The Pragmatic Left: Making a Bigger Tent

By JOEY LYONS

Graphic by ESME FAHNESTOCK.

Donald Trump’s election stunned the Democratic Party. An unprecedented campaign yielded an unimagined result. Election night climaxed with televisions splashing images of sobbing Hillary supporters and euphoric MAGA-hatted Trump acolytes.  

Democrats were due for this rude awakening. Republicans have dominated the recent political landscape, and, prior to the 2018 election, Democrats held fewer elected positions in the United States than at any time since the 1920s. However, it took someone as appalling as Trump for us to realize our current political inefficacy and start discussing a viable path to restored political power.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake summarized the Democrat’s historically bad position in 2016. Republicans in that year controlled:

– 33 of 50 governorships: a record.

– 68 out of 98 state legislative chambers: tied for the record. 

– The entire legislatures in 33 out of 50 states: another record.

– 4,171 out of 7,383 state legislative seats (56.5 percent of all seats): yet another record.

Republican power at the local and state levels eclipsed Democrats’ power even before Trump took office. Liberals were either ignorant or complacent about that fact. Our party needed  revamping: one that cared not only about getting the issues “right”, but also one that valued winning elections. After all, in a democracy, the losers do not get to make the rules. After the 2018 election, that revamping may become a reality if we can set aside ideological purity for pragmatic decisions that win seats in diverse districts (beyond liberalism’s coastal strongholds). 

Once Trump took office, his antics and bigotry energized Democrats. The erratic President and his controversies captured our attention. We watched as Trump and a GOP Congress chaotically pursued a regressive agenda that featured tax cuts for the rich, an almost successful attempt to repeal Obamacare, a ballooning fiscal deficit, a retreat on climate change regulations, and the separation of children from their families at the border.

In last November’s midterm elections, the Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, implemented an effective electoral strategy. Rather than repeating Hillary Clinton’s failed strategy during the 2016 campaign, which emphasized Trump’s moral failings but did not articulate a clear alternative vision to cure the country’s ills, Democratic leaders encouraged their candidates to stress health care, increased wages, decreased prescription drug prices, and other kitchen-table issues. The Democrats’ economic message in 2018 resonated with a broad coalition of voters across the country, and the Party gained forty seats and won the House. 

Despite their midterm success, Democrats remain divided over how the party should proceed.

One group argues that Democratic candidates won elections because they advocated progressive policies like universal basic income, Medicare for All, and free college, while also calling for the abolition of ICE and Trump’s impeachment. Fearless progressivism, they claim, stirred the base of younger voters, many of whom were women and minorities. This cadre was led by the exciting victories of representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, and the near victory of Beto O’Rourke in dead red Texas. 

Democrats seeking to flip Republican voters and win contested districts must focus on health care and jobs.”

However, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley did not gain seats for the Democrats. They simply took seats that had been held by reliable, albeit a bit more centrist, liberal Democrats. O’Rourke lost. Moreover, their progressive voices have pushed the party left, endangering moderate Democrats in centrist areas. 

More centrist Democrats recognize that, if you want to address Democrats’ lack of political power, you need to win seats that were previously Republican or hold onto Democratic seats in areas that often vote conservative. Last November, Pelosi helped Democratic candidates find success in moderate districts by resisting her party’s pull to the left. Pelosi’s San Francisco voters pushed her to confront Trump on immigration and funding for Planned Parenthood, but she refused.  “Those things are in our DNA, but they are not in our talking points,” Pelosi said. 

Research shows that Pelosi’s strategy of forsaking hot-button, wedge issues in favor of a focus on economic populism is best. Extensive polling and focus group research collected by the House Majority PAC indicates that Democrats seeking to flip Republican voters and win contested districts must focus on health care and jobs.

There are many examples of Pelosi’s strategy bearing fruit. For example, Conor Lamb won a traditionally Republican district in western Pennsylvania by emphasizing health care and tax equity. This was a big gain for the Democratic Party, and should not be dismissed because Lamb took conservative stances on gun rights and supported Trump’s tariff policy, positions that aligned with the voters in his district. In West Virginia, which Trump carried by the widest margin in the entire nation (an astounding 42 percent gap), Democrat Joe Manchin held on to his Senate seat because voters saw him as fighting for the economically disadvantaged. To do this, Manchin had to show some conservative bona fides, such as voting to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, opposing abortion, and receiving an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association as recently as 2012. While he would not have been an ideal Democratic candidate in Massachusetts or California, he was the only kind of Democrat that has a shot at winning in West Virginia. 

Because of the more extreme left’s quest for purity on this issue, the Democrats lost an important Senate seat.”

Liberal purity on social wedge issues often undermines moderate Democrats who campaign in red states and threatens recent Democratic successes. Take the midterm election in Missouri, a state Trump won by nineteen points. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill lost her seat last November in part because of criticism from abortion activists. Throughout the election, young progressives denounced McCaskill for not being a sufficiently prominent, vocal supporter of women’s reproductive freedoms. What these progressive attacks failed to acknowledge was McCaskill’s strong, pro-choice voting record. 

In an interview with the New York Times after her loss, McCaskill called the abortion activists “irritating … It would’ve been one thing if I ever wavered, but I’ve had to take a lot of tough votes on this issue over the years. I have been standing in the breach for women’s rights as it relates to reproductive freedom for all of my adult life.” In the end, Missouri elected Senator Josh Hawley, a staunch pro-life Republican. Because of the more extreme left’s quest for purity on this issue, the Democrats lost an important Senate seat. They also ironically replaced a consistent vote for reproductive rights with a Republican whom Planned Parenthood called “An anti-abortion zealot who wants to take America back to the days of the 1950s.”

The left needs to stop setting up circular firing squads. When activists make contentious issues litmus tests for holding office, it hurts moderate Democrats campaigning in conservative states. Our candidates need to be able to attract votes in socially-conservative districts without fearing retribution from coastal progressives. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Let’s broaden the Democratic tent, and allow centrist voices to campaign in moderate districts.

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1 Comment

One Response to “The Pragmatic Left: Making a Bigger Tent”

  1. John Lyons on January 17th, 2019 2:24 pm

    What a thoughtful, pragmatic piece, Joey…beautifully written and carefully reasoned! I wonder what sort of reception this will receive on campus given the disastrous Chas. Murray visit two years ago when intolerant protestors kicked the noxious Donald Trump off the front pages of newspapers for a few days. The “more perfect Union” we all seek moves in fits and starts. Two steps forward, one step back…lets hope for continued progress. One would do well to contemplate Lincoln’s political leadership in the early months of the Civil War. He modestly remarked that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” He was being far too modest. The moment he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he did. Until then, it was to be a war to “preserve the Union,” leaving antislavery on the shelf for the time being. To have been “pure” on slavery issue too early might have delayed slavery’s destruction.

    John Lyons
    Groton, MA




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The Pragmatic Left: Making a Bigger Tent