The centrist case for today’s radically progressive candidates
I’m a centrist. My policy preferences are much closer to those of Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But as everyone agrees, the most important thing in this next Presidential election is who can beat Trump and to my eyes, the progressive candidates look better.
The progressive campaigns appear to be based on hope, conviction, authenticity, a forward-looking vision and faith in the American people. The centrist campaigns seem poll-driven and cynical, evasive, a bit elitist, backward looking, and fearful of taking any stance that is remotely unconventional.
Against an unscrupulous candidate that will pitch a dramatically grand, if fake, vision of the future, I don’t think the backward-looking vision of a return to normalcy is enough. Against a candidate who will lie about everything and paint any opponent as an extremist no matter his positions, we need a candidate who isn’t afraid to argue and fight back. The Democratic presidential candidates that have won in the past — from Truman to Kennedy to Clinton and Obama — have been inspiring, bold in their vision, smart, articulate and often controversial. Truman and Kennedy were New Deal type progressives while Clinton and Obama were left of center moderates. But each of their campaigns at least seemed in its own way revolutionary. Each also was, in its own way, innovative in its approach to politics. I don’t see any of that in the centrist candidates this cycle, but I do see it in progressives.
The party leaders and pundit class, however, seem to see it differently. The centrist, Biden, is seen as the most electable. Yet, the only argument for this is the largely unexamined assumption that only a moderate candidate can win. It is an assumption that remains unquestioned despite the failure of that strategy in 2016. Democrats ran a centrist candidate who lost to a radically unconventional, headline-grabbing candidate who took positions on trade and foreign policy that were further to the left than most Democrats at the time dared to go. Yet here we are again in 2019 with this same assumption about moderate candidates compared to progressive ones.
Trump won in 2016 in large part because he successfully divided the Democratic coalition. He split centrists from progressives and progressives from the working class.
The first job of any Democratic candidate is to unite the party behind the election effort. In the past, candidates were able to do that by courting the moderate vote that they might reasonably worry would flee the party and then simply expect the progressive and working class/union vote to fall in line because that vote had nowhere else to go.
But in 2016, Trump gave progressives and workers somewhere else to go by directly appealing to their concerns. He gave tough speeches on trade that one could have imagined being given by a Democrat back in the 60's but not recently. He appealed to anti-war Democrats by being more dovish than Hillary. He promised to protect Medicaid and Medicare and that he would provide a universal health care solution that would be better than Obamacare. Sure, it was mostly a con job, but it was the kind of things that many on the left of the party wanted to hear from the Democratic candidate but didn’t. Even if progressives and workers didn’t buy that Trump would deliver, and most didn’t, it served as a reminder that centrist Democrats might not deliver either.
At the same time, he directly pitted progressives against the working class by pitting the pro-immigrant stance of progressives against the working class’ fear of immigrants taking their jobs and pitted the pro-environment stance of progressives against the concern that environmental regulations cost jobs.
The result: One in 10 Bernie Sanders supporters voted for Trump.
While many Democrats might feel that the solution to this is to appeal to party loyalty, that won’t work because many Sanders supporters were not Democrats. And that itself calls into question this notion that the way to appeal to people outside the party is always the political middle. Many people outside the party are actually outside of it because they’re MORE to the left.
In fact, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein also took a sizable enough share of the votes from the moderate Democratic candidate in 2016 to tilt the election.
It seems to me the lesson here is that the Democratic Party needs to hold onto its base but can also potentially expand its base with direct progressive and leftist appeals to certain voters. Maybe, in 2019, the way to unite the party is to tack Left and assume the moderate vote will fall in line because, truth be told, we moderates have nowhere else to go.
Centrists pundits and leaders will respond that we can’t win by taking unpopular positions. Pundit Jonathan Chait wrote extensively on this point in a recent opinion piece. He particularly focused on the case of single payer health care. To the progressive response that experience shows that single payer becomes more popular when it is explained to people, Chait wrote this:
“There’s just no reason to believe Democratic arguments in favor of single-payer would persuade more voters than Republican arguments against it.”
This is the truth about many centrists. They are centrist because they don’t believe that they or their party can win an argument with Republicans on a controversial issue, regardless of the merits of their case. And because of that belief, they don’t want to even try. This, of course, makes the belief a reality. It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophesy.
