Last week saw two momentous developments in the history of American democracy. First, there was the widely expected official acquittal of Donald Trump in the ongoing impeachment trial, ensuring that November’s general election will likely be the only chance for Trump to be held to account for everything he’s done. What was not quite widely expected was what happened after the acquittal, which might have given some Republicans pause about it: Trump firing two of the people who testified against him in the House. It put into stark relief how the vote effectively sent the message that Trump can act with impunity, that no matter what terrible things he does – including the numerous things he’d already done, in public, but not been impeached for – the Republican Party will never hold him to account, even when his own defense counsel argues that the President can do anything in his power to get re-elected.
But what else were the Republicans going to do? Anyone voting to even hear witnesses and documents, a mainstay of any previous impeachment trial in American history, let alone to outright convict him, would be tarred as a Republican In Name Only and effectively blackballed from the party establishment; had the Republicans moved in larger numbers to shun and convict him, his supporters would have revolted, declaring that the GOP was doing the bidding of the “deep state” and demanding every last Republican who voted to convict be thrown out and replaced with a true believer actually willing to make America great again. The Trump movement, after all, put Republicans back in control of the White House and helped them retain the Senate in 2016, against the expectations of literally everyone in Washington (arguably even Trump himself) and despite the efforts of those within the party itself to avert it. As much distaste as those in power may have for it, the GOP owes its relevance and power to the Trump movement, and arguably need Trump and his supporters more than Trump needs the rest of the GOP. To attempt to cut their ties with Trump would more likely spell the end of the GOP than of the Trump movement.
All this happened against the backdrop of the Iowa caucuses, and while the mess of the vote count dominated the headlines, what seems clear at the moment is the presence of a virtual dead heat between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg for the lead in the traditional state delegate count. While Buttigieg is becoming the favorite of the moderate wing of the party, able to tout his success in most of the counties that swung Iowa for Trump in 2016, and now seems likely to finish a strong second in today’s New Hampshire primary if not upset Sanders for the win, he still doesn’t quite have the level of across-the-board support to unify it, especially given his weakness with minorities, and the likes of Joe Biden and even Michael Bloomberg remain more popular nationally and have plenty of reason to stay in the race and try to battle him down the stretch; indeed Biden is probably still in better position than Buttigieg, even with the prospect of another disappointing finish in New Hampshire ahead (Bloomberg is weakened by his decision not to contest the early primaries and caucuses and effectively start his run on Super Tuesday, meaning he’s mostly pinning his hopes on a contested convention).
Realistically, Sanders is the only candidate that can truly be called the front-runner at the moment; FiveThirtyEight gives him a better than 50/50 shot at winning a majority of pledged delegates, and none of the other candidates even has a better chance of doing the same than that no one wins a majority of pledged delegates, likely leading to a contested convention that would fracture the Democratic Party and potentially doom the Democrats’ chances against Trump in November. It’s quite possible, nay likely, that Sanders takes New Hampshire and Nevada, winning two or even three of the four early contests, and finishes a strong second in South Carolina to Biden, which could give his campaign an air of inevitability – especially if Sen. Elizabeth Warren finishes no better than third in any of those states, trailing Sanders by significant margins in all of them and badly trailing him, Biden, and maybe even Buttigieg in the delegate count, decides she won’t be able to sufficiently rebound on Super Tuesday, and drops out and endorses Sanders, unifying the “progressive” wing of the party while the moderate camp remains very much fractured, much as Trump took advantage of a fractured Republican establishment in 2016. Even with Democratic primaries all allocating delegates proportionally without the winner-take-all contests Trump took advantage of on the Republican side, Democratic moderates are looking at the very real possibility that the best case for the party is that it nominates a self-proclaimed socialist who isn’t even normally a Democrat outside of his presidential campaigns, alienating the unaffiliated moderate voters that Democrats need to win and all but giving the election to Trump in its own way.
You know, like how Sanders would have tipped the 2016 election to Trump and Democrats needed to run the safe, moderate candidate in Hillary Clinton, and how Trump’s policies and rhetoric would alienate moderates, discredit the Republican Party, and allow Hillary to coast to victory.
