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Two Arguments to Win
Blunt debates with the partisan-skeptical center are essential, but arguing with the far-left is pointless. Win one with facts, with both with organizing.
The partisan center-left must win two arguments to build the Big Tent Democratic Party that can save American democracy:
Is Democratic electoral success found in ideological purity tests and calls for revolution, or in empathetic moderation?
Is the best path for the partisan-averse center to wield power and defeat Trumpist authoritarianism found only in bipartisanship and third parties, or also by investing in a stronger moderate Democratic faction?
That first argument — between moderate Democrats and the far-left — happens ad nauseum (e.g. the 2020 presidential primaries and this year’s). The argument is unending, but also mostly static because the characters and contours of the debate are clear to everyone.
The facts are almost always with the center-left: political science shows that moderates do better and are more popular than more extreme candidates. That this reality is reinforced with each passing election (Joe Biden, Eric Adams, Shontel Brown, every swing district, etc.) does not seem likely to change minds on the far-left. The path towards winning this argument is organizing an energized center-left, not more or better debating.
The second argument — between moderate Democrats on the center-left and the nonpartisan/bipartisan center — happens far less often in public and lacks the clarity, players, and risk/reward calculus that define the first debate. This is a problem because not only are the stakes incredibly high, but there is rapid growth within the partisan-skeptic center that can be harnessed for tremendous good (or ill).
Like the far-left, entrepreneurs in the center are smart and often well-meaning people who can also sometimes do real harm. Unlike the far-left, more centrist leaders, donors, and organizations have the intellectual open-mindedness to entertain changing strategies and tactics to avoid massive downside risks as well as reallocate resources to do more good (and less harm). Because it’s possible to change minds, moderate Democrats have much to gain from making forceful arguments aimed at persuading the partisan-skeptical center. But because there isn’t a natural high-profile point of conflict (such as primary elections), these healthy debates are less frequent, less public, and less clarifying.
Examples of both realities played out this week.
The futility of the first argument manifested when Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager threatened future third party runs designed to sink Democrats, and also when Justice Democrats again demonstrated how niche (and electorally damaging) their core audience is.
The importance of the second debate was highlighted when the leading moderate Democratic organization Third Way emphatically called out the centrist group No Labels for parroting Trump talking points against the January 6th commission, a call echoed by a member of No Labels’ own Problem Solvers Caucus, Rep. Dean Phillips.
Both instances illuminated important truths for the path forward: the diminishing returns of debating the far-left on Democratic Party strategy, and the need for more public, constructive debates between the center-left and the partisan-averse center.
More on both below (we’ve bumped our “Sunday Reading in the Big Tent” to the end of the newsletter this week).
Clowns to the left of us
When the center-left argues with the far-left, who is the argument with? A quick review:
Far-left political entrepreneurs deserve respect for their strategy and execution from 2015-2019, and we should closely study for What the Center-Left Can Learn from them...
But they have been Breaking The Rules (For Radicals) by ignoring political reality, something they can afford to do because …
The far left is whiter, richer, and more educated than everyone else. It can stand to blow up the party and take risks that Democrats and their constituents cannot.
The good news is that despite prevalent political narratives suggesting otherwise, far-left growth has been linear at best — not exponential. It’s worth asking Has The Far-Left Peaked?
The two leading far-left electoral groups, Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution and AOC-linked Justice Democrats, both drove home the futility of debating the best path for Democratic victory this week.
The ultimate risk came after this week’s primaries in the form of a threat by former Bernie Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver. Here he is in POLITICO:
“One possibility, Weaver said, is that the left will become ‘much less thoughtful in the future about which incumbents get challenged.’
Or in some places, progressives could even forgo primaries, altogether, running general-election candidates as independents in swing districts. They might not win, but they could split the vote just enough to prevent a centrist Democrat from coming out ahead of the Republican.
‘Can they get 5 to 10 percent of the vote in some swing districts?’ Weaver asked. ‘I think they can … That is certainly an option.’”
Threatening to sink Democrats and hand power to the Trump GOP because… moderates are running hard in open primaries? With the far-left crowd explicitly calling for losing before compromising, more reasoned, fact-based arguments are not going to win them over.
Why the bullying tendencies from the far-left? For a hint of who they think their audience is, check out the first 15 seconds of this video released this week by Justice Democrats. The slickly-produced diatribe against Democratic Majority For Israel stars a Brooklyn-based Yale alum and went viral throughout the Online Left. The video begins:
“Okay, you know when you go to your high school reunion and the girl who used to bully you … is all of a sudden a yoga teacher … but then you trip and spill your vodka soda all over yourself and you hear her snort and talk to her mean friends …”
Simply put: it’s hard to have a constructive argument with someone who’s obsessively vengeful about their high school bully (and, as the full video showed, now turning into an adult one).
