There is a damaging narrative emerging in the mainstream media, avidly fueled by conservatives who claim to be opposed both to Donald Trump and the current Republican Party, to the effect that Democrats are in danger of “moving too far left” and need to “rein in the extremists in their party.”
To a certain degree, of course, such advice might be offered in good faith. One can worry that Trump’s extreme unpopularity—which, though potent, was not enough to deny him an eye-of-the-needle path to the presidency in 2016—will somehow be nullified if the other party gratuitously alienates voters who would otherwise vote to elect Trump’s challenger.
But the attacks on Democrats go far beyond reasonable caution. Based on unexamined assumptions and sloppy thinking, they claim that Democrats have “gone too far” and have thus “created an opening for Trump,” that Democrats might “alienate mainstream voters,” that they are “playing into the Republicans’ game (i.e., paint[ing] Democrats as loony socialists),”and similar claims to that effect. This is not merely wrong, but dangerously and nonsensically wrong.
The Republican Strategy: Red-bait, Red-bait, Red-bait
As I described in a column here on Verdict on Tuesday, Republicans have recently amped up their Orwellian strategy of using the word socialism as an all-purpose attack on Democrats. It does not matter what Democrats want to do, from attempting to protect people from being arbitrarily fired to preventing banks from ripping off their customers to slowing the extreme growth in inequality. For Republicans, it is always and everywhere socialism.
Does the word socialism even mean anything? For Republicans, it now evidently means “everything Democrats want.” Democrats are, in fact, trying to make capitalism work better, thus saving capitalists from their own unbridled excesses, just as they did in the 1930s. And just as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was called a communist and class traitor in his time, Democrats who are proposing highly popular and measured policies are being called radical socialists today. It will not work.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has the temerity to propose returning the rules of the estate tax back to where they were in the long-ago era of . . . 2009. Rather than allowing wealthy couples to exempt $22.4 million of their net worth from the estate tax, as Trump and the Republicans did in their misguided and highly regressive 2017 tax bill, Sanders would exempt $9 million per couple. Nine million dollars, estate tax-free. And Sanders is called a radical, merely because he calls himself a democratic socialist? Talk about form over content!
Even the new favorite punching bag for right-wingers, the Green New Deal, is hardly a radical document. It might be over-inclusive (or not), and it might have some elements about which people could haggle and try to improve (it does), but it is a deliberately general and ambitious document that says that the country can move into the future by looking for ways to improve the economy while also addressing existential environmental challenges.
It says everything we need to know that Republicans are reduced to making adolescent jokes about cow flatulence while ignoring the actual goals and approaches articulated in the Green New Deal. The proposal is from Democrats, and one of its sponsors is the dreaded democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), so Republicans know what to do. Call it radical, extreme, enviro-socialist insanity. Run away!
Seriously, given that Republicans have spent the last few decades adopting genuinely extreme positions and strategies, from gutting environmental rules to using the debt ceiling and government shutdowns to hold the country hostage, who are the lawless radicals? But none of that apparently matters, however, because Republicans will always claim that Democrats are too far to the left. This is nothing new to Trump, who simply adapts the Republicans’ worst impulses to his own ends.
Is Anything Different Now?
One might respond, however, that Democrats actually have moved to the left recently, on average, and even though Republicans were going to shout “Socialism!” at anything the Democrats do, Democrats should be wary of doing anything that makes such an accusation even a bit more plausible.
The problem with that argument is that it pushes Democrats to do what cost them election after election for the past few decades, which is to fail to stand up for themselves and be for something.
It is, in fact, merely an update of what some people (like me) have called “defensive crouch liberalism,” which was the strategy popularized by the Clinton/Gore campaigns in the 1990s in which Democrats allowed themselves to be bullied into believing that their very popular policy positions were somehow too extreme and politically dangerous. (Those two general elections were Democratic victories, of course, but Democrats also lost the House majority in 1994 for the first time in forty years, with Clinton deliberately distancing himself from those supposedly extreme Democrats in Congress, and since then they have steadily lost ground by being timid and uncertain.)
The result was that Democrats allowed themselves to think that they needed to lie low, lest anyone be able to claim that they are for something that Republicans and right-wing pundits can call “too much.” When the public sees a party that lacks the courage to defend its own values, people understandably conclude that those values must not be worth defending.
And again, even when Democrats have limited themselves to anodyne or uncontroversial (or even conservative) proposals—which most definitely describes Barack Obama’s actual policies, especially his economic policies—Republicans simply call them commies (and Nazis, and Kenyans, and Stalinists) anyway.
Consider that, before the Green New Deal came along, the very first bill that the new Democratic majority in the House introduced this year, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, included various reforms to the nation’s electoral system. What could be safer, and less partisan, than to be in favor of democracy itself? No one could accuse Democrats of partisanship there, could they?
Of course they could. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, assessing Democratic proposals to undo the damage to the country’s electoral system wrought by Republicans for decades, correctly realized that those proposals would improve Democrats’ chances to win elections. His response? He called it a “power grab”—a strange way to describe grabbing power back from people who have been hijacking democracy for generations.
