Ross Douthat’s latest column asks whether the Democrats have the capacity to move to the right in response to the election results:
That kind of movement is often part of how political parties recover from debilitation and defeat — not just by finding new ways to be true to their underlying ideology, but by scrambling toward the center to convince skeptical voters that they’ve changed. It’s what Democrats did, slowly but surely, after the trauma of Ronald Reagan’s triumphs; it’s what Bill Clinton did after his 1994 drubbing; it’s what Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean did, to a modest degree, on their way to building a congressional majority in 2006. And it’s also what Donald Trump did on his way to stealing the Midwest from the Democrats this year — he was a hard-right candidate on certain issues but a radical sort of centrist on trade, infrastructure and entitlements, explicitly breaking with Republican orthodoxies that many voters considered out-of-date.
If the idea of moving rightward seems distinctly strange to today’s Democrats, it’s partially because until this month’s rude awakening, much of liberalism was in thrall to demographic triumphalism: Convinced that the party’s leftward drift under President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton was in line with the drift of the country as a whole, and confident that with every birth and death and naturalization and 18th birthday their structural advantage would only grow.
Because Trump won without the popular vote, a version of this theory is still intact — but it shouldn’t be. The Democratic coalition is a losing coalition in most states, most House districts, most Senate races; the party’s national bench is thin, its statehouse power shattered, its congressional leadership aged and inert. It has less political power than it did after the Reagan revolution and the Gingrich sweep. To repurpose an aphorism often applied to Brazil: It has the majority of the future, and if current trends continue, it always will.
So the incentives are there to look for issues where Democrats might plausibly move rightward, back toward voters they have lost. And so are the issues themselves. The Democrats have ceded a lot of territory in their recent gallop leftward, and it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with a revised version of the (again, Bill) Clinton playbook suited to the present time.
He then proposes four areas where Democrats could move rightward and thereby improve their standing with voters:
- Declare a “culture-war truce” that explicitly validates institutional pluralism and dissent from the regnant socially-liberal set of values.
- Focus on earned benefits and stress the importance of work as a buy-in to the social safety net.
- Acknowledge the importance of borders and the legitimacy of immigration as a topic of democratic debate.
- Add efforts to reduce crime and respond to the “spike in lawlessness” to the existing agenda of sentencing reform.
But these shifts would require asking both identitarian and populist liberals (and the many-if-not-most liberals who identify with both strands) to compromise some of their commitments, to accept that open borders and desexed bathrooms and a guaranteed income and mass refugee resettlement will remain somewhat-radical causes rather than simply and naturally becoming the Democratic Party line.
This is a hard ask, since even modest shifts require compromising deeply held (if, in some cases, recently discovered) ideals. And it’s made much harder by the fact that liberals spent the last four years telling themselves that such compromises were not necessary anymore, that they belonged to the benighted 1990s and need trouble liberal consciences no more.
If Douthat will forgive the characterization, I’m afraid he’s sounding far too much like a dismal member of the centrist elite here. That’s not to say I think the Democrats shouldn’t move on some of these matters. It’s to say that “we need to compromise our principles to expand the coalition” is the wrong way to get there. Rather, the only way to get there is through principled argument. And the only way to have that argument is to let people who genuinely favor change — not as a matter of compromise but as a matter of principle — into the debate, and then have the debate.
Let’s start with Douthat’s first idea: a culture war truce. I believe, personally, that this would just flat-out be a good idea, because I believe in principle in institutional diversity. The difficulty for liberals is articulating the boundaries of that principle: how can you say “freedom of association for dissenters from the sexual revolution” but not “freedom of association for dissenters from the civil rights revolution” without saying, in so many words, “gay people’s rights matter less than African American people’s rights?”
I put that out there not as a way of saying, “there’s no solution to that problem,” but as a way of saying, “this is the problem, now let’s solve it” in such a way that threatens neither the rights of gay people, nor the rights of African-Americans, nor the rights of religious traditionalists. But “let’s solve it” requires that gay rights advocates and civil rights advocates and traditional Mormons and Catholics be in the same room under the same tent, trying to solve it. A workable solution can’t be dictated to either side, nor even concocted by some central committee and then sold as a compromise. It has to emerge as a compromise between advocates with differing views.
Similarly with immigration. I agree as a matter of principle that borders are important and that immigration is a legitimate subject for democratic debate. But a compromise that is going to work has to emerge from an internal debate that includes people who advocate a more open immigration policy and people who think mass immigration is causing real harm. Same thing again with crime and sentencing reform.
The version of compromise that Douthat articulates is a marketer’s version: how do we repackage the product to make it more appealing. But the Democratic Party shouldn’t be a product. A party’s job is to represent the people of the country. To do that, it needs to actually represent the people of the United States. Pulling a coalition together that does represent the people surely requires compromise, but that compromise needs to be negotiated between those groups — and each side has to want to compromise so that they can work together on common goals.
And what are those common goals? Well, if they are economic, or if they relate to the distribution of power, or the degree to which people feel they have control over their lives, then there’s plenty of evidence that the Democrats have room to move left rather than right. After all, Donald Trump won the Republican primary and the general election running on being tough on Wall Street, massive spending on rebuilding our national infrastructure, and renegotiating trade deals to bring back manufacturing jobs. You can doubt whether he’ll do those things (I do), and you can note how he ran as a conventional right-winger — or even an extreme right-winger — on other issues. But on those issues, which were central to his campaign, he ran to the left not only of the Republican party but arguably of the Democratic nominee.
Am I just saying that the Sanders populists are right and the “identitarian liberals” are wrong and should shut up? I don’t think so — I’m certainly not saying “shut up” to anyone; quite the opposite. I’m saying that the only way out of this is to give up the idea that anybody is obliged to shut up. I’m saying have the argument — and that to have the argument, you need to have people who disagree in the same tent disagreeing with each other. And the way you get them in the tent isn’t by saying “here’s our new product — we designed it for you” but “we want your help designing our new product so that it best meets your needs.” Or, better, “we’re not just here for your vote; we’re here to stay.” Because if you are determined to stay, you will figure out how to get along, and how to compromise.
And, funny thing, you might even discover that you win some of those arguments by actually convincing people.