Why I’m Still Skeptical About the Progressive Revolution

My social media bubble has drifted well to the left of center, so I hear a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party — particularly with the centrist Clintonite wing that has dominated the DNC in recent years, during which the party has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and vast numbers of seats in state legislatures. The solution is supposed to be for all those people to get out of the way and let the progressive Bernie-supporting wing of the party take over. Hillary Clinton in particular should just go away, and anybody involved in the DNC in 2016 should follow her. The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.

I’m almost there. The critique — lost elections at all levels — is inarguable. And I long for a more visionary approach to the future. Take gun control as a neutral example that cuts across the Clinton/Sanders line: All Democrats — and most of the rest of the country — can agree that our current gun laws are stupid. The fact that we don’t even do universal background checks on gun purchasers is insane (and so are some of the people who exploit the loopholes in the system and buy guns). But in the Ideal Democratic Future, what is the relationship between American citizens and guns? Does anybody have an answer for that?

But I have to admit, on almost every other issue progressives have a clear advantage on the vision-of-the-future front. Again and again, the centrists get lost in the next-small-step argument and never get around to saying where they want to go. But conversely, while progressives are clear on the Big Idea, they’re often vague about what the next step is. (After Congress rejects his single-payer healthcare plan, does President Sanders have a Plan B, or does he just wait for the next Congress?)

So while I’m rooting for the progressives, let me tell you exactly where I get stuck. All my political life, the left wing of the Democratic Party (and the non-Democrats who reject the party for not being liberal enough) has been suffering from the delusion that it’s more popular than it actually is. Again and again, I have heard that somebody like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich represented what the American people really want, and then seen them get something like 2% of the vote. And then, in the next election the same people would come back and tell me the same thing, as if the last election never happened.

Polls. Why do they think this? It’s not purely wishful thinking; there are polls that say the same thing. If you ask about specific issues, and phrase your questions right, you can get sizeable majorities of the American people to agree with liberal positions.

In early 2015, for example, 68% of Americans told pollsters that the rich don’t pay enough tax; only 11% thought the rich pay too much. This February, a 60%-38% majority said the government should “make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage”. Last year, 63% described their response to “Medicare for all” as either “very positive” (36%) or “somewhat positive” (27%). In 2013, Gallup found 72% support for “a federal government program that would spend government money to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs”.

Early in 2015, the Progressive Change Institute polled a wide range of issues: 71% supported letting anyone buy in to Medicare. 70% were for a “Green New Deal” to create millions of clean-energy jobs. 63% favored free community college. 70% would expand Social Security benefits. 61% wanted a special prosecutor to investigate all police killings. And more.

However, you can also get different results if you ask different questions. In 2013, a WaPo/ABC poll found 61% support for an across-the-board 5% cut in federal spending. That’s a fairly consistent pattern: As an abstract concept, government spending is unpopular, even while spending on particular programs has broad support. And while majorities always think the rich should pay more tax, nobody thinks that they themselves are rich — and hardly anybody thinks people like them should pay more tax.

So it’s naive to think that you can get those 60% or 70% majorities by running on a progressive platform. You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.

But that never happens. Just ask Hillary; I don’t think she expected to spend the last week of the campaign answering questions about the FBI. In 1988, Dukakis had Bush nailed on the issues — so the Bush campaign invented an issue out of nothing: They were for the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis (they claimed) was against it. They won.

The 2016 primaries. Bearing that history in mind, what did 2016 really tell us? On my social media feed, I often hear the story told this way: Bernie was the people’s choice, but the Democratic establishment pushed Hillary through in spite of her unpopularity.

And here’s my problem with that story: If the people had really wanted Bernie, they could have voted for him. That’s what happened where I live in New Hampshire (where I dithered, and then voted for Bernie myself). If the power of the establishment works anywhere, it should work in the early primaries, when the upstart candidate seems most unlikely. But Hillary’s initial advantages in name recognition and money and endorsements got her only a tiny victory margin in Iowa, and then got her clobbered in New Hampshire, where Bernie got 60% of the vote and won every county.

From that point on, the race was a free-for-all. And Bernie lost that free-for-all: His total primary vote was 13.2 million, compared to Clinton’s 16.9 million. That loss can’t be attributed to some fluke of the process: He also never caught Clinton in the national polls. For a couple weeks in mid-April he got within a point or two, but then Clinton started to pull away. The late-breaking trend was entirely towards Clinton, climaxing with her 7-point win in California, a state which fits the Sanders profile as well as any.

Sanders supporters who don’t go in for a DNC-stole-the-election conspiracy theory often blame the media: Sanders couldn’t get his message out. The articles about him didn’t focus on how great his proposals were, and instead drew too much attention to stereotypes like “Bernie bros”.

But a campaign never gets the media coverage it wants. Clinton certainly didn’t. The same Harvard study that pointed out how little serious media attention Sanders got in 2015 also showed that the attention to Clinton was almost entirely negative.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The 2016 general election. Yes, I often hear, but Clinton lost to Trump and Sanders would have won.

I don’t think that’s clear at all. Yes, Hillary would have beaten Trump if she’d gotten Jill Stein’s votes, which almost certainly would have gone to Bernie if he’d been the nominee.

But there’s another third-party possibility everybody forgets: When Bernie was surging after New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg considered running, perhaps because he saw a big hole in the center if it came down to Trump vs. Sanders. But by early March, after the Southern primaries had given Clinton a significant delegate lead (and the day before Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan put him back in the race for a few weeks), Bloomberg backed out. So don’t compare Trump/Clinton/Stein to a Trump/Sanders race where Sanders gets all the Stein votes. Instead picture the Trump/Bloomberg/Sanders race. How many votes does Bernie lose in the center that Hillary got? More than Stein took, I’ll bet.

