Many are self-professedly “progressive,” but default to moderate policies because, as they say, the world is complicated. Sometimes you have to take half-a-loaf of bread; negotiation requires compromise after all. They say they wish they could support policies further to the Left—single payer healthcare, giving away housing to the homeless, huge cuts to military spending—but those won’t go anywhere. And so, we make do.
This is no clearer than when speaking about Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Many good liberals would like to support him on the merits, but they just don’t think he can get anything done. This is the claim implicit in Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about the man. It’s why people prefer Warren—she can pass her plans. It’s—if his supporters call themselves “Left” or “progressive” at all—the raison d’être of Joe Biden’s campaign.
This is incoherent. People making these arguments are, I contend, stuck in an older way of doing politics; they mistake how things were for how they are. In a sense, one can’t blame them. The world changes rapidly. There is no use in scolding them. There is, however, a benefit to explaining why this approach makes little sense, and why, if they do see themselves as being “on the Left,” they ought to be progressive both in their hearts and in their limbs.
Let’s talk about Mitch McConnell. He is the center of this story of change. After 2008, some thought that the Republican Party was dead; Gore Vidal, in fact, said as much at the time—gone like the Whigs of yesteryear. The Democrats mused that they had finally figured out electoral politics in the age of the Reagan Democrat. Obama had built an enduring coalition. How, then, could the Republicans respond?
Mitch McConnell, a political chameleon whose cunning seems as sharp as his image is dull, responded by refusing to work across the aisle on most anything. The Democrats ended up fighting amongst themselves (Obama and Reid turned out to have two different visions for the party, at least at first). Eventually, we came to the the famous Merrick Garland affair. But that was just the final nail in an already-sealed coffin. Anyone alive during the Obama years remembers how he was painted at times as a kind of Muslim socialist. While I am no fan of Obama’s, I don’t think it’s fair to say he was some sort of Left Islamist (not even close). But the image stuck. And so, McConnell could justify not working with him.
This is reason number one the aforementioned “moderate” approach is incoherent: there is no bipartisanship to be had, at least not for the foreseeable future. Senator McConnell is no fool; he knows that, if he wants judges, if he wants to retain power, he has to stonewall the Democrats. It’s that simple. This riles up the base, but, more importantly, it allows the Republicans to paint the Democrats as extremists, turning moderate Nancy Pelosi into an emblem of Marxist fifth columnism. The GOP may have a shrinking base of support, but it can hold onto power as long as it keeps the Democrats at arm’s length. There will be no return to the halcyon days when Joe Biden partnered with Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.