Oh, the moderates have explanations for Hillary’s loss that don’t suggest Sanders would have won. After all, Hillary’s campaign was terribly run and ignored warnings on the ground that Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were vulnerable, instead focusing on running up the popular vote until very late in the campaign, at which point she was the victim of James Comey’s ill-timed re-opening of investigations into her e-mails. Hillary might even have won enough Republican votes to swing some otherwise red states if she weren’t Hillary Clinton, who the GOP had treated as public enemy #1 for decades and instilled a deep-seated distrust and fear of even in those voters otherwise concerned about the direction of the party – not to mention general sexism. The 2018 midterms, they point out, swung the House to Democrats largely because of moderate candidates, not progressive ones, who typically succeeded only in districts that were deep-blue already; it’s that same moderation that will lead Democrats back to the White House, not calls for revolution.
And yet… if the theory of American elections that the moderates assume held, none of that should have mattered. Donald Trump was so radical and distasteful, and Clinton such a compromising centrist that those in the progressive wing considered her a Democrat In Name Only, that she should barely have had to campaign at all to defeat him – certainly that was the impression the media and the people surrounding the Clinton campaign seemed to have throughout. I refuse to believe that Trump and his xenophobia, racism, and flirtations with fascism was the more moderate candidate in 2016, especially if one also wants to argue that Obama, to the left of Hillary despite his own centrist leanings and having to deal with his own problems of racism, was the more moderate candidate against relatively centrist candidates in McCain and Romney in 2008 and 2012. At the very least, the fact that Hillary was the only viable alternative to Sanders, to the point of the DNC putting its thumb on the scale to favor her, is pretty damning towards the Democratic establishment’s ability to choose an “electable” candidate if she was really so ill-equipped to win red votes. (And not all of the things Hillary had going against her would necessarily go away for any of the moderates this cycle; I didn’t mention Russian interference because it would likely come into play regardless of the nominee, and Republicans spent the impeachment saga dutifully trying to deflect attention to the Bidens’ business dealings and building an air of corruption around Biden that, if not as deep and long-lasting as Hillary’s, would nonetheless be top of mind heading into the election.)
It’s entirely possible that the moderate wing is right and Sanders would doom the party to defeat, but it’s easy to see the alternative perspective offered by the Bernie bros, that the election will be won by exciting the base and turning it out more than appealing to the mostly-mythical swing voter, and that Sanders more than any other candidate can appeal to the disaffected white working class that tipped the 2016 election away from the Democrats. Certainly the further-right elements of the GOP had been offering a similar argument for years, that Republicans could win more by embracing the conservative message rather than appealing to milquetoast moderation like McCain and Romney did, and the success of Trump, despite how impolitic some of his message might have previously seemed to the GOP, seemingly vindicated that perspective.
You could argue that just means the country is right-of-center, or even that the small-state bias of the Senate or Electoral College favors right-of-center candidates (perhaps the best argument I’ve seen against Sanders was offered by James Carville in an interview with Vox last week, arguing that even if Sanders could win the election he wouldn’t be able to win the Senate given the population skew of that body, dooming his agenda and judicial selections to defeat), but we at least have to consider the possibility that the bell-curve theory of the electorate is wrong, or at least fatally flawed – that there just aren’t enough moderates, certainly in the most important swing states, to truly swing elections compared to energizing partisans or appealing to issues outside the left-right spectrum. After all, the most common complaint about American politics, even in today’s age of hyper-polarization where the parties seemingly couldn’t be more different, is that “both parties are the same”, and “moderate” candidates who stand for nothing other than vague notions of unity and bipartisanship that ultimately lead them to take whatever position they think will win the most votes hardly inspire most Americans to come to the polls and “perform their civic duty”. (And the midterms can certainly be written off – Sandersites would likely feel there weren’t many progressives that even made it to the general election in Trump districts and those that did didn’t get sufficient support from the Democratic establishment, and presidential elections can turn out lower-information voters and others less engaged in the ins and outs of politics.)