After a defeat, everyone sees what went wrong, so there have been a lot of articles about what a bad candidate Clinton was. But you also can’t forget this: Hillary was the only candidate in 2016 who beat Trump in a debate, and she did it all three times. That’s not a judgment call: She actually got a bump in the polls after each one. I don’t think we can just assume Sanders would have done as well.

The Tea Party parallel. When the Tea Party popped into existence in the spring of 2009, it was largely an astroturf phenomenon. Yes, there was public anger on the Right, animated by fear of what the new Obama administration might do (and also by some fairly thinly veiled racism). But the message was spread with Koch money and the early rallies given unlimited free publicity by Fox News.

But eventually it turned into a Frankenstein monster that got away from the people who hoped to control it. Rather than a simple Republican rebranding operation — it’s hard to remember now just how defeated the Republicans were after 2008 — it turned into a faction that took the Party away from its previous establishment. John Boehner rode the movement to the speakership, but then was forced out by it. Jeb Bush had all the same advantages going into 2016 that Clinton did, but got nowhere with them. The Trump presidency is the ultimate result: The Tea Party is his base.

So the Tea Party demonstrates the vulnerability of party establishments, and it also gives a road map for an insurgency to take control: win elections. In 2010, Marco Rubio was an insurgent candidate aligned with the Tea Party. He beat Florida’s sitting governor (Charlie Crist) in a primary for the Senate nomination, then won a three-way race in the fall against Crist and a Democrat. Ted Cruz had a similar path to the Senate in 2012, upsetting the sitting Republican Lieutenant Governor in a primary. In 2014, a Tea Party candidate beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

In short, after their horrible 2008 defeat, the Republican establishment did not just step aside and surrender the party to the upstarts. The Bush dynasty, for example, did not just go away. Tea Party candidates had to win the GOP at the ballot box. Can progressives do something similar on the Democratic side?

Prove it to me. I keep hearing that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the voters. It raises no enthusiasm. It has no vision for how to regain power. The progressive agenda, on the other hand — Medicare for everybody, free college, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, breaking up the big banks, and so forth — is where the people are. Bernie is the most popular politician in the country.* The progressives have all the energy and momentum.

If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t be hard for candidates to run on that progressive agenda, with the support of progressive heroes like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and win elections. In particular, primary elections against those tired old DNC-supported candidates should be easy victories.

So far that’s not happening. Why not?

We just had a test in Virginia, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016 by a surprisingly large 5.3%. The two candidates in the Democratic primary for governor were probably not that far apart in reality, but the race got framed as a progressive-vs-establishment contest. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam lined up the all the big-name Virginia Democratic endorsements, while former Congressman Tom Perriello ran as an outsider with a populist message. Sanders campaigned with Perriello, and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him.

It was supposed to be close, and then it wasn’t: Northam won by 14%.

I’m still waiting for a breakthrough progressive win. So far I’m getting claims of moral victory and excuses about establishment power. A progressive candidate for Congress lost the Montana special election — but he did well in a red district and the DNC should have done more for him. (Tomorrow we’ll see an opposite test: John Ossoff is running as a centrist in a red district outside Atlanta.)

Maybe revolution is the wrong metaphor. Northam won in Virginia by adopting a lot of the progressive platform and some of its rhetoric, as politicians will do when the national mood shifts. That’s an evolution, not a revolution.

The real test will be the 2018 primaries. I hope progressives give those primaries a real Tea Party effort: Don’t just stand on the sidelines and complain that the establishment didn’t give you good candidates. Run your own candidates, and put all that youth and energy behind them.

If you do that, you might win, but you also might lose, because the Left always believes it’s more popular than it actually is. If it turns out that’s still true, then the only way to get to a majority is to find allies that you can pull partway towards your agenda. That would be evolution rather than revolution. But it would still be change.

* Getting back to my control-the-narrative theme, I wonder how Bernie’s national popularity is holding up this week, when his name keeps getting mentioned in the context of the Scalise shooting. I think it’s completely unfair to blame Bernie for something done by an obscure volunteer for his campaign, and the Scalise shooting has nothing to do with the Sanders agenda, but political narratives are unfair.

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  • Sandi Saunders  On June 19, 2017 at 11:03 am

    Reblogged this on Blue in Red Virginia and commented:
    I think this is a very good and honest analysis. “Prove it to me too!”

  • Avram  On June 19, 2017 at 11:43 am

    I mean don’t you think closed democratic primaries were a problem?

    • Bill Camarda  On June 19, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      But if closed Democratic primaries were a problem, what about caucuses? They privilege narrow, highly committed constituencies even more than closed primaries do — and that’s where Sanders tended to perform best. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/bernie-sanders-continues-to-dominate-caucuses-but-hes-about-to-run-out-of-them/

    • weeklysift  On June 19, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      There are two debatable questions: Is there something wrong with closed primaries? and would Sanders have won if all the primaries were open?

      I haven’t done the analysis myself, but the NYT’s Nat Cohn says “If every contest in the country had been an open primary, Mrs. Clinton’s delegate lead would have grown.” The main idea is that the caucuses helped Sanders more than the closed primaries hurt him.

      And I’m not convinced that it’s unreasonable to let Democrats decide who the Democratic nominee is.

    • Guest  On June 20, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      The answer to both questions, Doug, is yes. To Avram’s point, closed Democratic primaries are a problem for those of us committed to (small d) democratic principles. The less access and participation at the voting booth, the less we have a govt of/by/for the people by definition. Allowing independents to vote in one or the other party primary and offering day-of-the-vote party registration are simple, common sense steps to increase democracy. Is that a controversial stance in these parts?

