A Coalition of the Willing

I like Crooked Media. A lot. I listen to a lot of their pods several times a week– especially Pod Save America, Pod Save the World, and With Friends Like These. I’m obviously sympathetic to many of their goals, in particular, progressive social policies on LGBTQ and racial equality. Those are the foundation of my voter profile. I will not vote for a candidate or party that does not make protecting minorities from discrimination and creating a more equal and just society top priorities in governing. Full stop. I’m way less progressive on economics, though my belief that the economy needs any level of supervision leaves me no home or quarter with most Republicans, rendering this difference largely moot. I get that Crooked is a Democratic advocacy/promotion platform and not journalism. They know it and say so too (honesty that the conservative punditry class could benefit wildly from). Despite the fact that they take a longer view than most on how politics and change shake out over time, I fundamentally disagree with how they view coalition building.

On their recent Thanksgiving mailbag, Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer answered a question regarding interacting with Never Trump personalities. For context, this is about far left twitter wanting no accommodation with Never Trumpers and winning/governing as pure progressives. Favreau disagreed with shutting out their voices and suggested it is expedient to use their voices to allow undecided conservatives or moderates to hear a non-leftist voice saying “I don’t like Trump and I don’t like what the GOP has become.” It surely is. Pfeiffer agreed, pointing out that this is the only way to pierce the information bubbles we live in. Neither wanted to accommodate any of the positions that Never Trumpers hold if they do not already align with progressive goals. They simply see this as a good way to pick off a few voters that are needed to win back control of the legislature and Presidency.

It probably is. And if it works, it will allow Democrats to pass a handful of measures in the short term. Some may stick longterm– like Obamacare. But more of them will simply be gains that last until the other team takes power. Need proof? Look at all the rollbacks Trump has placed on Obama executive orders (which will be reversed immediately when Dems take power). This is an extremely weak way to govern in a democracy. It is about leveraging temporary political capital to extract maximum short-term gains. They make our political climate tenser (the other side always feels as though this is being implemented on them against their will, increasing already stark partisan distrust) and create backlashes that wipe out any gains, repeating the cycle in reverse.

Lasting change on major political issues is hard to come by. Coalitions are difficult to build and even harder to maintain. They cannot be done by executive order. It requires landmark legislation, executive enforcement, and judicial approval. It has happened many times over in the history of this nation. But it always required compromise with people who were once ideological opponents (and in many ways still were). Sometimes it requires abandoning old allies, like the Democratic party essentially sending the Dixiecrats into exile (and subsequently the GOP) to pass civil rights legislation. Other times it requires reaching out to disaffected voters who feel that they have no place in the current political landscape. Typically, the side that can piece together the more coherent coalition of special interests loosely tied together by ideology is able to promote and defend an agenda that creates lasting change on the political, legal, social, and/or economic landscape. Think FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and civil rights, or Reagan and economics.

I fear that progressives are falling into the Tea Party trap. Armed with genuine grassroots enthusiasm for their positions, these activist leaders see their moment to take power. They can take down the establishment within their party and impose their will on the nation, public approval for their policies be damned. The Tea Party rarely had public opinion on their side, outside of Obamacare. And that was fleeting and based more on marketing than reality. Their position on destroying the welfare state proved to be wildly unpopular when they went to actually practice it. Likewise, as the narrative around death boards, how poor US healthcare would become with Obamacare, and a host of other doomsday stories fell apart in practice their position became untenable. The Tea Party became little more than legislative terrorists (the Freedom Caucus) within their own party, sabotaging bills that would have given conservatives moderate wins in favor of holding out for the total wins. All or nothing. No compromise. It ended in failure. Nothing the Tea Party wanted that wasn’t already part of the conservative movement was accomplished. It was always going to fail because the approach is anathema to democracy. This is the world that far left twitter seems to be pining to create on the liberal side of the spectrum. It is disastrously stupid.

