Aggressive Progressive v. Sober Centrist

If progressives really care about the Supreme Court, they should want to build a sustainable, long-term majority. That means moderating their positions and making smart, rather than emotionally charged, arguments.

I asked a liberal friend to have a look at this website and offer his comments. He told me that he liked it, but he still didn’t agree with my moderate point of view.

His basic argument against moderation goes like this. In those rare historic moments when liberals have power they need to use it to the fullest and just assume they’ll be back out in the cold after the next election. He said that was okay because experience shows that, while initially unpopular, those liberal advances stick over time.

As an example he offered Obamacare. When Democrats controlled everything for the first two years of President Obama’s term, they pushed through this major, long-overdue overhaul of the American healthcare system. Because no good deed goes unpunished, they got creamed by the nascent tea party movement in the next election. But the ACA survived because, even though majorities hated the abstract thing called “Obamacare”, they were not about to part with its key provisions, like preventing insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

You could make those same arguments for the flurry of liberal legislation passed in the mid-1960’s: The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare, Head Start and more. All of that passed under a skilled and ambitious president in Lyndon Johnson and through an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic Congress swept into power with him in 1964 after the assassination of John Kennedy a year earlier. But two years later the Democrats were pummeled in the mid-terms and Johnson was soon swallowed up by Vietnam.

Still, despite a half century and more of attacks on those liberal milestones, none has been repealed, though the Voting Rights Act was weakened by a Supreme Court ruling a few years ago.

FDR built a liberal coalition that lasted a half century. Could Joe Biden do the same?

So, I had to concede that my friend made a good point, but I had a counter example: FDR and the New Deal. The early 1930’s saw an onslaught of liberal legislation and yet FDR’s coalition didn’t really run out of steam until 1980 and the Reagan revolution. Bullying through a bunch of progressive laws doesn’t have to result in slaughter at the polls if you do it right.

My friend’s counter to my counter? It’s all about race now. Those New Deal programs benefited a lot of white folks while progressive programs today are too often thought of as only benefitting racial minorities. He pointed to a study that showed that blue collar voters would oppose programs that benefited them if those same programs benefited Blacks as well.

Well, I can’t argue with that much either. There’s no question that race plays an outsized role. Still, what about all those Obama-Trump voters? There were an estimated eight million of them. How is it possible to be a racist and yet vote to make a Black man the most powerful person in the country? It can’t be that simple. People are complicated. Isn’t it possible to hold some views that would be considered racist and yet vote for Black candidates?

Anyway, I think our conversation puts the question in stark relief: Should Democrats forget about bi-partisanship and push as much liberal legislation as they can through now, realizing that they’re likely to lose the next election? Or should they be more careful, reach out to centrist Republicans, and try to build a left-center moderate governing coalition for the long-run?

Not surprisingly, I’m for the latter — though I’m not at all blind to its risks. Let me offer three reasons for moderation.

First, there might not be much choice. With a one vote margin in the senate, moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is now the most powerful man there. If Biden can’t count on any Republican votes then he won’t be able to get anything through without the other Joe. And the same is mostly true in the House, where Democrats hang on by a thread and that thread is made up of moderates in swing districts.

Second, I’m not just a moderate, but a left-center moderate. I think that one of the real tragedies of the last several years is that, because Democrats couldn’t win the presidency or hold congressional majorities and because they just got unlucky with the timing of retirements and deaths, the Supreme Court is now far more conservative than the country as a whole. That’s not a healthy thing, It means that the court could hold back changes desired by a majority of Americans. Enough of that over time and you get people giving up on the whole system. And given the youth of the conservative majority, that can’t be corrected any time soon. Democrats are going to have to find a way to sustain majorities, not just pop into power once every couple of decades.

My final reason for moderation is the most important: we need to restore the country. Biden has an interest in strengthening the center because without a middle there is no stability. We will just careen from one group of zealous true believers to another. Just like a bicyclist who starts to lean too far in one direction and then overcorrects, eventually you fall.

Look, one size does not fit all. If I had been an adult in 1965, I may have been for all those aggressive liberal bills, even if I could have seen into the future. They were the right things to do and they endured.

But now, given the extreme polarization in our country and given the need to sustain majorities in order to realign the Supreme Court to where most of the country is at, I think something else is needed. There is nothing more vital, in my view, than rebuilding the political center. Any piece of specific legislation needs to be evaluated in terms of how it will advance or hinder that main cause.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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