Litmus Tests and the Future of the Democratic Party

I made the mistake of spending time last night reviewing the reactions to Joe Biden’s nomination acceptance speech on Twitter. Full disclosure– I think this was one of the best speeches of his nearly 50-year career. Biden effectively hammered home his narrative of the election: that this is light against dark; government for everyone, not government only for my voters; government by experts aiming at the common good and not government by personal relationships for individual benefit; government with a policy agenda and plans to get there and not government by vague promises that are never fulfilled. As Biden has said for three years now, this fight is about the nation’s soul.

The overwhelming majority of the responses were positive. Immediate reactions on screen ranged from blushing admiration (David Brooks was practically bursting at the seams on PBS) to grudging admission that it was “a good speech” with strange nitpicks like “he read too much from the teleprompter” or he “lacked a certain energy” from pundits on the right. The one outlier was the way progressive twitter responded with a mixture of cruel mockery (“THE WRONG KID DIED” remarks at Hunter Biden, various conspiracy theories about the stuttering kid and Joe Biden’s “sudden” claim to have a stutter– which is a total lie– as a cover for his sundowning, to insinuating that Biden was faking choking up when talking about the death of his son Beau) or trotting out the same tired arguments they have been slinging since the primary started. Not only did it feel like these commentators had watched a different program than I did it seems like they are operating in a totally different political universe.

I’ve had several friends ask me why I care about this or check it. They rightly point out that these people have a small niche following– true– and that these folks are just trying to keep the progressive agenda alive. Indeed, that second point is how most of these accounts frame it. Some reluctantly admit they will vote for Biden, recognizing there is a binary choice in our system and there is a real and substantive difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I can respect that, even if I think the strategy is counter-productive. The other group loudly holds out their vote or threatens to sit out the election, arguing that this “gives them leverage” over both the platform and the administration. That is a nonsensical fantasy. So why do I care? For one, you can already see foreign agitators, the Trump administration, and their various propaganda outlets promoting the same “Democrats cheated the progressives/Bernie” narrative they used to try to suppress the vote last election cycle (I suspect this will be fairly ineffective as most voters have caught on to the scam by now). More importantly, the historian in me sense that the NeverBiden types in the progressive wing of the party are committing a grave mistake that could have long term negative consequences for both the progressive movement and the Democratic party as the coalitions within the two-party system shift.

We’ll return to that narrative line in a bit. First, let’s get back to the NeverBiden position. The strangest defense of this position is that it is natural and appropriate for voters to have litmus tests for their party and candidate. The thought goes that party’s hide behind partisanship– vote blue no matter who– to deflect flanking attacks by populists who form a significant voting bloc in the party. In this particular case, they want to promote the idea that the Biden campaign has cynically turned this election into a referendum on Trump to shield itself from calls by progressive to enact Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in favor of “corporatist” centrist policy goals.

This misunderstands both the purpose of Biden’s campaign strategy and the nature of policy debate within a party.

Biden’s strategy has been clear since the first rumblings that he would run back in 2017 and 2018. It posits that Donald Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, discarding norms and undermining the institutions that have built and maintained our nation and the stable international order of the last 75 years. Biden has smartly focused this election on Trump’s mismanagement of foreign policy which has weakened our position abroad, compromised us with our greatest rivals, and brought us into heightened conflict in nearly every region; the GOP’s failure to dismantle Obamacare and how they still don’t have a healthcare solution of any kind (despite being destroyed in 2018 for the exact same issue); along with Trump’s abject failure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a smart, focused strategy that keeps the narrative short and simple, is impossible for Trump and his allies to mount any substantive defense against (they have not issued a single counter to any of these talking points to date, which speaks to how smart these choices are), and appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans. Both Obama and Biden laid bare the reason for this utilitarian approach in their respective speeches: democracy itself is failing and the only chance we have is to create a big tent where compromise is possible that can restore faith in our government.