(Potential) Heroes to the right
While it’s impossible to win the argument against the far-left by debating, there’s an important and highly-worthwhile debate to be had with nonpartisan centrists, “Never Trump” Republicans, and other black sheep of today’s polarized two-party system about what to do to move the country forward.
These pro-democracy centrists must be convinced to invest in a moderate Democratic faction instead of simply piling on Democratic challenges or, worse, investing in third parties. And that’s a debate we need to be having more often.
Such debates should begin with empathy for the center, especially for Never Trump Republicans who have courageously fled their onetime political home. Those leaving the GOP face a complex set of emotional and identity challenges which are exceeded by a strategic challenge: what the hell do you do after leaving the Republican Party?
We debated this question at the Niskanen Center a year ago, exploring the three options for the disaffected center-right to save democracy from the authoritarian GOP:
Stay in the Republican Party and fight its anti-democratic forces from within;
Form an independent, center-right third party; or
Join and strengthen a moderate-to-conservative faction within the Democratic Party
You can watch the whole debate here.
Nearly a year later, there is little evidence that #1 has a path forward. Last week’s Republican primaries were just the latest in a series of recent reminders that GOP moderates just aren’t making it through the great Trump filter.
New America’s Lee Drutman took #2 and argued in favor of a centrist third party. Last week, we covered the massive risks inherent in quixotic efforts like Andrew Yang’s “Forward Party”. Yang seems like a smart, fun guy and it is likely he is not hearing enough forceful pushback on this venture — another reason for more high-profile public debates!
Our argument in favor of #3 is straightforward and it even has a mascot. Here’s its debut in The Bulwark last year:
“Both a centrist third party and a pro-democracy GOP are unicorns: It’s easy to picture what they look like, but they’re the stuff of imagination.
The viable path to saving our democracy is more like a platypus: An animal which sounds ridiculous when you describe it—a tiny seal with a duck beak, webbed feet, and a bushy tail?—but is, in fact, quite real.
The path forward isn’t a unicorn versus alicorn debate—primary the Trumpists or start a ‘common sense’ party—but a weird, unsettling platypus-like option: Having Democrats start to woo ‘future former Republicans.’”
Fifteen months later, the unicorn still hasn’t appeared. And the ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are nearly extinct.
One compelling case study — Evan McMullin’s Independent challenge to Senator Mike Lee, which has been formally backed by the Utah Democratic Party — looks more like a platypus than a unicorn.
A debate worth having
The center-left must win both of these arguments in order to:
Restore the soul (and brand) of the Democratic Party by crushing the electoral fallacies that animate the far-left — which can only be done by organizing and winning, not debating.
Convince the broad center (bipartisan, anti-partisan, non-partisan, and pro-democracy Republican leaders and groups) to throw in with the Democrats to defeat authoritarianism.
Center-left critiques of centrist strategy are important because they sharpen our overall strategy in the fight against Republican authoritarianism. With more upside potential and less downside risk, reinforcements can help the center-left redefine the Democratic Party and save democracy.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Lis Smith in The Washington Post on why this is not the time for Democrats to change how they talk about abortion:
“Poll after poll shows that we have the upper hand — public-opinion-wise — on this literal life-and-death issue. But, in the weeks since a draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, instead of circling the wagons around a common-sense message and plan of action, we’ve engaged in purity politics that threaten to put us on the defensive on a majority issue.”
2. Josh Barro on what Conor Friedersdorf calls “the tiny class of professional progressives who enjoy Language Policing Privilege”:
“If you are actually trying to win more votes, you have to deal with the fact that a majority of voters do not view abortion as a wholly morally uncomplicated act. These messaging tweaks range from useless to harmful in trying to appeal to those voters at the margin…
Urging politicians to say ‘decision’ is better than urging them to call themselves ‘pro-abortion.’ But the switch doesn’t do anything to stop abortion bans — and more broadly, an obsession with language games of the sort that interest people who spent a lot of time arguing about language in graduate school is one factor making it harder for Democratic politicians to talk in a normal way to the normal people they need to appeal to if they want to win elections. It’s just reinforcing the party’s transformation into a loser coalition for people with ill-advised masters degrees.
So stop telling people to stop saying “choice” and start talking about abortion in a way that might actually appeal to the marginal voter whom you desperately need right now!”
3. Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine on how Democrats still have some room to improve their disastrous situation — but they must act quickly:
“The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have been highly solicitous of the demands of their constituent interest groups. But now they are headed into a disaster. They are going to lose control of Congress without having even passed any significant social reforms. They may well be headed into a recession. An increasingly dangerous Republican Party may win control of the government without even needing to subvert the election.
None of the options are great, but simply coasting into November as if the plan might still work out is foolhardy. Democrats should instead be acting as if their party is on a course for disaster, because it is.”