Fork in the Road For Progressives’ Uphill Climb

As I noted briefly yesterday, TAP is publishing a large number of essays in its November/December print issue (and rolling them out gradually online) based on the idea that progressives need a “forty-year plan” for a political revival similar to the strategy famously laid out for conservatives in 1971 by soon-to-be-Supreme-Court-Justice Lewis Powell. The first essay I’d like to draw attention to is by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, whose 2006 book Off Center remains the best analysis of how the conservative conquest of the GOP has changed the political dynamics of the country in a way that has produced a dangerous asymmetry in power and influence.

In their essay for TAP, Hacker and Pierson emphasize the structural factors–mainly involving money and institutional capacity–that have enabled the Right to create and prosper from ideological and partisan polarization. But then they posit this controversial choice for progressives:

If the strategic and organizational weakness of progressives is ultimately rooted in the breakdown of incentives for compromise around middle-class priorities, progressives have two broad directions in which they can move. They can fight for a more parliamentary politics, emulating the right’s capacity to take and sustain a tough stance while reducing the extent to which our institutions require compromise. This would mean taking a cue from the right to build issue-auditing organizations that increase pressure on Democrats to embrace progressive stands, while pushing back against the supermajority hurdle of the filibuster. Or progressives can argue that they inevitably lose from polarization because of its inherent asymmetry and because a durable progressive politics requires broader consensus. This posture seeks to reduce polarization through measures to empower centrists, such as open primaries and court-overseen redistricting, or through technocratic strategies to remove control from elected officials and place it in the hands of independent experts. Reducing the pull of the hard right might be worth reducing the pull of committed progressives—and sometimes of voters—as well.

The counter-polarization strategy–often called “fighting fire with fire”–is the most popular on the Left, and is obviously the more emotionally satisfying response. But given the imbalance of resources between Left and Right–and for that matter, between voters and the institutions they struggle to control–are measures to reduce polarization and increase political accountability for results a better approach?

It’s obviously an old question for progressives, but has rarely been stated more starkly by writers whose only real dog in the fight is the desire to make progressive politics a successful long-term movement rather than an occasional candidate-centered enterprise or an endless rearguard action against aggressive conservatives. It’s as good a time as any to ponder the choice.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.