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The Future of the Democratic Party

What liberals can learn from conservatives

The future of the Democratic Party is the theme of the lead article in yesterday’s New York Times. The story more or less writes itself: you have Hillary Clinton, the face of the moderate Democratic establishment (and the spouse of the man who created it), versus Bernie Sanders, a socialist, in a battle most people thought she would have wrapped up months ago.

A lot of liberals like me spend our time wondering what the conservatives have done right—and why we can’t do it ourselves. The financial crisis and Great Recession should have debunked the ideology of deregulation, reinforced growing feelings of economic insecurity, and made people recognize the importance of the social safety net. Instead, we got the Tea Party and the most conservative Congress in living memory.

Seen in the broader sweep of history, conservatives have been relentlessly pushing the nation’s political agenda to the right on most issues (gay rights being almost the only exception), even as public opinion on most social and economic issues remains largely unchanged. Marco Rubio—just four years ago a darling of the Tea Party—is now the last hope of the Republican “moderate” establishment: what other proof is needed of the success of conservative ideology? Sure, extremism makes it hard for Republicans to win presidential elections. But although Democrats have won four and a half out of the past six contests, the result has been lower taxes on the wealthy, smaller government, no progress on climate change or gun control, and a solidly conservative federal judiciary.

So why can’t we do the same?

As liberals go, I spend a lot of time reading about conservatives, and particularly about the history of the modern American conservative movement. It was an important theme of 13 Bankers and a bigger theme of White House Burning, and it will be an even more central theme of my next book (but that’s getting ahead of myself). There were many ingredients to the conservative ascendancy, including the wealth of conservative family foundations, the politicization of the business community, and the proliferation of right-wing think tanks. But one of the most important factors was the refusal to compromise.

Intransigence has been a core principle of the far right since the dark days of the 1950s, when activists seriously debated whether President Eisenhower was a practicing communist or merely a weakling who was soft on communism. Conservative true believers’ refusal to compromise has cost Republicans plenty of battles, from the futile quest of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976 to the right wing’s abandonment of George H. W. Bush in 1992 (for violating the “read my lips” pledge.) But in the long run, it has enabled conservatives to take over the Republican Party, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and many state governments, and has given them a plausible shot at putting Ted Cruz in the White House. And they have accomplished all this while continuing to hold positions that many of us in the reality-based community think are simply absurd (anthropogenic climate change is a fraud perpetrated by the scientific community, human beings do not evolve, and Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Indonesia).

You can see where this is going. Liberals have been compromising every four years. From Dukakis to Clinton to Gore to Kerry to Obama, the left has faithfully rallied behind the moderate with the best chance of keeping the White House out of Republican hands, because of the unspeakable evil that would result otherwise. And we have gotten pretty much what we paid for. It was an Obama administration with large majorities in both houses of Congress that did nothing about campaign finance, refused to consider a single payer health care system, and saved the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in 2010.

In part, liberals’ willingness to fall in line is an acknowledgment of our overall weakness. With state legislatures and Congress drifting out of reach today, the struggle to hang onto the Oval Office has taken on increasingly desperate tones. In part, it reflects a lack of alternatives: Bill Bradley, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton—to take the last three runners-up—are not exactly the second coming of Ted Kennedy, let alone Robert Kennedy.

Whatever the reason, the thing liberals have not done—and that conservatives did—is stand on principle and vote for the ideas that we believe in.

That’s the choice we face between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, more clearly than in any nominating contest in the past thirty years.

Yes, Clinton is far more electable than Sanders—even if Sanders can attract new voters to the polls, and even though anti-Clinton sentiment is probably worth at least 40% of the electorate to whoever the Republican nominee is. Sanders is a socialist, remember, and not terribly charismatic except to people who already share his ideals.

But could Sanders be our Goldwater?

Barry Goldwater’s crushing loss in 1964 led, via Lyndon Johnson’s victory and the overreaching of the Great Society, to the collapse of both the liberal agenda and the New Deal consensus. Reading historical accounts of American conservatism, it is also clear that the Goldwater campaign was a significant milestone in the unification of the movement and a formative event for many of its future leaders—most notably Ronald Reagan, who became a national figure with his “Time for Choosing” speech and soon won the California governor’s office. The Goldwater campaign demonstrated that conservatism could be a national movement with a coherent, ideologically driven platform, which only needed to attract additional supporters. It made conservatives a distinct political force that had to be reckoned with—grudgingly accepting Richard Nixon in 1968, revolting against Gerald Ford in 1976, and finally gaining control of the national party with Ronald Reagan in 1980.

A Bernie Sanders victory over Hillary Clinton increases the risk of a Republican victory in November. But it could also be a crucial step in the development of a real liberal movement—one that can consistently fight for progressive values, shift the center of gravity of political debate, and one day reverse decades of gains by conservatives. A Sanders campaign could reshape liberalism from a motley collection of well-meaning sentiments—help working people, slow down climate change, reduce gun violence, increase access to health care, and so on—into a battle-ready ideology focused on the theme of leveling the economic and political playing fields. It could make the “Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party” a real political bloc rather than a figment of our imaginations.

Unfortunately, a Sanders campaign could also lead to a Republican victory with no silver lining. A loss in November could discredit liberalism and push Democrats back into the moderate-Republican arms of the Clintons and their allies. (In November 1964, most observers thought that Goldwater’s defeat signaled the bankruptcy of the conservative movement.) Liberals lack most of the artillery necessary to fight conservatives today: funders willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars for the long term; dozens of think tanks to incubate zealots and encourage zealotry during long years out of power; mass media organizations willing to attack the opposition without scruples or fact-checking; and activist organizations building a generation of leaders through elections to school boards and state legislatures. Without that infrastructure, a Sanders nomination could simply evaporate into the history books like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If liberals want to emulate the success of conservatives, we need more than Bernie Sanders. Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 was not the cause of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980; it was an effect of a historical trend that was already taking shape.

At the same time, however, the conservatives’ refusal to compromise their principles was a crucial element of their long-term success. Instead of compromising with the moderate Republican establishment on abortion, or evolution, or supply-side economics, instead of backing off of quixotic quests like illegal proxy wars in Central America or the impeachment of President Clinton, they stuck to their guns, recruited their foot soldiers, fired up their base, and waited. Eventually, the GOP came to them.

If liberals want to take over the Democratic Party, at some point we have to stop voting for Clintons and hoping for the best. We know where a Clinton nomination will lead: a decent chance of victory in November, four years of triangulation with Paul Ryan, and one or two Supreme Court seats—leaving us in more or less the same situation we’re in today. It will not fill the ideological gap that allows conservatives to reshape American politics despite losing the presidency over and over. At some point, aiming for the middle of a target that is slowly being tugged to the right becomes a losing strategy.

Voting for Hillary Clinton is doing the same thing one more time and hoping for a different outcome. Voting for Bernie Sanders is a way to show that liberals will stand up for their principles — while increasing the chances that the other side will control the White House for four years. That’s the choice we face. Conservatives in our position would go with principles. What will we do?


James Kwak is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, a co-author of 13 Bankers and White House Burning, and a co-founder of Guidewire Software. Find more at Twitter, Medium, The Baseline Scenario, The Atlantic, or jameskwak.net.