      Because Sanders routinely outperformed Clinton among independents, often by significant margins (10 points, 50 points, 2:1 margins, etc), the “open primaries would have benefited Clinton more because caucuses” trope always sounded off. I can agree that due to the enthusiasm gap Clinton would have lessened Sanders’ margin of victory in caucus states had they switched to open primaries, but Nat Cohn limiting Sanders’ advantage in closed states switching to open to a mere 3.5 point gain doesn’t hold water. What Nat Cohn’s argument also ignores is that Sanders winning even a few of those key closed primary states would have impacted the momentum and narratives in his favor.

      For all the Clinton fans, you can argue closed primaries also have a negative cost there as well. Limiting her exposure to independent voters certainly helped her win the primary, but it hid how relatively poorly she’d fare in a general election where the DNC can’t pick and choose their voters. And that’s a vulnerability going forward.

      But, let’s say I’m wrong here, and open primaries would have assured Clinton’s victory anyway and those of similarly establishment candidates of the future. Even as a Sanders supporter, I would still push for open primaries as described above in the interest of access and participation in democracy. If that ends up to the benefit of establishment/corporate operators, so be it.

      • weeklysift  On June 20, 2017 at 5:48 pm

        Open and closed primaries each have their own problems.

        In 2000, I decided I’d be happy with either Gore or Bradley, but I really disliked Bush. NH is an open-primary state, so I crossed over and voted for McCain. If McCain had been nominated, would I have voted for him in the fall? No. Of course not.

        I can well imagine, though, that real Republicans — people who believed in what the GOP stands for — might have resented the fact that I was helping pick their candidate, and that my primary vote counted as much as theirs.

        In 2016, open primaries and caucuses advantaged Sanders, so Sanders supporters liked them. But imagine if the scenario had played out differently: Clinton’s Southern firewall fails, and we go into mid-March thinking Bernie is most likely nominee.

        Imagine that conservatives get really frightened by the prospect of President Sanders, so in the late primaries they cross over in large numbers to save the Republic from Socialism. Suppose Hillary starts to come back, and her margin of victory is due to those crossover conservatives, who will vote for the Republican in the fall.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 21, 2017 at 6:25 am

        In 2008, Rush Limbaugh went so far as to tell his listeners to register as Democrats, to vote for Clinton in the primaries and drag out the contest as long as possible, which would have divided the Democrats further and damaged Obama. Open primaries make this kind of interference much easier. Imagine in 2020 Trump runs again and as president, has no serious challengers; do we want Republicans who don’t feel the need to vote for their own candidate interfering in our primaries solely to disrupt them? If we’re going to have political parties, it’s not asking too much for people to at least join them if they want to have a voice in selecting that party’s candidate.

      • Guest  On June 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm

        The points here about cross-party shenanigans are well taken, thank you for the thoughtful responses. I looked for some data so we are not just discussing nightmare scenarios and found a CNBC article that puts the average number of people switching over party lines in open primaries at 5%, and that 5% is not voting uniformly, that vote is split. If there is other data out there please let me know, but the perceived risk here looks negligible, and certainly worth the chance at increased democracy access and participation.

        One other hole in the interference argument in favor of closed primaries is, as Doug has pointed out previously, that while our party system is largely binary, the population is more gray than black and white. Some folks registered or even self-identified as R or D might actually favor the other party on an issue-by-issue basis. People also change their minds and their positions, even late into a campaign season. Independents who hesitate to commit to a party are, in states like New York, completely disenfranchised from the primary process. As citizens, these groups should be encouraged to participate in our democracy, not blocked at the voting booth.

        In toying with the imagined scenario you present, Doug, I can certainly see the establishment Republican leadership trying to favor Clinton over Sanders, for some of the same reasons the establishment Dems did the same. But then, the R establishment didn’t want Trump, and they failed to coalesce their own party around anyone else. That makes me think their ability to control another party’s destiny even less likely, especially considering that only an average of 5% actually cross party lines and are split themselves. The job of convincing Republicans to favor Clinton gets even harder when you account for how uniquely disliked and mistrusted Clinton is viewed among conservatives, and in contrast how relatively favorable Sanders is viewed, perhaps due to his outsider, populist status, and a softer stance on guns. But again, if a more robust democracy ends up disadvantaging my beloved Bernie, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Democratic principles trump any particular candidate.

        To your point, Larry, I’m not seeing any data that suggests there is any significant impact of the open primary disruption you describe. But, to the extent that there is any impact, it cuts both ways. You can even see an argument in favor of disruption here. If in the unlikely event a party is so evenly split that a handful of aisle-crossers are the decisive factor in a primary, that could be a hedge against particularly odious candidates (like Bush in Doug’s real life example). I’m with you 100% in your reasonable request to have people formally join a party to have a voice there, as long as I can insist on the loophole that an informed citizen has the right to change her mind and formally switch parties anytime up to and including day of the vote.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 21, 2017 at 1:13 pm

        A far better solution would be to implement instant runoff multivoting, which would allow voters to rank several candidates in order of preference. Maybe I preferred Lincoln Chaffee, but I was afraid to vote for him because my second choice was Sanders and I preferred him to Clinton, so with only one choice, I voted for Sanders. Multivoting would favor lower-tier candidates because voters wouldn’t have to worry about throwing their vote away on a long shot. The same should be instituted for the general election, for the same reason.

        If what you’re saying is correct, then open primaries have no effect other than allowing a party to call themselves “inclusive.” Multivoting on the other hand would have a profound effect and would lead to much better representation than the current first past the post system.

      • Guest  On June 22, 2017 at 11:30 am

        You don’t have to twist my arm there, Larry! I’m all for better alternatives to first past the post voting, and think that the instant runoff scenario you mention would give us a truer representation of the people’s will, thus supporting democratic principles. Sign me up.