As to the second point, I have written about this many times before, but I’ll address it again here. The party system in the US is coalition based. Within the parties, these various coalition members have agendas that conflict and at times contradict one another. The coalitions stay together because there are a core set of policies that they are committed to collectively. For the Democratic party since the 1970s, these have been civil rights, LGTBQ rights, social services for the poor and working-class, moderate regulation of the economy and environment, and a tepid commitment to public education. Other issues, namely gun control and abortion, have become more and more orthodox, but traditionally have been wedge issues where “red state” Dems in the midwest and northeast have broken with the party. M4A is another such policy– while wildly popular in a vacuum, it does not have the regional support required in contested spaces (light blue states, purple states, and red states) to be viable without a supermajority in both sides of Congress. Movement is possible, but not on a broad spectrum of subjects at once. LGTBQ rights took decades to become the mainstream of the Democratic party. Leaders of that movement focused intensely on one issue– gay marriage– and slowly but surely moved the ball downfield. They battled for recognition. They used the language of our founding documents and the civil rights movement to make both a moral and political case. And over time that logic and argument won out. This is where today’s progressive movement and their broad-spectrum litmus test breaks down. By demanding systemic change in nearly every aspect of American life and public policy they have set up conflicts with nearly every other faction within the Democratic coalition– to say nothing of the expanded Biden coalition that includes NeverTrump conservatives and disaffected Republican voters.

The very language and nature of their litmus tests intensifies that conflict. Opposition to M4A is favoring death for corporate profits. Opposition to GND can only be because of ties to fossil fuel industry lobbyists and has nothing to do with regional economies, the realities of power use and generation, or the feasibility of the buffet of climate policies included in that “aspirational” document.

Bernie Sanders former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray wrote a lengthy piece at Current Affairs defending this approach. In her narrative, the Democrat establishment wants to squelch all criticism of Joe Biden and make the election all about Trump not because it is sound politics (it is), but because they want to deflect from the fact that substantively their real governing goals are the same as the GOP establishment. Gray lambastes them as corporate Democrats and lays out a deeply cynical narrative rooted in conspiratorial thinking:

The problem is that corporate Democrats serve the same masters, but must operate under a veil of pretense. Their corporate donors are equally motivated as Republican donors to cut the social safety net, preserve for-profit health insurance, protect private real estate against profit-undermining housing laws, and slow the pace of environmental reforms. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republican messaging aligns straightforwardly with their economic goals: Cut taxes for the rich. Protect “individual freedoms” from government overreach. Encourage “self sufficiency.” They’ve branded austerity so that it’s welcomed by their constituents. Meanwhile, Democrats attempt to disguise that they’re offering versions of the same wrapped in rainbow flags and kente cloth, but have the clumsy task of rationalizing why they fail to deliver more than tokenism and lip service. 

For Republican corporate donors to be happy, Republicans must win, and they do. For Democratic corporate donors to be happy, Democrats must lose. And they do. 

Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal and Jamaal Bowman excite voters and are able to message differently exactly because they don’t take corporate PAC or lobbyist money. And in the context of the 2016 and 2020 primaries, millions of Americans got a taste for what it felt like to be offered concrete, people-funded plans to advance their lives.

The cynicism that lies at the heart of this argument is the source of rot in American democracy. It argues in bad faith that the system is irredeemably tainted and only one person or group has the solution. Sound like anyone else you know? It makes all policy and worldviews outside of their own merely performative– everyone else is just a stooge, a tool for the monied elites who run both sides. Again, this is Tea Party, Trump, Alt-Right style logic. Any commitment to diversity is just using identity politics to paper over capitalist aggression. Substantive gains in civil rights and LGTBQ rights and a host of social services under this coalition’s watch over the last 50 years is handwaved away as tokenism– as though expanding Medicare and Medicaid, the ACA, the earned income tax credit, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, creating the Peace Corps, the Matthew Shepard Act, marriage equality, protecting SS, Dodd-Frank, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and countless other policies never meant or did anything. It is hard to read this as anything but ahistorical claptrap at the best or a wilful distortion of the truth to paint a hostile picture of the present at worst. Either way, it is flat out wrong.

