This is where one might expect me to say that there’s an obvious alternative here and that the left has offered a viable electoral strategy that might succeed in the near-term. But it hasn’t. The moderates’ record of major victories and major defeats with constituencies like the white working class defies monocausal and simple ideological explanations, and hopes that a mass constituency for the left might be activated by the material benefits of the left agenda alone simply haven’t been borne out outside of certain heavily Democratic areas. The truth is that neither camp has a particularly credible or fully-developed vision for the Democratic Party’s electoral future. That doesn’t make it any less clear where our loyalties should ultimately lie. The left might not be right on how to win federal elections, but the left is plainly right about the scale of the problems the country faces and the scale of the solutions necessary to address them. If we expand our field of vision beyond the last four highly unusual years in our politics to the last ten, it doesn’t seem like the moderates have been right about anything. But who knows? Maybe victory in 2022 and beyond won’t take much more than sidelining the left after all. If that’s the case, moderates should be resting easy. The party's reins are in their ever capable hands. Godspeed.
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Reasons To Be Cheerful
Lastly, I intend to end every post with at least one reason to be cheerful. Today’s was a no-brainer: Zaila Avant-garde.