        At the end there, it seems you are confusing different but related issues. There’s minimal effect of “aisle-crossers” in open primaries if the CNBC numbers are to be believed, but that’s also a minimal piece of what open primaries would do. It’s more about access to the vote, particularly for independents and those who genuinely change their mind. Let’s go back to New York as a case in point. To vote in the NY primary on April 19, 2016 you had to be registered in the party in which you wished to vote by OCTOBER 9, 2015! By that deadline the Republicans only had two of their scheduled 11 debates, while, even more egregious, the Democrats wouldn’t hold their FIRST debate till four days after, on October 13. Anyone see a problem with that? It had the effect of disenfranchising thousands and thousands of citizens, that doesn’t strike me as something we should be defending.

        An easy solution is more access and more participation through open primaries. The main attack against open primaries offered by both you and Doug, namely the interference of party-line crossing primary voters, turns out to be moot when you look at the numbers. Let’s do open primaries AND instant runoff voting, they are definitely not mutually exclusive. One would strengthen the other.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 22, 2017 at 1:36 pm

        Part of the problem is that political parties are allowed to set their own rules, and there is no requirement for consistency between states. If Congress were to pass a law saying that all primaries had to be open and that same-day registration had to be allowed, I’m not sure that would stand up to challenge.

  • Larry Benjamin  On June 19, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve never heard the theory that Bloomberg would have run as an independent if Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, but it makes sense. People keep telling me that “all the polls” showed Sanders beating Trump, but that was in a static race that assumed no major third party candidate would run.

    • Dale Moses  On June 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm

      It’s probably wrong. Bloomberg would have known he would split the centrist and almost guarantee a Trump victory. He would not have risked that. Though the idea that Bernie would have had a hard time holding the center is true.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 19, 2017 at 6:39 pm

        Bloomberg was prepared to spend a billion dollars of his own money on his campaign, and paid for a study to produce a report on his chances. If he had concluded that he would have appealed to centrist Democrats put off by Sanders, and moderate Republicans repelled by Trump, he very well might have decided to run if he thought he could win.

        The point is that the “Sanders would have beaten Trump” narrative is too simplistic. Maybe Lincoln Chaffee would have beaten Rick Santorum if they’d been the nominees. We can speculate about anything.

    • Guest  On June 20, 2017 at 3:37 pm

      People keep telling you that the polls showed Sanders beating Trump, Larry, because that’s exactly what the polling unambiguously showed. Democrats that choose to ignore those polls showing, in large part due to his connection with independents, that Sanders would significantly outperform Clinton in the general, call to mind the Republicans who were certain that Romney could and would beat Obama despite both the polling consensus and the less tangible enthusiasm gap.

      Dale is right on the money here. Bloomberg above all would not have risked handing the presidency to Trump a la Ross Perot. Had he paid a king’s ransom in reports and studies, he probably would have seen exactly what the Clinton camp chose to ignore, and let the strongest candidate in Sanders defeat the menace of Trump.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 21, 2017 at 6:42 am

        The polls also said that Clinton was a shoo-in, so I don’t put much stock in polls taken months before the election that don’t account for how voters will coalesce around one candidate or another. A week is a long time in politics and a month is an eternity. We also don’t know how Trump would have handled Sanders. I can imagine a debate where Sanders spends ten minutes giving a reasoned, thoughtful explanation of Democratic Socialism, and Trump responds by yelling “he’s a communist! He honeymooned in the Soviet Union!”

        We progressives have to avoid making the mistake that right-wing extremists make. These are the people who blamed McCain’s and Romney’s losses on their being “too liberal,” and if the Republicans would only nominate a rock-ribbed, true-blue, hard-right conservative, the American people would elect him in a landslide. This ignores the observation that if such a candidate can’t even win the Republican primary, how are they supposed to win in the general election? Die-hard Sanders supporters are saying the same thing on the opposite side, which comes from overestimating the appeal of progressivism.

        What we need, unfortunately, is a charismatic candidate who communicates in sound bites and is able to sell individual progressive policies without being labeled “progressive.”

      • Guest  On June 21, 2017 at 5:01 pm

        The “Sanders beating Trump by the biggest margin” polls weren’t just from one week or one month, they were fairly consistent throughout. Sure, we can agree that polls shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but you seem to be positioning yourself in a 2012 Romney-esque corner where we’d willfully ignore all polling, and that’s a step too far for me. The best data we had available suggested that Sanders was the strongest candidate in the general. Given the significant favorability gap between Sanders and Trump (and between Sanders and Clinton nationally for that matter), and against a populist backdrop that showed Sanders growing support among independents, as well as that enthusiasm “x-factor” that Sanders had and Clinton didn’t, those polls looked justified at the time, and remain so in hindsight.

        Even so, yeah, we’ll never know for sure exactly how Trump would have handled Sanders. I don’t see it, but maybe Trump makes a fool of him in the debates as you say. However, we do know what did happen. Clinton made Trump look the fool in the debates and still lost the presidency anyway.

        Your second paragraph about the right wing is interesting, but I’m drawing different conclusions. What mistakes have the right-wing made to win every branch of govt and the majority of state legislatures? You ask how could a rock-ribbed hard-right conservative win the Republican primary let alone the general, but Trump just did both! Sure, he’s not really a “true” conservative as many of his disillusioned supporters are learning, but he sure played one on TV. He fed the extreme right-wing red meat all the way to the White House. Yet, I’m not convinced the underlying issue is a yearning for extremism for it’s own sake on either side. We have an economy and govt that serve wealthy corporate interests rather than the people, as the Princeton study proved conclusively, and that’s what people want to see changed. The establishment in both parties are to some degree in bed with those corporate interests due to a system of legalized bribery/lobbying, so folks have to look to the “extremes” by default if they want power back to the people.

