2016’s Biggest Loser: The Political Moderate
With the stunning loss of Hillary Clinton, and the nation’s dignity, we enter now a battle of the fringes, and the few moderates that remain must ride it out.
The triumph of Trump is the story of how a small fringe got its chance to take over a major political party fueled by massive polarization. This fringe began its campaign years before, as Obama was elected, and it did so with a two pronged strategy: full fledged populism and a quiet assault on the party’s moderates. The freedom caucus, purity tests, NGO’s constantly watching of votes, and the Government Shutdown, all aimed at pulling the party further and further to the right and the rejection of bipartisanship. Now we have the rich celebrity man who represented the most extreme opposition to Obama, who claimed he wasn’t even eligible to be president, winning the White House and the Republican Party.
The Democratic party, meanwhile, had watched this occur, thinking “oof, thank god that isn’t us”, but could they be so lucky? polarization spares no one, so the Sanders “revolution” knocked on their doors. The party resisted, insisted on a leader of the center, and it lost it all. Now what?
The Sanders Faction wins with Trump
It took many by surprise that there would be a movement in the Democratic party that wanted to tear it apart. The party had been successful twice in a presidential election, Obama had achieved a great amount of modest but important change, and this Democratic rule had only been slowed down and thawrted by the relentless opposition from the far right and a Republican establishment that appeared powerless to stop it. Seemingly out of nowhere they came, with a non-Democrat as their candidate, flipping tables, and yelling that “the system was rigged”. Their complaint was that “Democrats were not left enough”. They were right, Obama promised so many vague and grand things in 2008 that he did not achieve, that one can understand their frustration as the governing coalition was eaten away by conservative wins in 2010 and 2014. Yet, a move further to the left seemed to be a strange strategy for a year that political science models (which ended up being spot on in their prediction) warned had a conservative advantage — a disadvantage for the ruling party going into the election, regardless of the candidate. Despite Clinton and Sanders being aligned on 90% of the issues, the Sanders group got more and more intense and in their attacks, they had to dip into Republican negative campaigns about Clinton to attempt to bring her down.
The idea that Democratic moderates are the enemy did not come out of nowhere, it was quiet but growing. It had not gained a lot of traction, though, until Sanders. They were tired of what they saw as “concessions” from moderates to Republicans. As such, they took from the far right playbook when they traveled to Florida (a battleground state!) to aim a personal vendetta against Debbie Wassermann Schultz, a popular incumbent (but also controversial DNC leader), to bring her down on the basis of being a Clinton ally and a massive crook. This kind of intra-party fight in a primary had not been seen on the Democratic side during the Obama years, and signaled their clear intent on purging moderates/establishment. DWS won anyway because “all politics is local”, but the whole mess was going to be hard to clean up, and when Clinton won the primary (amidst conspiracy theories that she didn’t), could we really expect to go back to a time when Democrats were Democrats? after the Sanders campaign basically labeled Clinton a secret Republican?
Now they get the party. Hillary’s defeat signifies the awarding of bragging rights to Bernie supporters and the hypothetical that “Bernie would have won based on polling at the time and his economic agenda” becomes true even if it wasn’t, by virtue of the fact that we never got to try it. We won’t know if he would have overcome a mountain of negative opposition research, anti immigration and anti muslim sentiments, and the fact that he was a socialist. But they are right, the moderates were not able to win against Trump, and in a winner-take-all political system winning is everything.
Among the many reasons why Clinton lost the election lies the faith that moderate Republicans would align with her in standing up to Trump. This hope, sadly, died early on when establishment figure after establishment figure lined up with its nominee and other moderate Republicans indicated that they would not vote for Trump, but also not for her. That kind of wishful thinking belonged to another era, to the long forgotten past where moderates mattered.
Bipartisanship used to be an ideal. Today it is synonymous with betrayal
It seems like ages ago when we praised the idea of “reaching accross the aisle”. Today’s politics are now dominated by the extreme demonization of the people accross the aisle and what they stand for.
The Tea Party movement, in particular, destroyed this concept for Republicans, but Democrats held on to it. Some out of belief, some were obliged. Obama was the latter, he moved to the center because the institutions forced him to. But it changed his own beliefs. The most liberal candidate ever elected for the Presidency became more moderate in office when he encountered the challenges and reality of actual governing. Why? Because the system of checks and balances, separation of powers, and structural factors (the country being large and diverse), makes it very difficult to govern without some sort of consensus.
The radicalization of the Republican Party and the loss of its moderates with whom Democrats could forge compromise is the single biggest reason why Obama was not able to do more while in office, and it is the primary reason for the governance crisis that the country continues to face. The lesson from this should be that both parties must return to bipartisanship, to valuing its moderates more — the people who serve as bridges and work to channel the demands of their base.
But the bases are tired of the middle man, because they want no compromise. The bases cannot compromise because their agendas are not mere policy positions, they are visions of America, paths for the country that stand opposite from each other. Any watering down, any concession, is a betrayal of the principles of their vision. So here we are, in a situation where it is blasphemy now for a Democrat to support free trade and for a Republican to support immigration reform, and so on and so forth. But it is fair to say that bipartisanship is a two way street, with the lack of moderate Republicans to compromise in the Obama years, the Democratic base can easily ask “then why should we?”. A fair question indeed.
Trump’s win puts moderate Republicans further at the bottom of the totem pole of power. What remains to be seen is how the right will govern with a fringe that is not at all unified. A candidate that stands against basic ideological stances in the Republican party (the pro business and trade being the most prominent one).
As for the left, Democrats must ask themselves what kind of opposition they want to be. Now that the victorious Bernie faction will work to rid the party of its leadership of moderates and “establishment figures”, will they be able to make gains in badly-needed congressional seats, state legislatures, and governorships, that all lie in currently red states (non-urban areas), with a sharp left turn? We shall see in 2018.
The Democratic Party’s sharp left turn and Trump’s presidency will present us with a battle of the bases/fringes. Expect it to get really dirty. Moderates from both parties will watch from the sidelines unable to really opin, but even they will have no choice but to stick to their corners. Things have gotten way too heated and there is no middle space from which to stand anymore.
Yet, there is a feeling that this was inevitable and out of our control. Growing income inequality, lowering educational standards, large scale demographic change, the recent immigration wave, the balkanization of news, all brought us to this point: Polarization. And with it, the end of compromise.