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On the split between moderate and progressive Democrats


There’s clearly a split within the Democratic Party—a split that was largely papered over during the terrible Trump years, when Democrats all along the political spectrum united to rid America of its greatest menace in modern history. The split is often referred to as “moderates” versus “progressives.” As a lifelong Democrat, reared in a household infused with the values of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, I hadn’t really thought much about this divide until recently. It always seemed to me that some things on the so-called “progressive side,” such as universal healthcare and higher taxes on the rich, were good, while some things on the moderate side, such as a more nuanced approach to race and policing issues, were also good.

But the 2020 election has revealed how profound the Democratic split is. Yes, we elected Joe Biden, a triumph of electoral political organizing. But Democrats did far worse than expected in the House and the Senate, a fact that has struck alarm bells among professional Democrats already looking down the road to the 2022 off-year elections.

The fact is, a lot of white people didn’t vote for Joe Biden, or for any other Democrat. And Democrats saw a hemorrhage of Black and Brown voters to Republicans. That in itself should freak Democrats out. Why didn’t we take the Senate? Why didn’t we gain another 10 or 15 seats in the House?

Elissa Slotkin thinks she knows why. A Democratic Congresswoman from Michigan, she just won re-election to a second term—but by a hair, far less than she or her advisors expected. In a series of interviews she gave Politico, she explained her view that Democrats need to radically re-adjust the way they talk to working-class Americans; she indicts “New York and California” Democrats as talking down to voters in flyover country and thus alienating millions of people who think of Democrats as elitist snobs.

As one of those California Democrats, I’ll start with myself. Mea culpa: I tend to look at red states as yahoo country. populated by Bible-thumpers, superstitious evangelicals, anti-science ignoramuses who believe whatever their pastors tell them. They’re homophobes, obviously, and they’re certainly Islamophobes. Some are racists, pure and simple. And they’re politically stupid: they routinely vote for Republicans who really have no interest in working class Americans, but who go to Washington to lower taxes on the rich and feather their own nests.

That, anyway, has been my opinion of red state Republicans for all of my adult life. And let’s be clear, many of these indictments are true. There are some very nasty ingredients in the Republican stew, some very bad people—Hillary’s deplorables. At the same time, I’m interested in advancing Democratic interests going forward, and I realize there’s a very real possibility of Republican victories in 2022, including a loss of the House. This forces me, and it should force all thoughtful Democrats, to look at ourselves and our party, and try to figure out where we’re going wrong.

This is where Slotkin’s view is so important. Her position is pretty simple: she calls herself “a Midwestern Democrat” who has empathy for “a certain voter out there who identifies with [Trump] and appreciates him.” These are the struggling workers, not just in the rust- and corn belt but throughout the country. They not only feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them, their “stances on social controversies put them out of touch with the Democratic Party.”

What “social controversies”? Chief among these are the cries from the far left to “defund the police.” Anybody who reads my blog knows that I’m completely against this insane notion. But the perception among a huge chunk of the public is that Democrats as a party want police departments to be defunded. That’s not true, but Democratic leaders have not done nearly enough to convince the public otherwise. When Trump freaked suburban voters out by telling them that Corey Booker was going to come to their neighborhoods and build slums and invite Antifa to live there, Democratic leaders did not step up. You didn’t see Democratic leaders stating clearly that they value and cherish the police. But the American people do—and when their beloved cops came under attack from Black Lives Matter and no Democrats stood up to defend the thin blue line, Americans—including Black and Brown ones–took notice.

Another “social controversy” Slotkin calls out is the far left’s passion for “democratic socialism.” She doesn’t mention Bernie Sanders, although she could have, but she does single out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Slotkin warns Democrats that “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.” Slotkin identifies a number of her Democratic colleagues in the House who lost their jobs—were fired—in the 2020 election cycle, because voters considered them too radical, too out of step with moderate values. That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t talk about raising taxes on the rich, or eliminating fossil fuels eventually, or strengthening Social Security and Medicare, including covering all Americans, or other things generally identified with the left. But it does mean that Americans don’t like or trust the word “socialism.”

Slotkin is a pragmatist. If progressives are willing to march off the cliff because they can’t get everything they want, she warns us, they will destroy the Democratic Party, leaving Republicans (and evangelicals) in charge. She’s right. Democrats can’t demand that everybody be in lockstep with them on the most progressive issues. Rather, Democrats have to “keep the door open for people” who aren’t as progressive, and that means Democrats “have to heal their own party first.” What this means is, in effect, that the party’s far left wing either needs to accommodate itself to the center or, if it refuses, it has to be outflanked.

I’m entirely ready for the Democratic Party to be more accommodating with Republicans. I have no problem with that. I said earlier I never gave much thought to the split between moderates and progressives until recently. Now, I finally realize that I am a moderate Democrat. I’m a lot more law-and-order oriented than many if not most progressive Democrats. I don’t want to defund the police, I want to increase their budgets in crime-plagued cities like my own, Oakland. I do not like the Black Lives Matter anarchists who have destroyed large tracts of my city (and so many others). I believe they have nothing constructive to add to the conversation. And while I have enormous sympathy with a “Green New Deal,” I recognize that tens of millions of American workers are scared to death by it; many are working in mines, or in fracking or oil refining, and they can’t afford to lose their jobs. Their concerns must be considered. And while I’m hardly an expert in international trade, I understand that lots of workers feel that Democrats have thrown their jobs away in their obsession with free trade. I’m also sympathetic to calls from Republicans to re-open the American economy despite COVID-19.

Fortunately, Joe Biden seems to be my kind of Democrat: a centrist-moderate. I can only hope that the far left will back down on their insatiable and often unrealistic demands and work with the Biden administration to craft pragmatic bills that can pass Congress. At the same time, based on their historic performance, I’m afraid the progressives won’t play ball. Instead, they’ll dive off that cliff with their flags flying–and drag down the Democratic Party with them.

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