Personally I’m not entirely convinced of the energize-the-base theory of American politics, though it certainly didn’t hurt Trump, but the theory I do favor isn’t really any more flattering of the moderates currently in the field, and it might be more damning of the Democratic field as a whole. There have been several pieces written over the past few months written by self-proclaimed moderates, or claiming to speak for them, bemoaning the continued polarization of American politics and the continued leftward lurch of the Democratic Party, but perhaps the one I found most accidentally revealing was this one, claiming to be a “battle cry of the politically homeless” shamed into silence by screaming partisans on both sides, but painting a picture of these “politically homeless” “moderates” that suggests a potentially dim outlook for a purely centrist approach to winning them over:
You may have once fancied yourself a good progressive, while also having the opinion that there are only two genders. Or you may describe yourself as a staunch conservative, but tend to think racial targeting by police is a problem. Or the cardinal sin: you may have decided to vote for a candidate you felt better represented your concerns…Most people are just trying to raise their families and pay their bills, and pine for the days when they only had to think about politics every few years. Now, millions of independent thinkers – recently polled at almost 70 percent of the American population and labeled ‘the exhausted majority’ — are harboring intense feelings of political homelessness and ideological isolation…It’s absolutely our duty as citizens to denounce demagoguery where we see it. To fight corruption. To push back against attacks on free speech, due process and the scientific method. To combat racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. To continue to extend the gains made by the civil rights movement. To demand compromise and moderation. This starts with fighting our own tribal instincts and laziness and educating ourselves.
The author claims to speak for millions of “independent thinkers” without a natural home, but the specifics provided suggest the path to such a home isn’t as simple as she’s making it out to be, and ultimately shines a light on the origins of the polarization she denounces. While she briefly mentions people who might mostly be on one side or the other but hold views impolitic on that side, and proposes an agenda for what needs to happen that sounds an awful lot like a specifically anti-Trump agenda Democrats can largely agree on, when talking about true “moderates” she seems to describe people without much of an ideology at all, who vote based on who they feel would advance “their interests” or only pay attention to politics at all at election time, who seem to me like they don’t do much “thinking” about politics at all, “independent” or otherwise. It’s hardly a convincing argument against a Sanders who can argue he can advance “their interests” better than the corrupt politicians of the past few decades, especially for those who might have seen the hardly-moderate Trump as advancing “their interests”.
But what I find particularly telling is the notion of people who “pine for the days when they only had to think about politics every few years”. To those people I say not only are those days gone and not coming back, I’m not sure they ever really existed. Only paying attention to politics at election time leaves you vulnerable to those who would spin the state of politics to further their own ends and have the power and resources to saturate the culture and the minds of such low-information voters with their viewpoint. Despite what you may have learned in school, your civic duty does not begin or end at the ballot box, but consists in being an informed citizen, to stay on top of what’s happening in the world of politics, what your elected officials are doing on your behalf, and what viewpoints are underpinning the currently raging debates, so you can look past the spin to the truth of what’s going on. Voting is not the engine of democracy it is sometimes made out to be, only its safety valve. It would be nice if you could simply focus on “rais[ing your] families and pay[ing your] bills”, but the way our political system is set up demands constant engagement with the issues and staying on top of trends in politics. Otherwise, quite frankly, your own “instincts” and “laziness” ultimately end up making you part of the problem.
That may sound like the sort of “disdain for middle America” Republicans love to accuse the left of, but I’m wholly sympathetic to the desire not to have to constantly worry about politics and what side of the apocalyptic clash between opposing forces you’re on; I’m just not sure the forces painting themselves as such groups’ saviors are quite willing to grasp the implications of that and accept the thought process that results. Simply put, there isn’t nearly as much evidence that unaffiliated voters engage in a sober analysis of the candidates and their positions on the issues and end up voting for the candidate closer to their own views, as our theory of democracy tends to assume and the moderate establishment likes to pretend, and more that on most issues they don’t have any firm views, and in lieu of such views tend to vote on decidedly shallow grounds, especially in the television era. Every presidential election since at least 1980 has been won by the more charismatic candidate, for lack of a better word: Reagan, “The Great Communicator” and a former actor, won two terms and put his weight behind Bush Sr for a third; Clinton had a relatable persona that carried him for two terms; Bush Jr was famously someone you could “have a beer with” and even those turns of phrase of his that irritated more educated citizens arguably made him more relatable to everyone else; Obama famously inspired millions with his message of hope and change; and while Trump’s persona may be off-putting to hardcore Democrats, there’s no denying his ability to mesmerize crowds like few candidates before. The political establishment was able to explain most of those elections in other ways – moderation v. extremism, popular exhaustion, scandals, “it’s the economy, stupid,” the overall national mood – but what happened in 2016 arguably put the lie to all (or at least most) of them.