        Your last point is a dirty little secret that many progressives would rather not contemplate, namely, that charisma, not a set of policy positions, is what has proven to work. The only two democratic presidents we’ve had since money started it’s current death-grip on legislation in the late 70s/early 80s happen to be two of the most charismatic, gifted rhetoricians in the field who played lip service to change and progress, but who ultimately served establishment interests when it came to core issues, even outflanking the Republicans on the right in some cases, paving the way for the populist backlash we are currently living under. For democrats to take advantage of the situation we either need another charismatic hero who can pass for a agent of change and progress (like Bill Clinton, Obama), or, dare I say it, an authentic progressive with a track record a mile wide (Sanders) that can tap into that populist wave. Hillary Clinton, like John Kerry before her, was and is neither. Forget trying to avoid right-wing mistakes, let’s avoid repeating our own.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 21, 2017 at 5:47 pm

        I’m just not going to buy the “Sanders would have beaten Trump” claim. If he couldn’t win with Democrats, he wasn’t going to win in the general. It also wasn’t clear until the convention that Trump was going to be the candidate. That’s the point of Doug’s article – the establishment shouldn’t have to get out of the way for progressives to win – they should win on their own merits, because their message appeals to more people. Are you saying that Clinton should have withdrawn when she was winning, to “give Sanders a chance” based on some polls that said he would beat Trump by a greater margin than she would? That would have destroyed the party. Progressives have to win because more people vote for them, not because the party bigwigs decide to appoint them. Sanders’ whole appeal was based on his outsider, anti-establishment status and “$27 average” funding – if a bunch of elites had persuaded Clinton to step aside, that would have ruined his entire message.

        I wouldn’t call Trump a “rock-ribbed, true-blue conservative” because conservatives wouldn’t have called him one, either. The kind of candidate they have in mind is someone like Ted Cruz – who might have been nominated if Trump hadn’t run. And Clinton would have beaten him soundly because the extreme right-wing message doesn’t appeal to enough Americans, not to mention, she’s more charismatic than he is.

      • weeklysift  On June 22, 2017 at 6:06 am

        The reason I was skeptical about the Sanders/Trump polls at the time was that no one had ever gone hard negative on Sanders. (I know his supporters think that Hillary said terribly unfair things about him, but that was all pretty tame compared to, say, the swift-boating of John Kerry.)

        Republican candidates either ignored Bernie or supported his image as a good sincere guy (that they just happened to disagree with). They never showed the slightest fear of him. One reason Sanders’ favorables are so high now, I believe, is that Trump consistently portrayed Bernie as a great guy who got jobbed by Clinton.

        A realistic Sanders-wins scenario has to start with him becoming the Democratic front-runner by late March or early April. All the fire that Republicans blasted Hillary with would have been targeted at him instead.

      • Guest  On June 22, 2017 at 2:34 pm

        “Progressives have to win because more people vote for them, not because the party bigwigs decide to appoint them.”

        The irony, it burns!

        Seriously though, this is where I’m at a loss to move the argument forward. From my perspective it seems like you guys have been ignoring (1) the polling, (2) the greater context of the Sanders campaign in what it accomplished and also what it was up against both positive and negative, and (3) ignoring or misreading favorability/likeability/charisma. Not sure how to break through that triple shell. If these positions continue to dominate the democratic party faithful it’d be easy to see the mistakes of 2016 repeating themselves in 2020.

        That fact, Doug, that you’d credit Sanders being the most popular politician in the country (which he is) to Trump speaking well of him during the 2016 campaign sort of crystallizes for me how out of touch the position is. It really reads as absurd.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 22, 2017 at 4:37 pm

        If Sanders is the most popular politician in the country, motivated previously uninterested voters, yada yada, then why wasn’t he the nominee? Please don’t tell me “because the corrupt DNC stole the nomination from him.”

      • weeklysift  On June 26, 2017 at 7:46 am

        Guest: I don’t think you understand the low-information voters. When they hear good things from both sides about a guy (i.e., both liberals and conservatives) they think he’s good. If suddenly they start hearing bad things, they change their minds.

        Sanders is a politician most people had never heard of a year before the election. Poll numbers on such people are volatile. They can go way up or way down on very little things.

  • Lawrence Page  On June 19, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    If the USA had the French system where all candidates compete in a first stage vote and then the two with highest vote compete in the final vote, we would not have had Bush or Trump. Ralph Nader and Jill Stein would have made their statement and the winner would be a clear choice. Also as the last French election demonstrated, a Sanders or even a new party could really win.

    • Dale Moses  On June 19, 2017 at 6:20 pm

      Why do you suggest that Stein would not have gotten behind Trump? She is on record saying that Trump was better than Clinton.

  • garawa  On June 19, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    My attitude has long been that Democratic politicians are caught between trying to please voters and trying to please donors. (While Republican politicians are trying to please donors and fool voters.) MAYBE, with progressive voters riled up and raising small-money donations at least possible these days, Democrats will pay a bit more attention to voters and a bit less to (large) donors.

    I’m not holding my breath. But I do think that the wealth factor is a huge reason why progressive narratives get very little breathing space

    • Marty  On June 19, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      I think that is the crux of it. When the Democrats try to please donors, they look corrupt, especially given that the Democratic party platform is to “fight for the workers”.

      The Republican party doesn’t have this problem, they have never claimed to be fighting for the poor, just “conservative culture, or traditional American values”. Most conservative voters don’t really expect their politicians to do anything for them, except fight the “culture war”. Therefore, when Republicans serve their donors, they aren’t selling their voters out in the same way Democrats do; after all, the Republican agreement with their voters is about their cultural interests, not their economic interests.

