Politics Cannot Be Waged Defensively

Politics Features Joe Biden
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Politics Cannot Be Waged Defensively

In the midst of this excellent essay about how Democrats tie themselves in knots over “electability” by Alex Pareene at The New Republic, he pointed to the results of a fascinating poll:

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a populist liberal PAC, polled its own members, asking why they supported their candidates of choice, and found basically an inverse relationship between which candidate’s supporters thought their pick would make the “best president” (Warren by a landslide) and which ones were motivated by their belief that their candidate is the most “electable” (Biden). As PCCC co-founder Adam Green put it: “Barely a majority of Biden’s own current supporters believe he would be the best Democratic president.”

Pareene argues that this fearful concept of “electability”—which basically entails trying to play mind-reader for a segment of the electorate that Democrats clearly don’t understand and may not even exist—hamstrings regular voters who jump through mental hoops trying to imagine what kind of candidate it will take to defeat Trump, rather than simply picking the candidate that speaks to them most directly on policy…i.e., the one they like best. This fear works out well for the powerful factions among the Democratic establishment, as it allows them to manipulate primary voters into toeing the party line and short-circuiting any effort to move left and put forth a candidate like Warren. In 2020, the sum of this political thinking produces a predictable result: All roads lead to Biden.

To this concept of “he’s not the one we want, but he’s the one we need,” Pareene has a simple response:

If you’re not that excited to vote for Joe Biden, I promise you, your neighbor isn’t, either.

There’s an interesting poll that came out from Quinnipiac yesterday about what voters from different age groups value in a president:

As you see, the 18-34 group cares more about policy than the nebulous idea of being a “great leader,” but everyone else puts the priorities in reverse. A closer look at the poll reveals that it breaks down in several other ways: Wealthier people care more about a great leader, while poorer people value policy; very liberal people favor policy by 11 percent, while “conservative” Democrats favor leadership by 28 percent. The words “great leader” are open to interpretation, but it’s easy to imagine that in the minds of those polled, it reflects someone who looks the part. In other words, someone who can win.

There are other interesting findings in that poll too, such as the fact that 70% of respondents said they were open to a gay man being elected president, while only 36% believed that the country writ large was ready to elect such a man. (For Democrats, the numbers were 85% willing, and only 45% who had faith in the country to follow suit.)

It’s clear, looking at these results, that Democrats in particular are stuck in a desperate loop that hinges on perception. “We like progressive policies, but we’re afraid most people don’t, so we’re going to choose someone more moderate.” “We would elect a gay man, but we think the country at large would not, so we’ll choose someone straight.” “We would prefer a woman president, but we think America hates women, so we’ll choose a man.”

And so caution rules the day, and caution produces an unexciting frontrunner like Biden who, in fact, likely stands a greater chance than Sanders or Warren or Buttigieg or even Kamala Harris of losing to Trump, insofar as “the sole argument for his candidacy,” as Pareene notes, depends on the widespread belief that he can win the general.

I keep going back to the singular fact from the PCCC poll—about 50% of Biden’s current supporters think he’d be the best nominee. That is, in a word, stunning.

This is defensive politics, and it won’t work. It didn’t work for Hillary Clinton, and the lesson of her loss should be that establishment politics coupled with an obsessive focus on the character of an opponent doesn’t work. It failed for her, and it will fail for Biden, who is already pushing the anti-Trump respectability angle as hard as it will go while hiding a career of centrism that has taken frequent detours into some truly ugly corners.

Defensive politics are based on a fear of Republicans, and there’s no doubt that it’s tempting—broadly speaking, they’ve crushed their opponents for three decades now with relentless ideological warfare, and it’s clear that many Democrats believe wide swaths of this country have become so brainwashed that they’re beyond reach of any candidate but the most Republican Democrat. But we need to remember two key factors:

1. Republicans won with unapologetic advocacy for policies and movements that, by the standards of a western government, are extremely far to the right. They didn’t waste any time pushing wedge issues, and they didn’t spare a thought about how the people would rise up in rebellion if, for instance, they passed tax cuts for the wealthy time and time again. They didn’t hesitate to behave cynically in order to rob Obama of a Supreme Court justice, or etc. etc. etc. They just did it, and they got away with it, at least somewhat, because they managed to broadcast strength and make the other side look impotent. And again—these are openly cynical maneuvers done in service of policies that yield no benefit to the working class, and in fact actively hurt them. Be that as it may, they followed a specific vision to its logical endpoint, and because the Democrats have been reeling from all the successive blows—and had become a corporate party themselves, without the legitimacy to claim to represent the people—it worked.

2. The most successful Democratic growth movement, and the first one that shifted the Overton Window back leftward on issues like healthcare and education, was the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2015 and 2016.

The history of American politics in these last 30-40 years teaches a simple lesson: You win with aggression, and you win with vision. Someone like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders will fare better than we think with so-called “moderates” or the current conservative working class, because the policies they advocate are policies that people desperately need. They reject the Republican narrative of what’s acceptable, and because they’re not defensive, they bring a certain authenticity that establishment candidates can only fake. These are the people who can actually win, because this is the style, and the substance, that resonates.

It’s time for liberals to cast aside their own weakness and behave as though the political future of their dreams is possible. Every person who says something like, “sure, I’d love single-payer healthcare, but we have to choose a candidate who can actually get something done” is actively hurting the cause, because what they should realize by now is that compromise and half-measures feed into the insatiable maw of the Republican agenda, and only make real action harder.

People will respond to your political vision—people you never dreamed of—but only if you mean it.

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