I argued in a recent Verdict column that Donald Trump and the Republicans are wrongly trying to save their political hides by distorting the word “socialism” to scare self-described moderate voters into rejecting the Democrats. This is hardly a new political strategy, with red-baiting tactics being a staple on the right at least since the Great Depression. To note only the most obvious examples, the now-wildly-popular Social Security and Medicare programs, to say nothing of the idea that rich people should pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes, were vociferously denounced as creeping socialism (and worse) when they were enacted.
But given that Republicans have nothing to offer that would actually improve most people’s lives, they have no choice but to create imaginary bogeymen and distort what Democrats are saying. “The US will turn into Venezuela soon!” they say. Other than news junkies, however, how many voters know enough about Venezuela’s troubles even to view that country as a cautionary tale, much less to follow the bizarre and crooked line that Republicans are trying to draw from Venezuela’s corrupt government to the Democratic Party?
Whether or not the Trump/Republican strategy works to scare enough voters—and not forgetting the ongoing Republican efforts to suppress the votes of younger and poorer people—the fact is that Democrats, even the more liberal Democrats who call themselves democratic socialists, are anything but immoderate. On the substance of what various Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders have announced, the party is solidly in the mainstream of American thought.
Yes, there are differences among Democrats about strategy and timing, with some saying that the health-care system should not be changed too quickly. If the Republicans are hanging their hopes of saving the wasteful and cruel (but highly profitable for Republican donors) US health care system on regular people’s love of their health insurance policies, however, they are surely grasping at straws. People do want to be able to choose their doctors, but how many times has anyone said, “I love my UnitedHealthcare PPO plan, and you can’t take that away from me”?
Moreover, Democrats’ supposedly extreme tax and spending policies are not only popular but draw from very recent American experience, as I will discuss below. The American public likes what Democrats are selling, both because it seems normal and right to reject gross inequality and because Democrats’ methods are simply so familiar.
Attacks on Democrats’ Policies as Being Too Extreme Actually Reflect Pundits’ Own Extremism
Beyond the substance of the Democrats actual proposals, however, some anti-Trump conservative pundits are having heart palpitations because Democrats are supposedly throwing away the 2020 election by having gone too far to the left. As I argued in a follow-up column, that claim has nothing to do with the substance of what Democrats are doing and everything to do with the desire of those conservative pundits to “have it all.” They want to get rid of Trump, but they also want to keep all of the (again, wholly unpopular) conservative policies that Democrats reject.
This strategy of accusing Democrats of extremism as a mirror of Republicans’ extremism does, unfortunately, seem to be working its way into people’s consciousness. Just as one example, I recently had a conversation with an American professor who is a renowned expert on the science of climate change, and we were joined by a British history professor. Neither of them had anything good to say about Trump, which is no surprise from people who care about the things that Republicans are destroying. I was surprised, however, when the Brit asked whether today’s Democratic Party still includes any moderates, and the American replied: “No, they’ve all gone to the extreme left.” The Brit then said, “Yes, that’s what I heard.” Obviously referring to US Representative (and bogeywoman for the right) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he then added: “And that Cortina woman is terrifying.” The American nodded.
Again, anyone who looks at the actual policies that these supposedly extreme Democrats are proposing will be hard-pressed to find anything immoderate (much less terrifying). The Democrats have, instead, in large measure simply given up at long last on their decades-long strategy of trying to find common ground with mythical “reasonable Republicans,” a strategy that allowed the Republicans to continue to move to the right while supposedly “pragmatic” Democrats chased them with ever more concessions.
But this recent move to the left by Democrats actually amounts to a statistical adjustment. That is, the average Democrat is now more liberal than five or ten years ago, but they have essentially clustered around a very popular and genuinely moderate set of views and policies—reasonable gun control measures, ending Republicans’ regressive tax giveaways, admitting that climate change is real, addressing the college debt crisis, and so on—that have their roots in policies that have worked in America in the past and can work again.
If the Democrats actually are not extreme, however, why are even some people outside of the Trumpist cult willing to believe that they have gone off the rails? The problem is that the pearl-clutching among pundits on the anti-Trump right commingles two different categories of objections.
On substance, they reject Democrats for advocating policies that are “too far left” only in the sense that they are to the left of these pundits’ own preferences. What these pundits are actually saying, in fact, is that they are perfectly satisfied with the radical-right changes wrought by Republicans (and triangulating Democrats) over the past four decades.
