For Democrats, It's the Worst of Both Worlds
Let me lay out two worldviews that are fervently believed by large groups of people who share the same party. Here’s worldview A:
Left-wing Democrats have pushed the party to the edge of an electoral cliff. They have hijacked the party’s debates and make extravagant policy demands, demands that cut against the preferences of huge swaths of the electorate. They refuse to compromise or meet the voters where they are. They engage in purity politics and seem to have no interest in the kind of horse-trading that is required to get what you want in Washington. Their inflammatory rhetoric and extremist ideas hamper the efforts of candidates in red and purple states, and slogans like “defund the police” are an albatross hanging around the neck of the party that will surely bring doom in November.
And here’s worldview B:
Centrist Democrats have a stranglehold on the party. They’re stodgy, uncompromising, and risk-averse. The party bends over backward to suit their needs, and yet they still constantly complain about a leftist takeover. Voters demand a bold agenda, but centrists are so afraid of risk and change that the Democrats effectively stand for nothing. The left brings a tremendous amount of energy and attention to the party and dominates among the youth, yet the party never delivers policy progress in return. By ignoring the left and the passionate young people within it in favor of obstructionist centrists, the Democrats have become a directionless, unprincipled party that can’t express to the American people what they stand for.
As you might have guessed, the gimmick here is that I think both perspectives are more or less correct. Centrists have immense power within the actual party apparatus and effectively dictate the agenda, leaving the left wing of the party shut out of meaningful decisions; the more liberal part of the party has few representatives in office and even less ability to direct the policy platform, but dominate the discursive spaces of politics through their control of much of the media and, increasingly, the nonprofit and donor sectors. The centrists feel insulted by the constant barrage of attacks they absorb from the party’s left wing in national media and ignored by the donor class. The leftists feel marginalized by the party’s habitual deference to moderates and refusal to pursue a left agenda with the same maniacal zeal the Republicans pursue a right agenda.
I really want to underline this point: it’s something like a worst-case scenario when your bomb-throwing radicals rule in discursive political spaces but are shut out of actual power - the perception of the party will always be unduly influenced by that domination of discourse, while actual policy never progresses. If you’re going to have your far left element play such a role in the public face of your party, you want to at least try to implement their radical agenda; if you’re going to have the party be dominated by your ass-checking, risk-averse moderates, you’d want them to ruthlessly control the party’s image for maximum electoral gain in a polarized country. But we get the worst parts of both, a party where the leftists are constantly publishing in The New York Times while the centrists get to make all the backroom deals, where social media is filled with people screaming about decolonizing the public library but where Kirsten Sinema is by default one of the most powerful people in the party. The internet amplifies the volume of radicals of every stripe, which helps make a centrist party seem like UNEF in ‘68 to the generally-uninformed voters that determine the future.
To be clear: I want the Democrats to take their swings and pursue a far more left-leaning agenda than they do now. I’m not a big fan of the concept of thermostatic public opinion - I think that’s a description that too many politicos talk about as an explanation - but I do think politics is cyclical in key ways, and it’s not at all clear to me that the electoral destruction the Democrats probably face this fall would be any worse if the party had spent the past year and a half pushing for a real left agenda. If you’re sure to lose and gain power in fairly predictable sequences, you might as well push as hard as you can when you’re in power. (It seems to work for the Republicans, often enough.) And I do think it’s indisputable that centrist Dems lack any coherent vision for the country. I think Clintonism was a black mark on the party and on the country, but I at least recognize some internal coherence to its tough-on-crime, small-government vision. What does Joe Manchin ultimately stand for? He’s our unelected dictator, and yet I can find no principle that really underlies his momentous decisions beyond whim and arbitrary dollar figures he pulls wholly from his ass.
It’s also true, though, that the left of the party has created a mental universe in which the very idea of limits and the need to moderate have been waved away. I come from a tradition with radical demands but which also recognizes that we can’t actually get most of those demands yet, that we need to do a lot of organizing and persuading to get there. But so many leftist Democrats now insist that
Their agenda is already popular with Americans
You only need to juice turnout, not to change minds, evidence be damned
If the Democrats only embrace a left-wing agenda, they’ll sweep to power
None of this is persuasive to me, but it’s become holy writ on social media. And here’s an example of where the left being shut out of power becomes a vicious circle. Centrists are correct that left Democrats are often deeply averse to compromise and bargaining, but this is in part because they’ve never had the power with which to make a compromise. What would they bargain with? Shut out of power for so long, leftist Democrats have no practice with having the juice to force a compromise and are so convinced of the fundamental corruption and fecklessness of the overall party that they recoil at the idea of making one. Meanwhile, I’m constantly told that message discipline - not abandoning any of your principles, but highlighting the ones that are most popular - is not only undesirable but actively impossible.
For example. I’m a “let them all in” guy when it comes to immigration. Those are my values, and I do think that someday we’ll have a vastly more open and humane immigration system. But someday is not today. Liberal views on immigration are deeply unpopular in this country right now. If Democrats run hard on mass immigration increases, they will lose more elections and the Republicans will be empowered to make the immigration situation even worse. I don’t have any sort of simplistic schema for when you have to compromise and when you have to fight; it’s complicated. But so many further-left Democrats I encounter presume that there’s never any time when compromise is necessary and who view strategic calls for moderation as inherently bad faith, as the province of the wicked. It’s a terribly unhelpful way to do electoral politics in our stupid system.
Why the Republicans don’t appear to pay more of a price for the utter insanity of the messages in their media is a question for another time. Certainly the massive unfair advantages they enjoy thanks to the Senate and electoral college play a part. But those advantages exist. There’s no alternative to Democrats playing the game, other than political destruction. For now, we have a centrist party that appears to too many voters to scream radical slogans, and the near future seems bleak.