    • telzeyamberdon  On June 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

      YES, this!

      And I will add that I never understood how Democrats, both politicians and voters, could stand idly by and watch conservatives destroy the unions, when the unions were the Democrats only big-money donors that were also on board with a progressive platform.

    • weeklysift  On June 20, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      What’s tricky here is that donors have the power to move voters, if they decide to. That was the lesson Hillary drew from her failed healthcare proposal in the 90s. It looked great in the polls, and then the insurance industry started advertising against it.

      • Marty  On June 22, 2017 at 4:06 pm

        Certainly, and this leads to a significant problem for Democrats, either they piss off donors, who move voters, and therefore loose; or they please donors, look corrupt, and therefore loose. Until we figure out some way around this problem, we are going to struggle.

        The plus side: it seems that advertising is less effective than it used to be. This implies that donors are weaker than they used to be, something which I don’t think politicians fully understand. (Leading to, Jeb Bush’s loss, among others.)

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 22, 2017 at 4:39 pm

        If nothing else, Trump proved that you can have a successful campaign without spending any money. All you need is free news coverage. Maybe the Democrats should think about a Winfrey/Penn ticket in 2020.

      • weeklysift  On June 24, 2017 at 6:16 am

        I worry that candidates and special interests just haven’t figured out HOW to spend hundreds of millions of dollars effectively. In 2016 we learned that running 1000 TV ads isn’t ten times as effective as running 100 ads. But I wouldn’t draw the conclusion that all that Citizens United money is meaningless. Somebody will figure out what to do with it.

  • Rebecca (@Geaux_RC)  On June 19, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Great article (as usual). Something else that drives me bonkers about the framework of “establishment bad, establishment = losing” is that it ignores the roles of 1) Democrats voting for the ACA knowing it could end their careers, 2) GOP voter suppression and gerrymandering, and 3) 2016 was the first presidential election year without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. The Democrats could have the best, most amazing candidate ever, but if people can’t vote, that won’t matter.

  • John Bari  On June 19, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    On the ground here in Virginia, I heard again and again that the reason progressives were voting for Northam was the presumption that a centrist is “more electable”. Ironically, the upstart Pierello was actually connecting with poor white voters like coal mining communities, offering specific plans to deal with their worsening lot. I think he would have gotten votes from a lot of people who haven’t gone Democrat in a while. We’ll see if Northam manages to offer anything inspirational in the general election, nd maybe we’ll find out whether this “more electable” thing is real at all.

    • John Bari  On June 19, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      “would have gotten votes” – in the general election that is. -Bari

  • Dale Moses  On June 19, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    I do not think that the argument that democrats are losing elections at all levels is incontestable. Specifically they can be contested with demographic information. There does not exist a current path, besides a liberal Fox News supplanting Fox News and taking its viewers, for the urban party to take significant positions against the rural party in the structure of American politics.

    The same problem with gerrymandering of house districts at the federal level exists at the state level. The same problems of uneven representation as in the federal senate exists in the senates at the state level. The demographics of the small states suggests that in popular vote totals the democrats are almost always going to lose those state houses.

    To ignore the demographic shifts that are occurring, the continued concentration of democratic votes ignores the primary problem that any progressive candidate will face and negates the argument about democrats losing. Demographically democrats should be losing ground as concentration continues; that is the way the system was set up.

  • Kaci  On June 20, 2017 at 9:10 am

    I absolutely want the Democratic party to move more to the left, but I’m trying to make that happen from within the party, supporting a progressive platform on the local level and campaigning and voting for more progressive candidates whenever possible. Infighting within the party about whose fault is that Trump got elected doesn’t strike me as useful way to spend my time.

    • weeklysift  On June 22, 2017 at 6:18 am

      Good luck to you. I have long envied the philosophical coherence of the Republican message: low taxes, small government, strong defense. Even when they lost, they got that message out and built the brand. It would be wonderful if progressives could give Democrats a similarly simple and coherent message.

      I’ve also never understood why the next-small-step view of Democratic centrists can’t be merged with the big-picture this-is-where-we-want-to-go vision of the progressives.

      • Marty  On June 22, 2017 at 4:09 pm

        That is fairly easy, after the 80s, progressive messages actively turned off voters. The people believed trickle down economics, so any attempt to sell a progressive message was already lost. Fortunately, this reality seems to be changing, and that gives us another chance.

      • Paul Kilduff  On June 22, 2017 at 4:36 pm

        I disagree — it was Reagan’s personality, his likability, HIS ABILITY TO DELIVER A LINE, that sold Reganomics, not the policy itself.

        “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” On paper, that’s a reasonable statement, and *people depend on that happening when trouble strikes!* But when Reagan made it the punchline of an anecdote, boom! Everyone smiles and nods and government is the bad guy. Combine that with the Southern Strategy and you get… Well, you get where we are now.

        It’s not issues for anyone except people like the people on this list.

  • Josh  On June 20, 2017 at 11:12 am

    “The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.”

    Which, let’s not forget, was: lose, just not as badly as he did the last time around

    • Yarrow  On June 20, 2017 at 12:04 pm

      What last time? Are you retroactively blaming Corbyn for the performance of Blair and Brown?

    • weeklysift  On June 20, 2017 at 4:13 pm

      As I pointed out at the time, it’s a hard comparison to make, because Corbyn’s 40% would have been enough for a landslide in most UK elections, while 40% in the US would be a landslide the other way.

  • Philippe Saner  On June 21, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    I think Sanders probably would’ve won. And I’m almost dead certain that, if Clinton had selected Sanders as her running mate, she would’ve won.

    But for some reason, centrist Democrats seem more willing to compromise with the far right than with the left. That needs to change.