That suggests the Democrats are going to have a more uphill climb than it might look defeating Trump, and the current slate of candidates are singularly uninspiring, with the more “radical” candidates, Sanders and Warren, arguably having the most engaging, forceful presence. I actually thought Cory Booker was the most engaging of the moderates, like an Obama Lite, and I wasn’t alone, but he never gained any real momentum and dropped out before any actual contests started. Biden has shown flashes of the “Uncle Joe” persona his backers hope can win over middle America, and his debate slip-ups might not mean much against someone who has shown signs of actual senility, but they do suggest he might start his presidency at less than 100%, and the implication that they come from his childhood struggles with stuttering doesn’t excuse them as much as one might think when one considers how well he did in the 2008 and 2012 vice-presidential debates. Andrew Yang’s style of speaking might be endearing to his core of supporters, but I worry he might be dismissed as an egghead in the general election. Buttigieg is too soft-spoken, Bloomberg can come off as droning, Amy Klobuchar has flashes of real passion but has had more than a few one-liners that remind me too much of Hillaryisms like “Trumped-up trickle-down”, and I haven’t been able to watch Tom Steyer in quite the same way since seeing Will Ferrell’s impression of him on Saturday Night Live, though he did show some real human passion in Friday’s debate.
For many moderates, the appeal of a Biden, Buttigieg, or Bloomberg is the idea that they can end the era of hyper-polarization and bring back compromise and bipartisanship, but for many on the left this comes off as magical thinking. Obama’s entire general election message centered around being able to foster unity and bipartisanship, to which the Republicans responded by declaring, sometimes publicly, that they would block literally everything Obama could take even the slightest sliver of credit for, setting out from the start to make Obama a one-term president. America punished such craven partisanship by taking a Congress that Democrats controlled both houses of, including a nearly cloture-proof majority in the Senate, when Obama took office, and handing first the House, then the Senate, and ultimately the White House to the Republicans over the course of the next eight years. Perhaps the racism, whether overt or subconscious, of the Republican base helped them maintain and grow their power, and a white president wouldn’t take quite so much backlash, but the pattern of Democrats reaching out the hand of bipartisanship and Republicans taking advantage of their willingness to compromise to shift the country hard to the right is one that well predates the Obama era, arguably stretching back as far as the Gingrich revolution in 1994, when the Republicans proceeded to scrap a number of rules and norms that had served to foster compromise, if not the Reagan era. Little to no evidence exists that a message of kumbaya and unity without any specifics of what the country is to be unified around is as motivating to “moderate” voters as a firm, consistent, honestly held viewpoint is to those that share it.
Simply put, partisanship works, and America has yet to clearly show that they will punish Republicans for their polarization. This is the Republican party of Fox News, which has been at work for nearly a quarter century now, and Rush Limbaugh, a mainstay for longer than that, and when low-information unaffiliated voters start paying attention to politics every two to four years, Republicans and the media are consistently able to paint polarization and politics as an issue with “both sides”. Even if a Biden or a Bloomberg were to win the nomination, win the presidency, and carry a substantial Democratic Senate majority with them, the things they did would be woefully inadequate to stem the tide of Trumpism or reverse the damage done by his administration, and the Republicans would simply bide their time, do everything possible to stop the Democratic agenda, find ways to paint even the most moderate positions as the Democrats being deeply partisan, and stoke enough resentment to come right back into power and push the country even harder to the right. For my generation, the notion of bipartisanship has never been anything but a sick joke hailed by fools setting themselves up to be taken advantage of by Republicans yet again.
The reality is that for moderation to be relevant again, to be a real political force again, to be victorious again, it must become, paradoxically, a radical movement. It must recognize that American politics is broken beyond the point where it can be “fixed” by tinkering around the edges, by making a commitment to bipartisanship in the moment, hoping for the force of a particular president’s personality to heal the partisan divide, or passing new rules to encourage it, all of which can be reversed as soon as a party committed to pushing through their agenda at all costs comes back into power or by a court packed with that party’s ideologues. It must recognize that the problems bedeviling American democracy are structural, in a 200-plus-year-old compact woefully ill-equipped for the problems of the moment, created by Founding Fathers deeply skeptical of the value of parties but woefully naive about their nature or of how their Constitution would interact with them.
