It’s Not About Centrism vs. Progressivism

Matt Taibbi makes one unassailable point in his latest piece for Rolling Stone. Whenever the Republicans lose they say that their candidates were insufficiently conservative and whenever the Democrats lose the media say that the party needs to move to the middle. Because the Democratic Party leadership tends to listen to the media while the Republican leadership tends to listen to their own propaganda, the result is an inexorable march of American politics to the right. Beyond that, though, his long essay is a tiresome exercise in setting up a false dichotomy based on the flimsy premise that “Big Ideas” are the answer for everything.

It’s fair to question if the media have any real grasp of what defines “the middle” or what the American people really want. It’s fair to argue that the Democrats have tried to move to the middle in the past and have had uneven results at best. But one thing the party knows about losing campaigns is that the losers needed to get more votes from somewhere. If not from the middle, then from fringes or the apathetic. If not from cities, then from the suburbs. If not from the suburbs, then from the small towns and rural areas. If not from men, then from women. If not from the young, then from the old. If not from Florida, then from Michigan and Wisconsin.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton sought to run up the score in the affluent and well-educated suburbs and she succeeded. The Democrats built on that success in 2017 to make huge gains in Virginia and take back the governor’s mansion in New Jersey. They built on it again in 2018 to win back the House of Representatives. As far as I can tell, though, this hasn’t really been as much a carefully calibrated success based on political messaging as a natural revolt of the educated and civil against whatever you want to call Trumpism.

It appears that Democratic candidates could use almost any message in the 2018 midterms and win provided that the state or district was at least somewhat invested in the idea that reality has a factual basis. On the other hand, if the education level of the state or district fell below a certain point, the Democrat could curse Pelosi as the devil and call their own party a bunch of loons or pitch Medicare-for-All and the abolition of ICE and none of it would make a lick of difference. They were going to lose.

This isn’t the kind of 50-50 split any healthy country should want to see. In 2020, it’s quite possible that a Democratic contender will figure out how to get the 200,000 or so additional votes Clinton needed in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to win the presidency, but that won’t make them some kind of genius, give them some kind of mandate, or reconcile the other half of the country to their term in office. And I don’t think this changes at all based on the formula the candidate uses to succeed.

Maybe they’ll win by dominating by even larger margins in the suburbs, or maybe they’ll get more disaffected people to engage. Maybe they’ll dominate the gender gap, winning women by an insurmountable margin. Maybe they excite the base to a greater degree than their opponents. If it results in some tiny victory then nothing much is going to get done and very little is going to change.

Winning is enormously better than losing, and you can look to the makeup of the federal courts if you need any proof of this, but trading turns stuffing the judicial branch with partisans isn’t going to lead us out of this mess. The only solution in sight will require the kind of thumping Nixon gave McGovern or Reagan gave Mondale. If the public cannot be convinced to repudiate Trumpism with at least the same conviction that they rejected Herbert Hoover, then everyone in this country, and not just the Democratic Party, will have failed, and failed miserably.

Try as I might, I can’t envision “The Big Idea” that would really help make this happen. (But our editor-in-chief Paul Glastris outlined a few this summer.)

Here’s what I know.

For the party of the left to win a landslide presidential election, they will need to present something that at least gives permission to a lot of people to support them who have powerful reasons and a long history of withholding support.  Hillary Clinton couldn’t do that. It’s possible someone else can.

The best argument against Trumpism is the man and the results. In no way can this be described as “A Big Idea.”  It’s more of a basic idea.  The best coalition against Trump is the biggest coalition against Trump, and that means a movement that is ideologically flexible and culturally welcoming.

That doesn’t really have anything to do with progressivism versus centrism, but it does mean arguing over, e.g., single-payer versus the public option is a diversion from the mission.  People disagree about that stuff, but they can find consensus on their desire for a return to normalcy and a government based on some semblance of competency and sanity.

People care about issues and they’re going to fight for them. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but over the next two years anyone fighting over the best plan for raising the minimum wage or paying for free college is engaged in a battle that has nothing whatsoever to do with building the biggest possible movement against Trump.

If this country has anything left worth saving, the Democrats will run Trump out of office on a rail long before Election Day in 2020. Maybe they’ll be fighting the smoking husk of a Pence administration by then. Either way, the Democratic Party should have the opportunity to bring together a much bigger coalition than anything seen since FDR was in office. But they will need someone who is seen as acceptable by a large number of people who do not consider themselves on the left in any ordinary sense.

One thing the success of Trump’s campaign has shown us is that ideology is overrated as a political vote-getter, as is the idea that candidates can’t violate taboos. That doesn’t mean that ideas don’t matter, but it does mean that it makes little sense to say that our choice is between progressivism and centrism.  There’s nothing inherently centrist about running an inclusive non-ideological campaign.  There are plenty of non-threatening progressive ideas that the vast majority of citizens can agree with, whether they’re concerned about the climate or gun violence or the health of their local economy.

Taibbi summed up his argument this way:

Something as dangerous as Trumpism isn’t going to be defeated by catch-phrases and political marketing tricks. The best bet is big ideas, and no matter what the talking heads on cable say, moving to the center — again — probably won’t cut it.

I think that’s all wrong. On the cynical front, it’s hard to see how anyone could see the success of Trump as anything but catch-phrases and marketing, so the most obvious answer is to do a better job of it than he does. On a more serious front, the only big idea that matters is that something has gone desperately wrong and it needs to be corrected. People agree on that and not much else. The job is to collect those people from wherever the Democrats can, and a lot of those people are in the center or even to the right-of-center. That doesn’t mean that the Democrats should all become Blue Dogs. The Blue Dogs went nearly extinct for a reason. But it means that the winning approach isn’t going to be to find the candidate who warms the hearts of the most ardent progressives with a language that appeals only to them.

The times call for a unifying leader, and if they understand what’s wrong with Trumpism then they’ll be someone that can be trusted to get the job done. If they get the message right, they can probably be as progressive as they want to be.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.