The Danger of Moderation

One of the problems in all of the election prognostication–leaving aside phenomena like faith in polls not seen–is that people don’t explicitly state their theory of the election (for lack of a better phrase). I’ve argued that low-frequency, likely Democratic voters are the road to victory, especially in swing states (and that appealing to these voters might have the added bonus of bringing marginal Trump voters back into the fold). Getting these voters will not be achieved by moderation, but focusing on the issues they care about. Ibram Kendi makes a related point about moderate Democrats (boldface mine):

Moderate Democrats have been consistently inconsistent for decades. They have been rightfully critical of the prospect of a progressive presidential nominee: A progressive could alienate centrist voters, drive up voting rates among conservatives, and imperil the reelection chances of House Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016. Moderate Democrats have wrongfully refused to be self-critical of the prospect of a moderate presidential nominee: A moderate could alienate progressive voters into not voting or voting third party, drive down the voting rates of the party’s younger and nonwhite base, and fail to win back young or liberal white working-class swing voters who swung from Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. To be a progressive in a party with a moderate is like being on a team with someone who sees all your deficiencies and does not see any of his own deficiencies, who always takes the credit when he wins, and never accepts blame when he loses

My fears are rooted in what the doctrine of the electable moderate conveniently misses: the crucial importance of the other swing voter in swinging elections in the 21st century. The traditional, white swing voter oscillates between voting Republican and Democrat—the be-all and end-all for moderate Democrats. Some Americans never vote. But I worry about the other swing voter, the one who swings between voting Democrat and not voting (or voting third party).

Despite all the talk of the 6 million Obama-to-Trump voters winning the election for Trump, more Obama voters in 2012 swung to not voting (4.4 million) or voting third party (2.3 million) in 2016. These other swing voters were more likely to be younger and people of color—and especially young black people. Today, they are likely to favor progressive candidates. They are likely to be turned off by moderate candidates, turned off by the records of Biden, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on issues of race and gender.

If Democrats nominate a moderate who loses a decisive mass of young black voters in November, then I suspect most moderates will not blame the party’s choice for Trump’s reelection. I suspect they will blame those other swing voters who swung to not voting.

If Democrats nominate a progressive who loses a decisive mass of white swing voters in November, then I suspect those very same moderates will blame the party’s choice for Trump’s reelection. I suspect they will not blame those white swing voters who swung to Trump. They will blame the progressive nominee for turning them toward Trump. They will repeatedly say they warned progressives of a replay of 1972 if they nominated another McGovern in 2020…

Take the aftermath of the 2016 election. In her memoir, What Happened?, Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey, Sanders, Russian operatives, sexism, the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, white resentment, the media airtime of Trump and the email scandal, and, bravely, herself. It is undeniable that all of these factors contributed to her defeat. But something even more basic could have been the deciding factor: moderate Democrats nominating Clinton over Sanders. Instead of blaming everyone else, including Clinton, perhaps those Democrats responsible for nominating her should be blaming themselves.

If the roles were reversed, most moderates would almost certainly be imploring progressives to blame themselves. If Sanders had been nominated in 2016, and similar factors contributed to his defeat, then I suspect moderates would not be highlighting all these factors, just as they do not highlight the factors that contributed to McGovern’s loss in 1972…

But it is clear McGovern was ahead of his time; and perhaps his time, the time of the progressive nominee, is now. Trump is an unpopular incumbent. And the chance of Trump winning the majority of young voters, 18 percent of black voters, and 36 percent of Democrats—as Nixon did in 1972—is slim. And as The New Republic’s Joshua Mound notes, “With each passing decade, the types of voters drawn to McGovern’s 1972 campaign have become a larger and larger share of the American electorate, while the issues championed by McGovern have become more and more salient.”

I don’t know if Kendi is right, but it’s worth noting that the Democrats who won the presidency–and turned out to be moderate–didn’t campaign as moderates, or at least had some left-ish campaign promises (often unmet, but that’s another blog post for another time).

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