    • jh  On June 22, 2017 at 11:57 am

      You think so based on preference. I don’t think so. Bernie couldn’t handle any negative questions. He played grumpy old man. He didn’t get the blacks excited. He just seemed like a crank. (This is from a progressive liberal. I watched him on a Maher episode and I was offended by how he behaved. That’s on Bill Maher’s show which is decidedly progressive and lefitst. Just look at his inane questioning about religion when it came to Trump’s nominee Vought. He didn’t win. The perception was that Bernie was a bigoted idiot. Bernie would have played like Howard Dean who was made to look like a kook. That’s the reality no matter how much bernie bros “think” it would have played differently. millennials didn’t come out to vote. Those progressives sat on their asses. You know who went to vote? The people who were scared shitless of Lyin’ Hillary and the evil demonic democrat party.)

      This isn’t something that being president can fix. This requires a comprehensive, systemic attack on republicans and conservatives that never lets up. One should think “child fucker”, when you think of republicans. You should think of Paul Ryan dancing on the bodies of the children of Sandy Hook. You should have them endorsing the mass shooters 2nd amendment rights in viral gifs. You should have blue state workers and legal representatives going “why should we listen to a state that takes blue state money to function?” “Why should we listen to a party that thinks Green Eggs and Ham is smart?”

      hey – In a way, I’m kind of glad that HRC didn’t win. Can you imagine the nonstop negative coverage and tarnishing of the democrat brand during her presidency? The nonstop Benghaaaaaazzzzzzzzzzziiiiiii investigations? The nonstop fake news about child sex rings? The uranium sale? And HRC couldn’t have won by saying “massive right wing conspiracy” because conservatives are hypocrites who will play the victim card while they savagely attack that woman’s character and actions.

      here’s hoping that democrats can learn how to play politics like republicans. That’s the way to live in a post truth world. (hey, I love the truth but it doesn’t really mean shit if it isn’t respected. As long as conservative media will have their alternative facts and have no respect for truth, we will never be able to use the truth as a means of consensus. Going high when they went low resulted in failure. It’s time to target republican presidential targets, Trump’s kids – especially that St. Judes crap and smear all conservatives with that. And get a phrase for republicans like “tax and kill” republicans.)

      • Philippe Saner  On June 22, 2017 at 6:50 pm

        I disagree with pretty much everything here. On most points, I think arguing it out is unlikely to be productive. So I’ll just say this:

        The Republican party might be despicable, but it has an actual cause. Republicanism stands for something. And that gives it strength.

        If you want the left to have any appeal to anyone, the left also needs to stand for something. And if it embraces the nastiness you propose, it won’t be able to.

    • Larry Benjamin  On June 22, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Sanders’ entire appeal was based on his repudiation of corporate sponsors and anti-establishment – including anti-Democratic establishment – bona fides. If he’d decided to be Clinton’s VP, that would have been viewed as an acquiescence to everything he’d been opposing until then. It would have been like Donald Trump picking Jeb Bush as his running mate. Sanders’ supporters would have abandoned him, and Clinton wouldn’t have won any new ones.

      • Paul Kilduff  On June 22, 2017 at 5:17 pm

        I disagree. There is this idea that Bernie supporters are wild-eyed perfectionists who don’t understand politics. There are some of those. But most of us understand the necessity for compromise. I don’t know what could have happened that would have prevented Hillary/Bernie from winning going away. (Really, who could not have beaten Trump? Other than Hillary)

        But Hillary wanted someone she was “comfortable” with. She got it. ANOTHER terrible choice to add to the list. It sent a signal to the Bernie people: f**k you. Wouldn’t even have had to have been Bernie, although that would have been easy. Just someone that progressives respect as not being a complete corporate sellout or milquetoast.

      • Philippe Saner  On June 22, 2017 at 6:28 pm

        No, his appeal was and is based on solid policy. People like him because they know what he believes in, they like what he believes in, and they want what he believes in to happen.

        The VP has real power. If Clinton had brought Sanders onboard as running mate, that would’ve meant giving real power to his perspective and his platform. Sanders supporters aren’t idiots; they know that Vice President Sanders would be a great thing for their agenda.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 22, 2017 at 7:29 pm

        You don’t seem to remember the viceral hatred many Sanders supporters expressed toward Clinton. Also, Sanders didn’t want to be the Vice President, so it’s purely hypothetical as well as speculative.

        I recall Elizabeth Warren being proposed as a running mate, but maybe a younger progressive would have done the trick.

        What if Clinton had chosen someone who appealed to conservatives, like Jim Webb? If progressives can’t get elected, do we want to settle for conservative Democrats if the alternative is a conservative Republican?

      • Paul Kilduff  On June 22, 2017 at 9:54 pm

        Progressives CAN get elected, if the DNC will get out of their way.

      • 1mime  On June 22, 2017 at 10:27 pm

        I think the resistance movement speaks to your point. However, it is going to take time. Gerrymandering has set up long odds and we will have to be persistent and patient.

      • Paul Kilduff  On June 23, 2017 at 2:14 am

        I’m out of patience with the DNC. When they elected Perez instead of Ellison it told me, they are becoming irrelevant and they have no idea. When they snubbed the guy in Montana, in part because he was endorsed by Bernie, it told me they are spiteful AS WELL AS out of touch with reality. They’d rather go down with the ship than admit that there’s a big hole in the hull.

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 23, 2017 at 5:59 am

        Yes, and if those pesky Republicans would only get out of the way, progressives would be elected everywhere. That has to be the most asinine argument ever. If the only way you can win is for your opposition to not run, you’ve already lost. Progressives will win if people vote for them over other candidates. What’s needed are progressive candidates who can appeal to the majority that allegedly supports progressive policies, but won’t vote for anyone who uses the word “progressive.”