Our country tends to hail the age of the Constitution as a sign of its perfection or near-perfection, if not of its divine inspiration, but the Constitution only managed to survive so long without the scourge of partisanship undermining it in precisely the way the Founders feared because of the efforts of those in government to make it work through norms and rules, helped by the issues that ultimately dominated politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, slavery and later race relations more generally, cutting across party lines. Even before this process started we arguably knew better: the democracies of Europe and Asia that emerged out of the rubble of World War II and in subsequent “nation-building” exercises all followed the parliamentary system in place in Britain for centuries, and the countries that had an American-style presidential system imposed on them before that inevitably collapsed into dictatorship, a process recognized by the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz with the United States being the only real exception, one Linz attributed to the diversity of interests in each of the parties preventing them from having a true unifying ideology to push. Once the parties became more ideologically coherent and opposed (a process starting with the GOP’s Southern Strategy of 1968, which firmly pitted the Democrats as the party of civil rights and the urban working class regardless of race against the GOP as the party of racism, the religious right, and wealth), and once one party decided to throw those norms and rules out and take advantage of the weaknesses of the system to push through their agenda at all costs, the only recourse the other party would have would be to do the same thing, and if they were hesitant to indulge in such craven partisanship, as they long have, the seemingly inevitable outcome would be an unending series of losses and of constantly giving ground as the direction of government moved inexorably away from them.
Few if any in the Democratic field are talking about the sorts of changes needed to make American government functional again, beyond the talking points Democrats have repeated for most of the past decade such as repealing Citizens United and re-instating real campaign finance reform, a laudable goal but one unlikely to make a dent in our polarization, or replacing the electoral college with a national popular vote, which without also jettisoning the plurality-rules system currently in place, would effectively entrench the two-party system at the heart of our polarization, accelerating its decay of the American fabric. Tom Steyer arguably comes closest, but besides his effectively buying his way into the race leaving a bad taste in many Democratic voters’ mouths and fostering suspicion, his signature reform proposal of term limits has been increasingly recognized as counterproductive, giving more power to lobbyists not bound by them and able to build more institutional knowledge of the way things work. Career politicians are not the problem; career politicians that aren’t accountable to their constituents, or that fail to be held in check by them, are the problem – and politicians rarely if ever face the right set of incentives when the vast majority of general elections have at most two viable options, selected by partisan primaries that inherently favor extremism over moderation, which cause senators and representatives themselves to become more polarized in districts and states tilted far enough to the left or right.
Buttigieg has also talked about our government needing reform, including proposing that a new set of Supreme Court justices be selected through a “nonpartisan process” at Friday’s debate. But his actual proposal – that five new justices be selected by the other nine plus a tenth political appointee – is, in light of the court’s existing ideological swing, hardly nonpartisan and might in fact entrench its current conservatism, and would certainly seem to make presidential elections all the more apocalyptic showdowns over the fate of the court if the position of the swing justice would effectively swing not one but up to six votes on the Court. (Admittedly Buttigieg’s actual proposal, or rather suggestion, would require that such judges be chosen unanimously, which might address my concerns but might do little to resolve the actual problems with the Court while opening the door for Republicans to engage in their own, more-ideological packing of the Court.) Most of his other proposals, and Steyer’s, and the others’, are ultimately just tinkering around the edges; they don’t get at the root of the problem, because to truly confront what’s really needed would be to venture into scary and potentially politically suicidal territory.
For American politics to return to moderation and bipartisanship instead of polarization and gridlock, there must be a program of major structural reform, up to and including an overhaul of the Constitution to reclaim the Founders’ goals in light of our modern experience and values, to create real incentives to compromise, true accountability to the American people, and real options to save citizens from having to choose between the lesser of two evils. America must end the imperial, monarchial presidency, curbing presidential power only to the level truly necessary and envisioned by the Founders, and instead empower Congress and the states to work for the betterment of the people and push forward needed programs without giving up more power to the President to get their way when they can’t get it through the legislative process, while ensuring the President represents the true consensus of the American people rather than being the result of an apocalyptic showdown between two opposing forces that causes the entire direction of the country and its foreign policy to swing wildly based on a handful of votes. The goal cannot merely be defeating Trump in the moment, it must be to prevent a Trump from sniffing the White House again and provide the incentives to hold him in check – for if not, it won’t matter who wins in November, because the forces giving rise to Trumpism won’t go away, the precedents being set by the GOP will continue to hold, the next demagogue seeking to take advantage of it will be far more competent, and we will continue to see the slow, or perhaps rapid, demise of American democracy.