To their credit, Favreau and Pfeiffer are not calling on progressive to scorch the Earth inside the Democratic party. But viewing outside voices like Never Trumpers as nothing more than expedient tools is a poor idea. For one, it is a bad faith position to take. You assume that this person’s positions are fixed (despite the fact that they have broken with the orthodoxy of their party) and that they will oppose you on anything and everything once this marriage of convenience is over. I’m sure this is true for some (Kristol comes to mind). But I see and hear genuine change coming from many others (David Frum and Max Boot, for example). There are thousands (maybe millions) of similar Americans who feel like they were nieve about what the GOP was/is and feel abandoned as true believers (on a variety of fronts, such as conservative moral values, free trade, the post-war international order, equality, etc). These people are not one-time voters we can leverage to beat Donald Trump with in 2020. They are real people who view the world in ways that are not 100% congruent with the way you might, but with whom we have serious overlap in desired outcomes.

Juxtapose the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus approach with the original progressive movement. The OG progressives built such a big coalition that it took over BOTH political parties. It is hard to imagine in our current political landscape, but politicians as different as Teddy Roosevelt (whom I love, warts and all) and Woodrow Wilson (whom I loathe in nearly every way) both accurately considered themselves as progressives. Their platform of public schools, safe food, women’s rights, improved healthcare, support for the poor and elderly, and a myriad of other causes married enlightenment philosophy and Protestant Christian values to using the government as another tool (not the only tool) for combating the challenges of modernity. They rallied support from various messages. Take a look at how they pitched public education. Public education was a Christian civilizing mission, that brought civilization, civility, peace, and love to the frontier, minorities, non-Christians, and the poor/working class. Compulsory education will keep unruly kids off the streets in the city, now that we can’t work them day and night in our factories (because of progressive child labor laws). As Jefferson argued, knowledge from schooling is essential to a functioning democracy. Public schools will help assimilate immigrants. Public education will provide access to opportunity to the non-elite. Public education will provide the economy with a large skilled labor pool, that will encourage growth and limit the need for outside experts. Public education can be a unifier, building a national sense of what it means to be an American for a nation of people from all over the world.

Outside of crackpots and partisan hacks, these ideas remain WILDLY popular with the American people. While committed conservatives have grown weary of public education (largely due to the same absurd forces that once had them convinced that the government was going to set up panels to decide whether grandma was deserving of that liver transplant or should die), an overwhelming majority of Americans favor it. And when pressed to examine they’re own local and state institutions, most Americans think their schools are good. And we all think this because we want an opportunity for our children– all of them, not just the wealthiest ones. We think that there is something positive about living together in our communities and sharing experiences. We fundamentally understand that differences can make us stronger when we treat each other with respect and learn to see what life is like for other people. It is one of the things that has defined American greatness for over 150 years. And it was not jammed through by liberal activists who only wanted to level the economic playing field. Nor was it the product of American Protestants who wanted to stave off the influence of popery and proselytize to Native Americans. It was a wonderfully messy mix of a lot of competing motivations all working towards a common goal– a better future for all Americans.

The progressives didn’t solve all of societies problems. Obviously, we wouldn’t still be fighting over education or whether or not the government should care for the mentally ill (it should) if they had. But the coalitions of the willing they created built institutions and political infrastructure that can still be felt over a century later. It required believing that people who wanted the same thing for different reasons were not acting in bad faith. It demanded sacrifice, knowing that you would not get the full measure of what you wanted and that some things you opposed would happen by design. But if we are serious about things like climate change, racial equality, education, economic policies that put the average American’s needs above those of the wealthiest Americans, public safety, immigration, infrastructure, and being the leader of the economic and political international order we have to listen to one another and find that common ground.  It won’t be done by using Never Trumpers to temporarily gain control of Congress and the Executive branch. It requires bringing Never Trumpers into the party and building policies that appeal to Americans of different stripes– rural, urban, and suburban; Americans of every race and creed; gay and straight and everything in between. These policy positions will be messy. They will not be “pure” victories. In fact, some of them will be direct set-backs to something you personally want. But they are necessary if you are serious about crafting policies that will appeal to a wide enough number of Americans that you won’t create a sense of government by force. This is not a bug of democracy. It is a feature. And one of the better ones.

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