The Mistake Democrats Risk Making

Progressives and moderates, argues E. J. Dionne, need to settle their differences and focus on Trump.

As the interminable Democratic primary process heads into the phase of actual voting, serious questions remain about the Democratic Party’s ability to defeat Donald Trump. Through more than twelve hours of televised debates, hundreds of campaign events, and nonstop social media and cable chatter, we still don’t know if the party plans to end private health insurance, decriminalize border crossings, embrace reparations for the descendants of slaves, raise taxes on the middle class, and upend America’s energy production and consumption systems. Since none of these issues are remotely popular with the wider electorate, you would think they would clearly be off the table. Yet, here we are. 

Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country by E. J. Dionne Jr. St. Martin’s Press, 272 pp.

The reelection of Donald Trump in 2020 will solidify the erosion of American democracy. It will further escalate inequalities and social divisions and undermine valuable governmental functions. And since the Republican Party has willingly surrendered itself to the corruption and enmity of the Trump regime, it is up to Democrats to save the country. This requires the party getting its act together—and fast—to build a majority. 

So why are Democrats squandering their advantages and purposefully marginalizing themselves? Many of these off-key positions arise from a presidential nominating process that is far too long and focused on rewarding candidates who stake out positions that appeal to hard-core activists rather than the electorate at large. 

But as the veteran progressive thinker and journalist E. J. Dionne Jr. argues in his highly engaging, intellectually sound, and morally grounded new book, Code Red, this year’s primaries reflect serious intellectual and coalitional differences. The Democratic Party contains an increasingly restless left, which wants the party to be far more aggressive in attacking economic and racial inequality, and believes that the last two Democratic presidents did far too little to combat either. The left is locked in a battle with a broad group of moderates who believe that measured steps are the best, and likely the only, way to bring about progressive change given the realities of the American political system.

Code Red argues that these two camps must come together if the country is to defeat Trump. Dionne implores Democrats to recognize their divisions, debate them honestly, be more flexible, and ultimately forge some strategic consensus around a progressive but not extreme vision. From there, they can begin the long and difficult process of tackling America’s biggest challenges on inequality, racial divisions, climate change, security, and engagement with the rest of the world.

Dionne’s book traces the history of liberal, progressive, and socialist ideological and policy differences over the past century. He argues that the center-left and left must recognize their reciprocal roles in advancing far-reaching social reforms across eras. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts exemplify Dionne’s push-and-pull model for social change. FDR is rightly remembered today as a progressive champion, but, while in office, he had centrist instincts that made him reluctant to move forward with large, leftist legislation. Radical labor activism and progressive action in the states on a range of workers’ rights and economic security drove FDR’s government to embrace important liberal social and economic policies. That included the right to collective bargaining, federal workplace regulations, a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek, and the monumental Social Security legislation. But his pragmatism helped him negotiate and pass bills through a Democratic Congress that was full of conservative southerners. 

Given the collapse of the Reagan-Thatcher economic model, Dionne argues, the time is ripe for both moderates and progressives to again work cohesively to reverse decades of deregulation, supply-side tax cuts, underinvestment, and rising inequality. He argues that each side will complement the other well. Progressives need moderates for their values of balance, pluralism, and aversion to extremism—“virtues that any successful democracy requires.” In turn, moderates need progressives for their energy, activism, and willingness to challenge entrenched power, the privileges of the wealthy, and the assumptions of conservative economics. To overcome Trump and his reactionary nationalism, the two sides need to reconcile their differences, reason together, and “get the country moving again by demonstrating anew our nation’s capacity of self-correction, social reconstruction, and democratic self-government.”

When it comes to explaining what this reconciliation would look like in terms of policy, Dionne is intentionally squishy. He embraces the political theorist Michael Harrington’s “visionary gradualism” as a good approach to resolving disputes, arguing that both sides should try to pursue a left wing of the possible. On the issue of health care, for example, Dionne says that while universal coverage must be the end aim, the left needs to recognize that a robust public option, which is clearly more popular with voters than a single-payer model, is not some sellout of the cause and goes far beyond the Affordable Care Act. But Dionne also argues that debt-free college and the “Green New Deal” are necessary goals to drive state and federal actions that will lower education costs and grapple with climate change.

Dionne’s goals-not-policies approach won’t please everyone, but he does put forth a compelling and historically valid model for progressive action. For example, the coupling of expansive progressive visions with pragmatic legislation and shrewd politics was the model for Social Security, which initially limited who could benefit but grew over time to include more people in more lines of work and developed into one of American liberalism’s crowning achievements. The same is potentially possible on health care, education, and climate change today. 

This kind of cooperation is attainable. As Dionne rightly argues, the 2018 midterms marked an important moment of Democratic sanity and impulse control that shows a path forward. “The 2018 alliance of progressives and moderates, of white and minority voters, of Americans ardently opposed to Trump and those primarily interested in protecting health care and reforming politics, is a model for the alliance that must come together in 2020 and beyond,” he writes. The alliance, after all, worked. The Democrats retook the House of Representatives by flipping 43 districts across the country. 

We find little to object to in Dionne’s advocacy of a new synthesis within the Democratic Party. Indeed, in the current conjuncture, it really amounts to common sense and important practical advice. 

But the midterm example also highlights potential limitations to the model of progressive-moderate dialogue put forth in Code Red. In 2018, it was enough for the party to be against Trump. But as Democrats select a presidential candidate, they need more than common sense, more than just a plea for all sides to learn from what works and discard what doesn’t. They need a unifying vision. Is there a thread that can and should unite the factions of the Democratic Party beyond the overriding desire to beat Trump?

We believe there is: a New Frontier for contemporary times, an optimistic vision of the future focused on making the U.S. again the world’s most innovative and advanced country with broadly shared economic growth. All wings of the Democratic Party already embrace elements of this plan. Both moderates and liberals believe that we should have a dramatic jump in public investment in infrastructure. The whole party should expand that support to new domains, like education, science, and technology, that will drive future economic gains and improve public services. It should explicitly commit to ensuring that, as FDR said, all Americans enjoy “the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”

This entails a massive national commitment to clean-energy development and deployment to meet the climate challenge, as well as a nationwide push to reduce and eliminate poverty and low-opportunity environments for all. Rather than promoting abstract theoretical arguments about inequality and social identity that often lead to public confusion and coalitional divisions, Democrats should put forth concrete plans to fight existing housing, education, and employment discrimination and break up concentrated wealth and political power. And they should develop new avenues for public service and civic participation and take seriously the need to rebuild trust in government through effective and honest public management.

America has an important opportunity at this pivotal moment—it can become the home to the industries of the future and the jobs they’ll generate, especially in areas of critical need like clean energy and public health. Democrats should call on America to be the undisputed international leader in scientific achievement and technological progress across the board, doing our part to cooperatively solve global problems like climate change, pandemic disease, and poverty; increase overall equality and opportunity for more people; and develop new knowledge for the benefit of humanity. 

That is a positive vision that can be embraced by all wings of the Democratic Party. And it must be, if Dionne’s new synthesis is to be more than a tactical truce.

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John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira

John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and run its Politics and Elections program.