There is major anxiety among establishment Democrats about the direction of the party. They fear that the party is moving too far to the left – and in the process are ensuring a re-election victory for President Donald Trump.
Likewise, conservatives have felt that branding the Democrats as the party of socialism, and associating them with the ideals of freshman New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, strengthens their argument for remaining in power. They both could not be more wrong. Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook and go hard to the left.
During the 2016 presidential election season, there were moderate Republican candidates like John Kasich and George Pataki who spoke to the center-right. They were conservative but reasonable and had a message that was inclusive and compassionate. Trump came along and was bold, brash, and uncompromising. He had little to no solid policy ideas but was armed with slogans and general principles.
On the left, we scoffed at his ethnocentric rhetoric, lack of orthodoxy and unprecedented vacuity on policy. We took Trump's words as gaffes and assumed voters would be repulsed by his vulgarity and absence of sophistication. We were mistaken.
Trump appeared indomitable to his fast-growing base, who were anxious about the demographic changes of our country and felt battered by a damaged but recovering economy. It didn’t matter that he was a wealthy socialite who spent his time in Manhattan penthouses and on private jets, insulated from their woes. He stood at podiums and said what they felt they could only whisper in their own homes. To them, he appeared strong. The opposition from the left-wing press only made him more attractive as a candidate. He garnered the excitement that an intellectual, corporate moderate like Mitt Romney could not.
After historic losses at the midterm elections and the entrance of high-profile far-left freshman congressmen and women, Trump surprised many by backing Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House of Representatives. There are several reasons for this thinly veiled act of political gamesmanship. While Pelosi is a battle-tested, savvy political leader, she is also a centrist. Trump felt she could be moved by significant pressure emanating from his Twitter account.
Centrists generally want to get along and find a compromise. They like to enjoy a tranquil government and don’t like waves. A government shutdown with no end in sight would – under normal circumstances – be intolerable to centrists and drive them directly to the negotiating table. Trump, on the other hand, has the go-for-broke mentality of the business world. He is willing to roll the dice knowing that he will always have the backing of far-right ideologues.
Pelosi held firm during the historic shutdown, anchored by outspoken far-left members of her caucus. She realized that the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party is powerful and has captured the imagination of the youth, as Bernie Sanders did in 2016. While Democratic votes were with a centrist like Hillary Clinton, the passion was with Sanders because he had staunch, uncompromising values.
Democrats need a Trump-like figure who speaks of larger principles – principles that are just, moral, and inclusive. It is true that the last two Democrats to win the White House were very much centrists. However, with Bill Clinton that only got us more right-wing policy like tough-on-crime statutes that sent black and brown people to prison in record numbers and anti-LGBT policy.
Barack Obama was certainly a centrist but was still painted as a socialist by the right. While he came to Washington looking for compromise, he met staunch resistance and obstruction at nearly every turn. In addition, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was like a more polished and respectful version of Trump in that he spoke to broad fundamental ideals and values in his inspirational orations, rather than specific policy.
I don’t think Democrats should latch onto the socialist label – they should ignore it in the same way Trump ignores being labeled racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic. Bernie Sanders is a strong 2020 contender for the Democratic nomination because he is clear about what he believes and is a left-wing populist.
Candidates should aim for -- and relish -- being targeted by right-wing media. It only strengthens their credibility with the Democratic base, which is young and diverse. For too long Democrats have aimed to please conservative tastemakers, who will oppose them no matter what.
Fundamentally, liberal and progressive voters are not much different than conservative ones. They don’t want to feel like their leaders will sell out their ideals and play typical Washington politics. It is time for the left to have its “build the wall” moment.