The cynicism isn’t a bug in the thinking among the most vocal progressive activists, it is a feature.

But Biden declines to support popular progressive policies because, frankly, he, and the people who run his campaign, are paid not to. Biden’s senior advisor, Steve Richetti, is a former healthcare lobbyist. The organizers of his super PAC include Larry Rasky, whose lobbying firm works for Raytheon, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. More billionaires donated to Joe Biden’s campaign than any other—at least forty-four billionaires, in fact, representing the real estate industry, the finance industry, and big tech. Voters may want Medicare for All, but what incentive do these men have to kneecap the for-profit healthcare industry? How will the needs of renters and unemployed gig workers stand up against the interests of real estate and life insurance billionaire Eli Broad, who contributed $25,000 to a Democratic Party PAC? 

This quote is progressive Twitter in a nutshell. The existence of lobbyists or billionaires as advisors or contributors to the campaign is proof enough of corruption. Who needs to validate that with evidence? It is much easier to simply “ask questions” (loaded with predetermined answers). This is just a less batshit crazy version of what QAnon does.

Then there is the fundamental disconnect between how progressive activists like Gray talk about leverage in American politics and how political scientists have understood it for roughly a hundred years. The crux of Gray’s case for litmus tests is that making your vote contingent on the candidate adopting your policy preference is how you exercise leverage as a voter. This really only works inside the party in our system. You can absolutely make litmus tests part of the primary process. Indeed, that is generally what drives them. Who can piece together the largest coalition within the party based on the litmus tests they have chosen to latch themselves to? In most elections, candidates grope about looking for wedge issues to define themselves against their competitors. Occasionally there are real substantive differences– as there were in both parties in 2016 and the Democratic party in 2020. The voters decide. In 2016, the GOP voters chose to reject the Reagan-Bush consensus of the last 30 years and cast their lot with the bullying and bluster of Donald Trump. Democrats overwhelmingly chose the orthodoxy of Hillary Clinton and then Joe Biden over the genuine progressivism of Bernie Sanders. The “Power concedes nothing without a demand” is true in primaries and protests, but it comes up empty in general elections. The moment the primary is over your leverage as a voter is deeply diminished. Pluralistic democracy has spoken. In demanding that the candidate fully adopt all aspects of your platform you ask them to turn off the very voters who nominated them. It is an attempt to subvert the democratic will of the party by extortion. Include M4A and the GND or we will sit this election out is only a few degrees better than saying “What a nice shop you have. Would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Again, to feel justified in this extortion the far left likes to engage in conspiratorial thinking. The “establishment” (never defined) coalesced around Biden (reasons undefined) and cheated Bernie (as though strategic adjustments to stave off what happened to the GOP in 2016 were a bad idea for Democratic party leaders to have engaged in). The DNC was always rooting for someone other than Bernie to win! They have all sorts of polls that say “actually, our policies are majority popular in the party!” As I said before, cries that Boomers are literally trying to kill young people by stopping the revolution, corporate interests are not going to allow the revolution to happen are just conspiratorial nonsense. The establishment didn’t force anyone out or to endorse anyone– candidates made clear-eyed choices about their chances, their resources, and the direction they wanted policies to go for the next four years. They did the very thing many Sanders supporters wished Warren had done– recognized they were cooked and threw in their lot with the candidate who most represented their part of the coalition. Again, Boomers do not have some sick desire to kill their grandchildren. They do have different political concerns and policy preferences though (as the current 18-35 crowd will find to be very true when they are older as well). And if our corporate overlords were so all in on Joe Biden, why was he running out of money and unable to even visit or open offices in so many states?

I wrote this all before but I am going to quote it at length here because it bears repeating:

The truth is simple. Bernie Sanders could only win the nomination as long as the moderate vote was split in this primary. The moment that vote coalesced around one candidate (any one of them), Sanders was toast. He didn’t have the votes. And crucially, he never really tried to get them.

