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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 2: Mutual Triangulation No Basis for Democratic Unity

Earlier today TDS cross-posted a provocative op-ed by E.J. Dionne making the case that Democratic “moderates” have a stake in the revival of the “Democratic Left” as represented by Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren. I’m a big fan of E.J.’s, and appreciate his effort. But at WaMo, I took issue with some of the implications of his argument:

Anyone who knows WaPo columnist E.J. Dionne can tell you he’s an enormously decent man who dislikes unnecessary conflict. So it’s entirely unsurprising that E.J. took it upon himself to assure “moderates” that the resurgence of the “Democratic left” is a good thing for them and for the country. He does so via a simplified version of the Hacker-Pierson “Off Center” hypothesis:

For a long time, the American conversation has been terribly distorted because an active, uncompromising political right has not had to face a comparably influential left. As a result, our entire debate has been dragged in a conservative direction, meaning that the center has been pulled that way, too.

And thus, the prescription:

When politicians can ignore the questions posed by the left and are pushed to focus almost exclusively on the right’s concerns about “big government” and its unquestioning faith in deregulated markets, the result is immoderate and ultimately impractical policy. To create a real center, you need a real left.

That’s true, in terms of the rather mindless echoing of whoever makes the most noise that is so annoyingly common in the MSM. But while positioning language like “left,” “right” and “center” is an indispensable short-hand in sorting out political tendencies, it can be taken to the point that it distorts what people who answer to (or are forced to associate with) such labels actually care about.
My colleague Martin Longman’s reaction to E.J.’s piece over at Booman Tribune illustrates part of the problem:

The problem is that, on any subject you might choose to consider, the right wing in this country is wrong, and they have enough power to keep us paddling in place at best, and, more often, moving in the wrong direction.
That a portion of the left is waking up to the problem is a good thing. But, nothing will come of it if it does nothing more than reinvigorate the center.

I suspect Martin’s objection would be widely shared by many progressives who don’t see themselves as simply a counter-weight to the Right for purposes of making “centrism” viable again.
But the positioning analysis also sells many “moderates” short as well. A lot of those folk (say, my colleagues at the Progressive Policy Institute who advocated what ultimately became Obama proposals on health care and climate change many years before Obama did) support “centrist” policies because they believe in them, not just because more liberal policies are politically difficult or because they favor bipartisanship as an end in itself. Moreover, many “moderates” or “centrists” don’t agree with each other all the time. Some (and I would put most though hardly all self-identified Democratic “moderates” in this category) share the left’s–which is to say the historic progressives’–values and policy goals, but disagree over program design or political strategy and tactics. Others hew to the kind of “centrism” that represents elites as against popular movements of the left or the right, or really do make a fetish of bipartisanship in a way that plays right into the conservative movement’s efforts to keep political debate on its own ground as defined by its own terms.
The bottom line is that all the positioning language should not obscure the sharp divisions between the Left (including the fairly large Center-Left) and the Right (including the small and shrinking Center-Right) over values and goals. Everyone legitimately on the Left favors, for example, universal health coverage; those on the Right just don’t, much as they pretend to favor “reforms” that would allegedly improve coverage.
What this means for the Left and Center-Left is that its advocates should respect each other’s point of view as something other than an instrument for their own success. They can and should argue and fight with each other over the specifics of policy and politics without for a moment forgetting the gulf that still separates them from those who champion unfettered capitalism or “state’s rights” or inequality as a positive thing or the perpetual disabling of the public sector or an “American exceptionalism” that becomes an excuse for militarism and unilateralism in foreign policy or a government-mandated return to the cultural values of the 1950s.
Much as I honor E.J. Dionne and his irenic motives, “moderates” shouldn’t think of the “revived left” as a cat’s paw any more than “true liberals”should think of moderates as sell-outs who don’t have the guts to advocate the correct policies. For all the silly “civil war” talk, a big portion of the success of the Right in skewing the political conversation is its essential unity. Karl Rove’s view of the ideal America isn’t that different from Ted Cruz’s, and should be equally horrifying to those on the Left and Center-Left. We should keep that in mind even as different factions on the progressive side of the spectrum maneuver with and sometimes against each other. A “revived Left” is good for “moderates” because it represents a new and enthusiastic set of allies, not a device for triangulation.

This is an important topic, and we’ll certainly return to it again, particularly if the specter of Democratic factionalism materializes more visibly.

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