Those policy decisions, starting with the Reagan presidency and carried forward to this day, have made people’s working lives miserable and uncertain, exacerbated sexism and racism, and created inequality that rivals the Gilded Age that preceded the Great Depression (which nearly destroyed capitalism).
By contrast, it is on matters of process, not substance, that the anti-Trump right actually has a good point to make. Understanding the difference is crucial to seeing where the true stakes are in the current moment.
A Very Different Kind of False Equivalence: Substance and Process
Again, if we were to have a debate about the substance of various policy proposals, a debate in which the anti-Trump conservatives could ignore Trump and simply make their cases for the policies that they prefer, they would lose both intellectually and politically. They thus resort to saying that Democrats are being immoderate, but that is merely because they know that the label “moderate” sounds good to Americans’ ears.
That is standard-issue political rhetoric, of course, but what makes the current situation different is that these same pundits (as well as, I must emphasize, many supposedly neutral news reporters and headline writers, who have mindlessly adopted the “too far left” trope) want to scold Democrats for being at fault for making it more likely that Trump could win next year. Their lament, in essence is: “How can you Democrats adopt policy positions that I personally don’t like, making it harder for me to support you? Don’t you know how important it is for Trump to lose?”
Well, yes, it is important that Trump lose, for reasons that go far beyond the content of his policies, even though those policies truly are indefensible—regressive tax cuts, gratuitous attacks on desperate refugees, setting polluters free to poison water supplies, taking away workers’ rights, gutting financial protections in an effort to allow Wall Street to make ever larger profits, and on and on.
The reason that the anti-Trump right exists, after all, is almost entirely a matter of legitimate worry over the political process. Put more bluntly, American conservatives who are genuine “constitutional conservatives” (unlike the fake versions who gleefully flock to Trump) understand that there are more important things than, say, the optimal design of the estate tax. What matters for the future is that the American political system survives the Trumpian onslaught.
Why is that categorically different from disputes over the substance of policy debates? Imagine that you are an anti-Trump conservative. If you are on the winning side in the fight to save our constitutional democracy, you can live to fight another day to attempt to reverse your losses in the fights over various substantive policies. But the opposite is not true, because if we lose the fight for our political system, there will be no more opportunities to fight for anything else.
When pundits and journalists wring their hands and say that “both sides are so extreme, why can’t there be a moderate middle?” therefore, they are not (as some commentators have noted) merely stating a preference for the “socially liberal, economically conservative” mix of views that turns out to have only a tiny (4 percent or so) level of support in the population as a whole.
That is most definitely an error of hubris (and of simply being out of touch), but their much more dangerous error is in directly comparing Republicans’ extremism about the political process with Democrats’ (perceived) extremism on the merits of their policy proposals. “Both sides should just stop it” makes it sound as if both sides are doing equally damaging—and equally irreversible—things. That is false.
The concept of “false equivalence” is usually invoked to describe journalistic mental gymnastics that try to say that both sides are wrong, but the degrees are wildly disproportionate. Trump says openly racist things, for example, but too many journalists grabbed onto the (completely misunderstood) “deplorables” comment to say, “And Clinton says bad things, too.” Again, the substance/process distinction here is a very different kind of false equivalence, because we are talking about categorical differences, not differences in degree.
Process Is (Almost) Everything
Interestingly, when legal scholars discuss process versus substance, it is typical to treat the substance as the more important part of the discussion. “Mere” process questions seem to stand in the way getting to what truly matters. Death penalty litigation, for example, is littered with process hurdles that can prevent meritorious substantive claims from being heard.
Donald Trump’s invocation of emergency powers is wrong on the merits, and it is worrying that courts might invoke process hurdles (such as justiciability) to avoid reaching the substance of what is wrong. Interestingly, however, in that case the substance is itself a higher goal of process, which is preservation of the separation of powers.
In American politics today, the standard situation (where substance dominates process) is reversed. Reasonable people can disagree on the substance of various public policies, but it is more important than ever that they agree to maintain the integrity of the US Constitution’s political processes.
The Democratic Party might not currently be offering everyone their precise mix of desired policies (although, if one believes the polling data, the Democrats’ current positions command clear majorities on every issue), but that can be remedied by a robust political system with true accountability and fair elections.
Being wrong on substance is a shame, but being wrong on process is a catastrophe. We must stop confusing the two.