Moderates outnumber progressives in the Democratic party. This is true in the GOP as well, but unlike Republicans in 2015-16, Democratic candidates and voters didn’t allow their vote to be fractured all the way to the convention. Pete Buttigieg, who had the best claim to the “alternative to Biden” lane dropped out first. He had no path after South Carolina. Had he run neck and neck there with Biden or beaten him this conversation would be very different. But Mayor Pete lacked the coalition Joe Biden spent 40 years building and being a prominent face in. He lacked the black vote. Simple as that. Buttigieg, unlike Jeb!, Marco, Cruz, et al, bowed out. Klobluchar, who had less claim than Buttigieg, followed suit. Bloomberg only got in because Biden looked weak and he wanted to offer an alternative. His losses showed him that Biden was the candidate he himself wanted to be. No need to hang around. Of course, they all endorsed Biden– they were all running in the same lane! And Warren, who could have dominated this lane had she taken a more pragmatic approach rather than trying to split some weird middle between the Bernie wing and the moderates, had no real lane at all and saw most of her support disappear and dropped out herself without endorsing anyone. Sanders supporters are seething over this final betrayal from Warren, but there is little reason to think it would swing anything. Look at where she was scoring in these contests! She had no support to swing to anyone at the end.

To repeat: Biden won because he dominated the middle-age and elderly black vote and consolidated the moderate lane of the 2020 Democratic primary. His rivals for that lane got out and endorsed him when they saw they had no path forward. Biden made this easy for them because he never attacked them or insulted their supporters and the friends and allies he spent 40 years collecting spent political and social capital on his behalf to do help spur that consolidation along. This is not corrupt, it is how politics (and life) work. Relationships matter.

Sanders lost because his strategy was to emulate what Trump did in 2016– count on a fractured moderate/establishment lane never uniting its strength behind one candidate and allowing him to essential hijack the party’s platform and nomination. It was always the only path forward for him.

Sanders could have chosen other strategies, but I honestly doubt they would have worked. The purity tests his campaign really built itself around sort of precludes the sort of compromise other strategies require. He could have tried to grow his coalition by listening to what moderate voters wanted or tempering the policies that they feared, but this would have alienated that part of his base that thinks Elizabeth Warren is a neoliberal shill.

If anything, the continued braying by the progressive establishment underlines this weakness in their understanding of American politics. They still do not understand the human element of this all. Emotions and relationships matter. Narrative matters. Bitching that “the media” didn’t cover this the way you think they should but instead did what they have traditionally done for several hundred years is childish.

To be clear, I think these hard-line progressive activists have misread the moment. They misunderstand their leverage and are risking their coalition and power base in what looks like a hopeless Hail Mary attempt. This brings me back around to realignment. But first, another quote illustrating the misreading from Gray. In explaining that new or formerly disaffected voters who felt like Bernie’s platform finely recognized them and their issues– a thought I have no doubt is true– Gray makes the case that Biden’s best approach is to cater to them:

The way to put together a massive coalition that will be unstoppable against Trump is not to shame Americans—struggling now more than ever—into a fidelity pledge. The way forward is to put together a platform that so completely meets voters’ needs it becomes irresistible. 

Gray is effectively inverting what is happening here. Vote Blue No Matter Who– a primary slogan meant to discourage fracturing of the coalition during the intra-party conflict phase of the election process– is a fidelity pledge every party needs to function in our system. What she is arguing for is that her preferred platform should be the party platform or she and her group will pull out of the agreement. Had Sanders won the primary would Gray or any other progressive have been willing to concede vast swarths of the party platform to Biden’s centrist views? Absolutely not. To the victor go the spoils. But because they lost but are righteous the progressive platform should march on? In what universe?