McConnell’s zero-sum view of politics does not say, “Are there fair rules under which both sides could compete honestly?” He says only that any rule change that hurts his side must be opposed, even—especially—if it allows more people to participate in the political system.
Not content with that sophistry, McConnell also took aim at a proposal to increase voter turnout by making Election Day a national holiday. Again, why is that anything but all-American apple pie patriotism, allowing people to vote without having to worry about being fired? McConnell snarked that Democrats merely want to create “another paid holiday,” reinforcing the Republicans’ narrative that those socialistic Democrats reward lazy people with “free stuff.” It is not pro-democracy, says McConnell, but rather an assault on employers. Yeesh.
And who could forget the culture wars? Republicans have recently revived their slanderous claim that Democrats are “baby killers.” Why? Because Democrats have passed laws in some states to protect the status quo, should the Supreme Court—freshly packed by Republicans with extreme ideologues—turn the question of abortion rights back to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade.
The point is that Democrats did not “open themselves up to attack” from Trump and the Republicans by adopting “extreme left” positions. They did not even increase the likelihood of over-the-top, unhinged Republican attacks by more forthrightly advocating popular and mainstream liberal policies. The unhinged attacks will come no matter what. Democrats might as well say what they actually want, because trying to protect themselves from unfair attacks is a fools’ errand when Republicans’ entire strategy is to use the same absurd slurs no matter what Democrats actually say or do.
Note to Anti-Trump Conservatives and Self-Styled Moderates: Have You Never Heard of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
The problem is that the baseless claims that Democrats have gone off the deep end are not merely being heard from people like McConnell and the shouters on Fox News. Even the so-called NeverTrump right is on board with the claims that Democrats have gone too far or are in danger of letting their “loony left” inadvertently reelect Trump.
It is understandable, I suppose, that people who have identified with the Republican Party for their entire lives have some kind of muscle memory when it comes to responding to liberals’ proposals. After all, these are people who are truly conservative in almost all dimensions, not having abandoned the Republicans even while it was lurching further and further to the right over the years when Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney defined the party’s march to previously unknown extremes.
It is to the NeverTrumpers’ credit that they did finally walk away when they saw an openly autocratic demagogue take over their party. Even so, they are simply more conservative than the rest of the country on almost every issue, from the minimum wage to women’s rights to racial equality. What looks “too far left” to them—a 70 percent tax rate on incomes greater than $10 million per year, for example—is both historically normal and economically defensible. They are free not to like such policies, but that does not make such policies politically unwise.
Again, I understand that these pundits disagree with Democrats on various policy proposals. And that is their right. They might also sincerely believe that advancing these proposals is (contrary to my argument above) likely to alienate enough voters that Trump could end up winning. Fine.
The problem is that these pundits are acting as if they are back in the pre-Trump era, where it was relatively safe to, say, call carbon taxes “wacko tree-hugger stuff” (even though carbon taxes have impeccable conservative intellectual credentials). They are willing to bash Trump, but then they lapse into old habits and lazily pretend that Democrats’ non-extreme policy agenda is beyond the pale. “I disagree” should not morph into “These liberals are out of their minds,” but that is the habit of mind of people who have only recently emerged from the right-wing cocoon.
Consider one recent example to illustrate this kind of knee-jerk conservative mindset. When Amazon announced last week that it was canceling its plan to locate part of its new headquarters in New York City, right-wingers of both pro-Trump and anti-Trump stripes screamed that this was lefty activism run amok, even though this was at worst a very small deal for New York and was actually an attempt to prevent governments from meddling with the private sector—“picking winners and losers,” as conservatives deride such things in other contexts. Mayor Bill de Blasio, even while foolishly accepting the inflated claims about Amazon’s magical economic powers, pointed out that the company had simply acted in bad faith and refused to make any concessions, even with $3 billion in promised public subsidies on the line.
In fact, the people who are wringing their hands about supposed Democratic extremism and the dangers of “giving Trump an opening” are guilty of precisely the sin that they accuse Democrats of committing. They say that this is no time for Democrats to insist on ideological purity, even while they equate “electability” with their own narrow ideological preferences.
The problem is that repetition of this narrative is self-reinforcing, and it is also based on nothing but hoary myths and suppositions about “what the American public can accept,” even though the American public has already in large numbers accepted the Democrats’ agenda, almost completely down the line.
When these pundits start clutching their pearls and fret that Democrats are being too extreme, it is not only false but damagingly false. Not everyone who wants Trump out of office is going to get everything they want, liberals most definitely included. But relentlessly feeding voters the false narrative that Democrats might lose because they are “[l]etting AOC write [their] policy agenda” seriously risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Loud claims that Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot are an attempt by those conservatives to have it both ways, opposing Trump without having to accept that their ideological home has been ransacked by lawless invaders. If principled conservatives want to make common cause with liberals to defeat Trump and his Republican enablers, they have to stop heckling Democrats for being Democrats and accept—and be willing to say out loud—that the people who will beat Trump have a very popular, very non-extreme agenda.