        The DNC shouldn’t “get out of the way” because a large portion of the electorate supports mainstream Democratic ideals, and they deserve to be represented by like-minded candidates. If those candidates are getting more votes than progressives, the problem isn’t the DNC, it’s us.

      • Kaci  On June 23, 2017 at 8:12 am

        When I try to put all the left issues together, what I get as a cause is that the left stands for the common good. It seems to me that that’s a pretty good message if we can figure out how to get it out there.

      • weeklysift  On June 24, 2017 at 6:09 am

        Paul: The DNC did get out of the way in Montana, and then they got criticized for that. The progressive position there seemed to be: “I hate your evil corporate money, and why aren’t you sharing it with me?”

      • paul kilduff  On June 25, 2017 at 6:08 pm

        Doug: I take your point. But I’m not calling for the “DNC to get out of the way.” I’m not sure anybody else is either.

        I’m calling for them to take a hard look in the mirror — to put someone at the top who knows when a house has fallen on them, and knows that *more of the same* thing that’s been failing for the last eight years is not going to suddenly start working. Put forth a message that people are enthusiastic about. They claimed — I believed this when I heard it, I’d welcome being corrected — they claimed that because Democrats were so disliked in MT, that they would do more harm than good if they gave him money. He was running as a Democrat. This is something out of “Veep.” They also claimed that he couldn’t win, so it would be a waste of money. Going from memory, Hillary lost by 20 points, this guy lost by 6. Democrats had a chance to take that seat, and they turned their nose up at it.

        I believe the real reasons were that 1) he was not ideologically pure on Choice, and 2) he was endorsed by Bernie.

        Advertising costs money, and advertising works! Money isn’t the complete answer, obviously, see GA, but it works.

  • Paul Kilduff  On June 22, 2017 at 1:52 am

    Glad to hear you’re almost there. 🙂 Good piece, good discussion. One thing I’d add is that politically aware voters know already whom they’re going to vote for. It’s the undecideds and independents that you fight over. What percent of the people who voted in Nov 2016 were voting on issues? 50%? Probably less? The others vote on whether someone is likable. Dukakis was an awkward, stumbling intellectual. Easy to spread rumors and make him look bad. Bernie is likable. Hillary, not likable. It’s important.

    I agree about vote suppression by Republicans — electronic voting machines are susceptible to hacking, and what can be hacked will be hacked; purging voter rolls, requiring certain forms of ID. It’s a national disgrace, and you can bet your bottom dollar it affected the election.

    I believe a substantial percent of people who voted for Brexit changed their minds the next day. Has anyone taken a poll of Stein voters to ask them how many of them would now vote for Clinton, knowing what they now know? I’m guessing that virtually *no* Stein voters regretted their decision after election day, but I’d like to see the numbers. My point is, you can’t say “if all the Stein voters had voted for Clinton.” THEY WERE NOT GOING TO.

    • weeklysift  On June 22, 2017 at 6:23 am

      I’m not convinced that “likeability” is a real property that people either have or don’t. John Kerry’s war record was admirable, until he got swift-boated. Then, for a big chunk of the electorate, it was something to feel uneasy about.

      Bernie gets testy when he’s under fire. I think he would have been considerably less likeable by November.

    • Guest  On June 22, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      “It’s the undecideds and independents that you fight over…Bernie is likable. Hillary, not likable. It’s important.”

      Bravo, Paul. It’s important, it’s simple, it’s true, and it’s still being ignored to this day.

      Doug, I just can’t believe you’re trying to compare Bernie Sanders to John Kerry like its apples to apples. Nobody ever mistook Kerry as the most popular politician in the country, except for, sadly, the people who pushed him into the nomination in 2004. And I suspect there’s a lot of overlap between that crowd, and Hillary’s in 2016.

      You know who else gets testy when under fire? The person who won the presidency.

    • weeklysift  On June 24, 2017 at 6:06 am

      People are likeable until they get smeared.

  • jh  On June 22, 2017 at 11:39 am

    “You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.”

    Nailed it.

    Democrats need to start attacking and re-branding conservative issues.

    They turned the estate tax into the death tax. Instead of making nuanced arguments, you need twitter ready phrases such as russian republican or rapist republican. If backed into a corner – just point out the RCC’s support of republicans and everyone will think “child rapist”. Label any conservative objection as lies. When they go”tradition”. I say “treason”. I never let it up. Because the point isn’t to convert the republican voter. It’s to tarnish the name of republican. After all – whose the party of “tax and spend” that somehow miraculously tends to be the party that reduces the national debt/deficit and occasionally provides us budget surpluses? Which party dominates in welfare states?

    What’s so wrong with using the tactics of the right? What’s so wonderful about “going high when they go low”? That never worked out for blacks or any other minority. Whites still think blacks are trash… even the liberal ones because they have never spent systemic time uprooting racist ideas that were part of their cultural upbringing. There’s a reason that we whine about coal mining jobs and white unemployment but never bother talking about the jobs desert in ghetto areas. (And the only good business is the drug business which is made illegal by a white majority.)

    • Marty  On June 22, 2017 at 4:16 pm

      I disagree, in fact, Martin Luther King Jr’s embracement of “going high when they go low” had a lot to do with how the civil rights movement turned out. This said, there is a huge difference between “going high” and “going quietly”. The real trick is walking that line between high but unruly and just low.

    • weeklysift  On June 24, 2017 at 6:05 am

      I’m in the middle of writing a piece — hopefully for this week — that makes some of these points: We’re still in the Reagan Era, and we need to call a close to it. You can’t do that just by proposing an alternative; you have to go after the old view until people are embarrassed to put it forward, as Reagan did with “tax-and-spend liberalism”.


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