This all ignores the elephant in the room: the NeverTrumpers and disaffected Republican voters who broke for the Democratic party in 2018 and are clearly a part of the big tent approach Biden has taken in 2020. There is a long ongoing fight on the center-right about what happens after Trump in the GOP. Some hope to rehabilitate it, seeing themselves as long-term incompatible with Democrats (largely on the issue of abortion and religious rights). Others hope to purge the party, excising every trace of Trumpism and Trump accommodation, arguing (correctly) that this is the only way to save conservatism– whatever that still means– as the central focus of a major political party in the United States. Others think that Trumpism is here to stay and that there is no future for the GOP outside of that. This subset has either resigned itself to this (like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), adopted it as the craven toadies they are (Tom Cotton, Tucker Carlson, and every other mouthpiece for this administration), or accepted that they will begin an exodus, wandering like Moses in the political wastelands for a generation. I think something else altogether is happening.

As I watch prominent NeverTrump voices process the Biden campaign and Democratic politics through a new lens as begrudging collaborators joined in a venture to rid the nation of the threat posed by the Trump administration I am noticing stages of change that indicate shifts in our coalitions. The first stage is recognizing liberal criticisms of modern conservatism. To a person, nearly all serious NeverTrumpers express contrition over how much racism, sexism, and nationalism really did animate their base and policies. This is no small admission. Once they clear this hurdle they begin to see other cracks. As their former friends and colleagues turn on them they note how opportunistic and shallow the ideology must have been. “If I am advocating the same things we have always supported for the last 30 years and my old friends are calling me the traitor how much could any of them ever meant what we were saying?” Watching the Democratic party escape the “extremist” trap that ran them out of the GOP gave them the space to support Biden. The Biden campaign wisely capitalized on this, not by making some sharp pivot to cater to moderate conservatives policy preferences, but by simply running the standard sort of campaign Clinton or Obama would have run. Watching Biden with a rooting interest they marvel at how much mainstream Democrats express love of the country while noting it has never been perfect. They find themselves compelled by the rhetoric of freedom– that, as Biden said, our sacred founding documents hold within them the template for a better nation. A nation built on freedom and equality. The next step is the big one– rejecting the GOP and casting your lot with the Democratic party. It is coming. Tim Miller hinted at it in the Bulwark’s newletter today, when writing about his appearance on Charlie Sykes podcast:

I was on Charlie’s podcast this morning and so you can hear more of our thoughts on the Biden performance there but I wanted to share one thing that we discussed after the show was over. Both of us we were caught off guard by how emotionally attached we were last night to this candidacy. We had sort of expected to feel this reluctant, begrudging support for the Democratic nominee, to have been left in a tough spot between one normal bad choice and one existentially bad one. But that isn’t what happened. Joe Biden has me energized. And frankly, that he has both Charlie and I reflecting on whether maybe in the past we were just…in the wrong…

The Democrats haven’t “moved right.” Nor are they simply owned by the same corporate overlords. We are living through one of those rare inflection points for political alignment in American history. In playing hardball, the progressive wing of the Democratic party is placing a dangerous bet. They think they have the leverage to force the rest of the coalition left on nearly every issue. Joe Biden and his campaign are ignoring this and running a standard modern Democratic party campaign, with moderate center-left proposals and a promise to reach out and represent the entire nation. Because the GOP has abandoned all semblance of principle or governing philosophy, there is a large segment of disaffected center-right voters who are giving the Democratic party an honest look for the first time in decades. Joe Biden himself is part of this movement. His history of actually working with Republicans and getting bills passed (for better or for worse) lets this land in a way Barack Obama never could have. I suspect many will join the Democratic party over the next four to eight years. First as collaborators in a Biden election and in purging Congress of Trumpian influences, then as reluctant members exiled from their home, and finally as full-fledged Democratic coalition members. The scales inside the party already tip to the center-left. More moderate Dems will marginalize the progressive or bust wing of the party even more. If they learn to adjust, compromise within the party and build meaningful alliances personally and collectively they will be able to act as the idealistic conscious and advocates for the poor and marginalized that have always bent the arc of Democratic politics in the post-war era. If they cannot do this I am not sure there is a future for them beyond co-opting or starting their own pointless third party or forging some grotesque compromise with the ugly populist wing of the new Trumpian GOP.

This feels like no choice at all. If I am right about realignment, the progressive wing has a choice to make about it’s relationship with the Democratic party– join or die.

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