The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are telling Democrats to move right. It’s dreadful advice.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Democratic Party’s steady move to the left in recent times, particularly in the past year and a half, is one of the most important developments of this era in American politics. And inevitably, the concern trolls are out, telling the party that it will waste an opportunity if it goes too far to the left.

For instance, here’s former Republican James B. Comey, sharing his political insights about what does and doesn’t affect elections:

Here’s Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, telling liberals that they’ll never beat President Trump with a bunch of leftist policy ideas. And it’s not just Republicans; the group Third Way held a gathering of moderate Democrats so that they could wring their hands about where the party is going. “The Democrats, in my opinion, would make a big mistake if they decide to run a base election and just say, ‘Our base is bigger than your base,’ ” said former New Orleans mayor and possible presidential candidate Mitch Landrieu.

Why would that be a mistake? It worked for Trump, didn’t it? And the Democratic base is bigger than the Republican base; the problem is their members don’t turn out often enough.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. There’s a misconception at the heart of this debate, one that says that this is nothing more than an argument over whether persuasion or mobilization — trying to convert those who aren’t already supporting you or trying to get your own supporters to the polls — is more worthwhile. The balance between those two strategies is an important part of this (and every) election. But when we frame the choice between persuasion and mobilization as a debate about ideology, we make a fundamental mistake: believing that the way to persuade voters who aren’t already supporting you is to moderate your positions on issues.

While that may seem perfectly logical if you’re a political junkie, in the real world it seldom works. The reason is that most voters don’t think in ideological terms. They aren’t maintaining a running tally of positions candidates have taken, then assigning each candidate a score (plus 1 for her positions on abortion and health care, minus one for her position on NAFTA), then seeing which candidate’s total comes closest to the ideological score they’ve assigned themselves. That’s just not how voters make decisions.

Nobody understands this better than Republicans. After all, it’s the reason they can keep winning elections despite the fact that most of the things they want to do are absurdly unpopular. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, stopping any increase in the minimum wage, taking away protections for people with preexisting conditions, opposing even universal background checks for gun purchases? These are not popular ideas. Yet Republicans don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether they’re moving too far to the right, because they find ways, like stoking culture war issues and playing on racial resentment, that push them over the finish line.

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's primary win, columnist Elizabeth Bruenig explains why democratic socialism is taking off. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

What the concern trolls are advocating is that Democrats go back to being afraid of their own shadows the way they were for so long, convincing themselves that the American public is extremely conservative and if they don’t become more like Republicans then they have no hope of winning. It’s a belief shared by pretty much every losing Democratic presidential candidate for the past few decades; all of them radiated a sense of insecurity, apologizing for their beliefs and those of their party. It’s something Republicans never do.

That’s not to say there aren’t some Republicans out there who can be persuaded to vote for a Democrat for Congress this year or a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. But they aren’t going to be won over by candidates who say, “I’m kinda not too liberal, so how about it?” They want candidates who speak to their concerns and who aren’t ashamed of their own views — views, by the way, that are far more popular than moderate Democrats and Republicans would like to admit. We can have a debate about the practical challenges of implementing “Medicare for all,” for instance, but the idea is hugely appealing, even to many Republicans.

Aren’t there places where “He’s a Nancy Pelosi Democrat!” can still be a potent attack? Maybe — even if the idea that screaming about Pelosi changes anyone’s mind has long been asserted but never demonstrated. But if you think conservatives dislike Pelosi because they’ve carefully assessed her issue positions and decided that she’s more liberal than they are, you don’t know much about how politics works. For those who eagerly imbibe regular diatribes about her from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, Pelosi is a symbol, not an ideology. She represents women who tell men what to do and snooty coastal elites, not a collection of positions on issues.

Now let’s address the question of mobilization. Right now, the Democratic Party is benefiting from a huge wave of enthusiasm, especially from liberals, many of them young people who are tired of the timid politics that has characterized the party for so long. Democrats’ biggest problem in midterm elections is always that the Republican base — older, wealthier, whiter — tends to turn out at higher rates than the Democratic base in off years. If Democrats are going to win this year, they have to ride that new energy. And nothing would puncture it quicker than the party making a collective decision that what it really needs is the more tentative, apologetic strategy that has failed so often in the past.