The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are finally doing politics the way Republicans do

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

For many years, Democrats have been convinced that the American people, and even their Republican opponents, are open to persuasion. If they could just have the opportunity to explain why their policies are morally right and practically effective, they could win almost anyone over.

Republicans, on the other hand, harbored no illusions about persuading Democrats of anything. Instead, they had a much more hard-headed view of how politics works.

And now it seems that Democrats are finally coming around to the GOP’s way of thinking.

That has broad ramifications for the future of American politics, not just in how elections are run but how policy is made.

Let’s take one example: Today, Rep. Swalwell of California has an op-ed in USA Today in which he proposes a genuine ban on assault weapons — not just the manufacture of new weapons, as was the case in the temporary ban passed when Bill Clinton was president, but a genuine effort to make military-style rifles illegal for civilians:

Instead, we should ban possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, we should buy back such weapons from all who choose to abide by the law, and we should criminally prosecute any who choose to defy it by keeping their weapons. The ban would not apply to law enforcement agencies or shooting clubs.

You can guess the reaction from gun advocates: Aha, see! They really are coming for our guns!

This is just one congressman, but for decades you couldn’t find an elected Democrat who would even suggest such a thing. The prevailing strategy has been to reassure gun owners that they aren’t interested in confiscating anyone’s guns; they just want some sensible measures to increase safety.

With Democratic optimism on the rise for a "blue wave" in 2018, here's their strategy for winning more state and national seats than Republicans. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

But that strategy has not been met by the other side, which adopts a categorical opposition to any compromise. The NRA and Republicans in Congress are even opposed to universal background checks, which are supported by over 90 percent of the public. They take that position because they’ve made a calculation that there isn’t much point in trying to look reasonable or win over those who might disagree with them. Instead, the way you get what you want is to follow this formula:

  1. Take maximal positions that excite your base
  2. Win elections
  3. Pass bills you like and kill bills you don’t like

This isn’t just about guns. Democrats are now starting to propose extremely progressive ideas on all kinds of other issues, like Medicare for all (or most, at least) and even a federal job guarantee. They know these ideas will find no support among Republicans, but they no longer care. They remember well how Barack Obama crafted a health care plan with roots in the Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney’s reform in Massachusetts, then spent months trying to convince Republicans in Congress to come to a compromise with him, only to be strung along and ultimately get zero Republican votes in either house.

So many Democrats have concluded that with an electorate as polarized as ours, persuading the other side on almost anything has become basically impossible. If that’s true, and if mobilization is what wins elections, then one important question when crafting policy proposals (especially at a time like now when they’re out of power and can’t actually pass anything) is: “What version of this is going to get our base most excited?

When it comes to step 3, you still have to deal with the fact that there will on most issues be some diversity of thought in your party. So if you want to actually make change, the bill that passes will be the one that’s acceptable to the 50th (or 60th, depending on what process is being used) vote in the Senate. That vote may be a relatively moderate one, but if you’ve started from a maximal position like banning possession of military-style rifles or offering a federal job guarantee, that senator may be willing to go along with something that’s not as liberal as it might be, but is still pretty darn liberal.

The principle applies to candidates, too, and Republicans seemed to validate it in 2016. Instead of trying to “reach out” to voters they hadn’t had success with in the past, they chose the nastiest, ugliest, most bigoted candidate in the race, the one who got their base worked up to heights of rage. In the end, even supposedly moderate Republicans got on board, and he cobbled together an electoral college victory.

The Democrats are going to confront this question in two years: Do they want a candidate whom they think is “electable” — i.e., a candidate who would appeal to voters who are not in their party — or should they just pick the one that gets them the most excited?

To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate who’s the farthest to the left. Democrats were more excited about Barack Obama than any other nominee in my lifetime, and probably any since at least John F. Kennedy, yet Obama was not the most liberal Democrat around. Obama thrilled them for some of the same reasons Trump thrilled Republicans: personal charisma and an appeal grounded in identity. So it doesn’t have to be about ideological purity, but it does mean not worrying about what the other side might be comfortable with.

There’s a strong case to be made that this polarization-driven politics in which neither side even tries to persuade the other is bad for all of us. But it’s our reality. And it’s no longer the case that only one side understands it.