I remember people of a similar mindset telling me in 2008 that Obama couldn’t win because America wouldn’t elect a black man. It’s the same argument. Type of candidate ‘X’ can’t win. So, we won’t run type of candidate ‘X’. So, candidate of type ‘X’ never wins. If primary voters had listened to this electability argument in 2008, we would never have found out what was possible.
If Chait argued that he thought single-payer a losing argument because it’s bad policy, that would be one thing. But he writes that he agrees that most people would be better off with a government plan. He agrees with progressives but doesn’t want them to campaign on the basis of what both he and progressives believe. He wants them to campaign on his understanding of what the public believes as if that is something static and unchangeable or even knowable. It is not. Beliefs change and the people are often uncertain or mercurial. But centrists like Chait want to avoid political arguments because like so many Democratic leaders today, he’s afraid we’ll lose. That fear is not unjustified, but it’s also not destiny unless we make it destiny.
This is another reason I see centrists as weaker candidates. Progressives do believe they can win arguments with Republicans and, in fact, over the last several years, have successfully persuaded the public toward any number of progressive positions on everything from gay rights to abortion. That alone is reason to support them over a centrist candidate. In any contest between two people or two sides, the side that doesn’t believe in itself has already taken a huge step on the road to losing.
Moreover, an election should be an argument, a debate, over different approaches and philosophies on how to govern the country. It should represent the views of all the different groups of people being represented by the process rather than just the views of elite establishment technocrats or poll-obsessed consultants. That is, in fact, what the public wants. They want all their options presented to them not just the ones that are already familiar. And they want honesty.
Some Democrats, of course, are in fact centrist or even conservative and that’s great. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both good examples of this and if a candidate is in fact more centrist, they should sincerely advocate for those centrist beliefs. That’s fine. It’s the demand that candidates take positions purely for political reasons based on polling or that they avoid subjects that don’t poll well that’s a problem. Voters smell the insincerity. They sense a candidate’s fear of an issue and wonder what it means that the candidate is trying to hide their real position on something from the public. They wonder why a candidate is part of the Democratic Party if they’re trying to run away from the Party’s brand. Can that be sincere? Can that be trusted?
As a centrist, I listened to the first Democratic debates and heard nothing from centrist candidates defending free trade or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I heard little articulation of why a reformed Obamacare perhaps with a public option would be better than Medicare For All. Within the context of the more liberal primary, none of the centrists wanted to make a full-throated argument for the positions they argue are the more popular ones among the public or even to argue very hard that the party must stay toward the center. Instead they tried to focus on their common ground with progressives. They appealed to the opinions of primary voters in the same way they intend to appeal to general election voters — by gaging what people want to hear and trying to say something close to that. It hurts their credibility. It’s similar to when Hillary Clinton reluctantly took the position that the TPP was a bad deal. Did any of us really believe she meant it? I sure didn’t. Were we all uncertain half the time about what she really believed on anything? I think most were. (Centrists have done much better in the second debate, but as Elizabeth Warren ably pointed spent more time talking about what we shouldn’t do than what we should.)
Politics is much more complicated than simply determining what issues people support and backing them or determining what issues are controversial and staying away from them. People may hold a position but not base their vote on it. People may see a candidate take a position they strongly oppose but be willing to live with it for a variety of reasons. For instance, they may assume, as I do, that the advocated position is unlikely to happen because of opposition from others in Congress. In fact, in the case of Medicare For All, I see it as a good bargaining position against a right wing that wants government out of health care entirely. Taking a centrist position to start, as a centrist would do, would probably give us something more right wing than centrist. Ironically, the radical progressive candidate might end up achieving the more centrist position.
A candidate doesn’t need to compromise their political beliefs and viewpoints to win the votes of people who may not agree with them. They just need to show some willingness to compromise on policy. No one expects a candidate to share their every position. Many pundits and Democratic leaders don’t seem to understand this distinction.
It’s also important to understand that many people aren’t voting on the basis of issues at all. They’re voting for a person that they trust to make decisions on their behalf. They’re hiring a CEO for the country. Individual issues are less important to these voters than their assessment of the person. Can they trust them? Does the candidate have integrity? Is the candidate on their side? Does the candidate understand their problems and care about them? Is the candidate strong enough to stand up to all the lobbyists and influence peddlers who will try to influence their decisions?
A candidate who bases their public positions on polling will generally be seen negatively on all these questions.
