I just started reading Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats by Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins, and it has already helped crystallize some of my thoughts about progressive politics.* In short, the Left needs a coherent ideology to mobilize people. Luckily we have one: It’s called democratic socialism. Here’s my argument.
I have often pondered the question: How did the Right gain power and take over the Republican party? I consider this pair of strategic decisions significant.
First, in the 1980s, Christian Right supporters made it known that they would not vote for any candidate who was not pro-life; they would simply stay home and let the chips fall where they may. Message delivered. That is why essentially, every single Republican candidate is now “pro-life.”
Second, in the 2010s, the Tea Party mobilized in opposition to “Obamacare,” mobbing town-hall meetings all over the country. With support and prodding from well-organized groups on the right, everyday people got involved, many for the first time.
But they did not simply take action. They also made it known that they would primary any candidate who did not tow the line ideologically, even if it meant a win for the Democrats. For example, in my former state of Delaware, Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell beat Mike Castle in the Republican primary and then lost to Chris Coons in the general election. Before her primary challenge, Castle was considered a shoe-in and Coons just a sacrificial lamb. Message delivered. Do not cross the Tea Party or you will be primaried.
Because of these examples, it’s been my position for years that progressives ought to follow the tactical maneuvers of the Christian Right and the Tea Party in order to push the Democratic Party to the left.
But in general, that doesn’t happen. Most progressives, it seems, keep voting for whomever runs with a D by their name, no matter how egregious their offenses. There is never a price to be paid for ignoring the left or violating fundamental principles, and so there is no incentive for change among establishment Dems.
Now granted, sometimes the stakes are too high to risk a Republican win even for potential long-term gains, as, I would argue, in the case of Trump. I voted for Hillary because the stakes were too high not to. And I believe I made the right choice; others did what they thought best.
However, the stakes are not always too high in every case. Judgments must be made.
In response to my position, one might point out that Indivisible has done precisely what I am calling for. Indeed, they explicitly embraced the tactics of the Tea Party. All across the country, liberals and progressives have mobilized and packed town-hall meetings, just as the right did in 2010. And it’s too soon to know the result.
There is, however, an important difference between the Tea Party and Indivisible. The Tea Party has an ideology – individual liberty, small government, traditional values, and patriotism – an easily understandable vision that excited everyday people and stirred them to action. They also schooled their followers about The Constitution, and people loved it. They loved it so much that they often cite that document when no constitutional issue is at stake.
Indivisible, in contrast, has no discernible ideological agenda. It strives only to “resist the Trump agenda.” Although that’s important work, it’s not enough, I would argue, to simply #Resist; we must also have a positive goal.
Progressives need an appealing ideology to frame our movement and give it purpose. Fortunately, we actually have such an ideology. It’s called democratic socialism.
That was the ideology Bernie Sanders used to galvanize people during his campaign, and indeed Democratic Socialists of America now thrives all over the country because of that, even hiring staff! Bernie moved the masses because he offered an overarching vision that inspired people.
Given my thoughts on this issue, I was gratified to read the following description of the two parties in the award-winning book, Asymmetic Politics:
While the Democratic Party is fundamentally a group coalition, the Republican party can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement. Most Republican voters – and nearly all of the party’s activists, financial supporters, candidates, and officeholders – identify as conservatives and voice support for the abstract values of small government and American cultural traditionalism. In contrast to the variety of single-issue interest groups and social movements that collectively constitute the activist population of the Democratic Party, Republican politics is dominated by a broadly organized, cross-issue conservative movement that now maintains control of the party apparatus. Likewise, the Republican base of the mass electorate is less an aggregation of conscious social groups mobilized by the activation of identity-based interests than a less diverse set of voters who perceive themselves as mainstream Americans defending the values of individual liberty and traditional morality against the encroachment of left-wing ideas. (3)
Trump challenges that conservative ideology because he is fundamentally not conservative; he’s a fascist. He has organized people around a fascist vision of jingoistic, male-dominated, white supremacy, but he has moved the masses.
I can’t decide whether the Republican Party leadership is fundamentally hypocritical – abandoning their professed belief in the Constitution and balanced budgets, when it no longer serves their mercenary purposes – or simply cowardly in the face of power. But it will be interesting to see how it all plays out – interesting in the sense of the Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.”
My prediction is that when Trump threatens the financial interests of the Republican elite, they will get rid of him. Hopefully, that time is near.
But in any event, in all three cases mentioned – the Christian Right, the Tea Party, and the rise of Trump – the Right has mobilized people with an ideological vision.
The Left needs an ideological vision too. A packet of policy proposals tailored to a diversity of different constituencies cannot move the masses. Democratic socialism could. It needs to be part of our long game.
* “Progressives” is a problematic term. I use it as a synonym for people on the left.