Candidates do best when they are mostly allowed to be themselves and campaign on what they really believe. An election is about picking a person not a set of policy issues. For the Democratic Party to say that we should first choose our issues and then find the candidate who matches those issues gets things completely backwards.
Yes, there are substantial risks in some of the positions progressive candidates have taken, but there are risks in moderate stances as well. And it should be noted that the controversial stances some progressive candidates took in recent debates have created a lot of headline-grabbing media attention for them.
In the weeks following the Democratic Primary debates, the poll numbers for Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have gone up. What’s more, they haven’t just gone up in the primary. They’ve mostly improved in head to head matches with Trump as well. That doesn’t help the case that their extreme positions, which gained lots of coverage after the debate, will hurt them politically.
For years now, progressive leaders and activists and centrist Democratic leaders and activists have fought over control of the Democratic Party and its agenda. To some extent this is a normal part of the Democratic process, but there have also been attempts to take rather undemocratic approaches to influencing the process. Progressive have at times called for the takeover of the party by the liberal wing and the expulsion of centrists. They’ve sometimes made wild accusations of corruption that mirror Republican talking points to further that goal. Centrists, for their part, have attempted to use the party apparatus and funds to put their thumb on the scale for centrist candidates in primaries. Both actions are inappropriate for people who say they believe in democracy.
In our system of government, the People are the ultimate authority. That does not, and has never meant, a simple majority. The People means all the people. Elections are just a way in which the will of the people is expressed and the key to that will being expressed is that everyone, every constituency, has a voice and representation. Representing the majority opinion doesn’t entitle centrists to demand that the party uniformly reflect centrist views and it wouldn’t entitle progressives to demand such uniformity if they obtained the majority. Both the centrists and the progressives deserve the chance to make their cases to the larger party and the body politic. Centrists shouldn’t get in the way of progressives making their case and progressives should not get in the way of centrists making theirs. And then at the end of the day, both need to respect the will of the people. The people are smart enough to take electability into account in primaries. So centrists don’t need to try to block extreme progressive candidates from running for fear they aren’t electable. That’s not our call and to think we know better than the voters on that is elitist. Yes, the People may make mistakes as do all individual human beings but that’s their right. The only way for a self-governing People to learn to govern themselves better is to make those mistakes and learn from them. Leaders on both the left and right of the party need to respect that and try to muster the humility to realize that their high intelligence, policy knowledge and education doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong. I think eliminating private insurance is a mistake. I think free education for all goes too far. But if the People want to do that, that’s up to them and who knows, maybe it will work and I’ll be proven wrong.
No one constituency within the Democratic Party has the right to claim sole ownership of the party. To attempt to do so, is as bad as Republicans trying to claim sole ownership of America, especially because the Democratic Party is, like America, not homogenous in the way the Republican Party is. That, in fact, can be its strength if the party will embrace it instead of trying to impose an artificial uniformity. The Democratic Party better represents America because of that diversity. Its internal debates explore the depths of America’s problems more deeply and completely because of that. It has greater numbers and greater diversity of thought and talent because of that. It’s only a detriment if we keep it from allowing us to work together toward the many goals we all share.
Centrists fears of a move to the left by the party are, in my view, overblown. The center of politics is determined by the extremes. If, for instance, the economic Left is communism and the Right is laissez-faire capitalism, then the center economic position becomes a mixed economy. However, if the Left position is a mixed economy and the Right is crony capitalism, then the center will be something like laissez-faire capitalism. For years now, Democratic centrists have sought to tamp down the more leftist extremes of the Democratic party for fear that their views would affect the brand of the party in a way that would hurt centrist candidates. With the Right also attacking those extremes, this has helped the public discourse move ever more toward the Right. I would bet that instead of hurting centrist candidates, the activeness of extreme progressives in the Democratic Party will help the centrist candidates to more credibly claim the center by moving the center more to the Left. We may have already seen that dynamic in the 2018 elections. Basically, if we’re going to have a radical Right, we need a radical Left in order to achieve balance. As AOC has shown, the extreme Left is often much better at responding to the extreme Right than centrists ever could be, and therefore better at moving the debate back toward the center. More importantly, for democracy to be a battle of ideas, we need to let the battle happen. Sometimes that will mean that candidates and ideas we don’t support will gain control. But that’s not the end of the world. That’s Democracy. Have faith in it.