Strident progressivism versus incrementalist centrism

The debate on the left about what lessons to take from the 2020 US election has the same contours as the main debate within climate change activism, with one side arguing that the success of the right demonstrates that Democrats have compromised too much with Republicans while a strongly progressive candidate and platform would have done better with voters while the other argues that since most of the available votes are to the right of progressives the Democrats’ promotion of policies which appeal to their most fervent base turns off centrist voters while energizing the conservative base.

This is a lot like the debate between climate justice advocates who favour a broadly intersectional progressive agenda including economic redistribution and the endorsement of a broad range of social justice causes and climate-energy or CO2-energy advocates who think the most plausible path to success is to remain focused narrowly on climate in ways calculated to not offend or challenge those with more conservative political views.

Since both arguments rely on counterfactuals (if only we had done this or that) the debate is hard to resolve. Either can be reconciled with the political outcomes we have observed, though each has contradictory implications for what the best approach moving forward is.

On climate specifically, I think one crucial element is the ability of decarbonization policies to endure between changes of government and party. If decarbonization is integrated into a progressive left agenda there is both the risk that the elements with more immediate political benefits will be given priority over the more painful changes needed to deal with climate change and the danger that the next right-wing government will dismantle the whole assembly.

To function, democracies need a consensus that the decisions of past governments were legitimate and that society as a whole needs predictability in what laws and regulations will be in force so that they can make appropriate long-term decisions. The historical pattern so far in climate change policies has been to see comparatively ambitious but still dreadfully inadequate proposals from left-wing governments and then their dismantling and contradiction by succeeding right-wing governments. Breaking out of that pattern somehow seems like our only path to the durable consensus on decarbonization which will need to hold for decades if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change.

23 thoughts on “Strident progressivism versus incrementalist centrism”

  1. Cillizza: Did you see a single message or issue break through with voters in swing districts? Was there an attack that particularly hurt Democrats?
    Poling: If you put all of the messages into a single broad category, it would be the extreme leftward lurch of the Democrat Party.
    That was messaged in different ways in different districts. In New York state, bail reform was extremely unpopular and meshed well with defund the police, so a public safety angle was the most effective. In some districts, it was “Medicare for All” and the loss of private health insurance. In a number of suburban districts, we talked about pocketbook issues like higher taxes under Biden. And in other districts, we focused on the extremism of the “Green New Deal.” And in south Florida especially, it was socialism more broadly. All of those messages fit within the rubric of extremism.

  2. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ends truce by warning ‘incompetent’ Democratic party

    The congresswoman said Joe Biden’s relationship with progressives would hinge on his actions. And she dismissed criticism from House moderates, calling some candidates who lost their races “sitting ducks.”

    But we also learned that progressive policies do not hurt candidates. Every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat. We also know that co-sponsoring the Green New Deal was not a sinker. Mike Levin was an original co-sponsor of the legislation, and he kept his seat.

    It’s really hard for us to turn out nonvoters when they feel like nothing changes for them. When they feel like people don’t see them, or even acknowledge their turnout.

    If the party believes after 94 percent of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia, the signal from the Democratic Party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.

  3. The first post-election myth is the same that emerges from Democratic leadership and media talking heads after every election: the threat of the “far left”. The election has given an opportunity for elected Democrats to engage in their favorite pastime and primary political commitment: lashing out at anyone, anywhere who might want to do anything about climate change or crushing inequality or systemic racism. This myth must be combatted, not only is it a threat to the progressive left and Democrats ability to win elections, it’s on its face false.

    As noted by the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, incumbent Democrats in swing and even Republican-leaning seats who co-sponsored Medicare for All were undefeated, while every Democrat who lost their seat took a conservative position on the issue. An analysis of swing seats by Justice Democrats showed that more conservative voting records were actually correlated with decreased vote share among incumbent Democrats. Exit polls showed massive support for a leftwing policy agenda. Where this agenda was on the ballot, it was triumphant even as moderation-obsessed Democrats lost up and down the ballot. In Florida, where Democrats distanced themselves from a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the result was a huge win for the $15 minimum wage and a bloodbath for Democratic candidates. For many voters, the Democratic party isn’t associated with raising the minimum wage, and with the Democrats’ messaging strategy, why should it be?

  4. This current iteration of the Democratic coalition should be terrifying to anyone with leftwing policy goals or anyone who wants to see Democrats win elections. Biden’s coalition was whiter and wealthier than any Democrat’s before. Biden’s winning margins depended on suburban voters who were entirely motivated by personal animus towards Trump, who voted Republican down-ballot and will certainly be voting Republican in future elections. After buying into the mantra that turning out working-class voters was an impossible Bernie Sanders fantasy and messaging had to be tailored to wealthy suburbanites, Democrats were entirely caught off guard by massive turnout among working-class voters of all races, voters who voted Trump at higher rates than any previous Republican has achieved.

  5. The Democratic party is fractured between centrist and liberals.
    Just eight days removed from a disappointing election which will see them lose seats, House Democrats have rapidly turned into a circular firing squad. Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger denounced her liberal colleagues on a phone call last week. “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she said. “Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.” Which drew an immediate rebuke from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the caucus’ most prominent, liberal voice.
    “You can’t just tell the Black, Brown, & youth organizers riding in to save us every election to be quiet or not have their reps champion them when they need us,” AOC tweeted. “Or wonder why they don’t show up for midterms when they’re scolded for existing. Esp when they’re delivering victories.”
    Now, given all of that, think about Biden’s challenge if Democrats manage to win back Senate control in Georgia early next year.
    He will be constantly pressured by liberals — particularly in the House — to push programs like the “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” and all sorts of other progressive wish list items. (Biden, of course, has already made clear he doesn’t support those massive liberal initiatives.) And he will also be pushed to pick liberal favorites for top Cabinet posts — like Elizabeth Warren at Treasury or Bernie Sanders at Labor.
    It would be a massive headache for Biden. While he could try to go his own way — in terms of Cabinet picks and his first-term agenda — he would face opposition from the liberal left at every turn. And while Biden’s primary win over several more liberal options does suggest the pragmatic center of the Democratic Party remains vital, there is little doubt that the passion (and donor dollars) are primarily located on the ideological left.

  6. Unlike the president, Mr Biden’s party is already reckoning with its failure. Bruised members of the centre-left—a faction that includes almost all the party’s candidates in the battleground states—blame the activist left for making them seem radical and untrustworthy. The left, in particular its 31-year-old standard-bearer, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is hitting back.

    The Democratic losses were in spite of a huge cash advantage and against a Republican opponent that over the past four years appeared to have given up on governing. The Trump party passed no major law besides a tax cut. It has no health-care policy. Yet Democratic candidates ran behind Mr Biden almost everywhere. And there are signs—beyond what Ms Spanberger and other battleground Democrats heard from their constituents every day—that the party’s perceived “radical leftism” was a big reason why. The Democrats lost most ground with two groups that have a special loathing of socialism, Cuban-Americans and Venezuelans. Their shift to the Republicans cost the Democrats two House seats in Florida and Mr Biden the state.

    If all the battlegrounds continued on their current electoral trajectory, North Carolina and Texas, where they had such hopes, might not turn Democratic until after the ageing, white rustbelt has become so reliably Republican that Democrats will have lost their five Senate seats there. Having approached the election hoping to win sufficient power to reform the system, Democrats are now contemplating a bleak struggle to stay competitive in it.

  7. Each time the Republicans lose the presidency, there are internal reviews that say they need to broaden their base. In practice, they swing further right. So much so, that what had been the loony fringe at the start of the process becomes their centre. By the time of the 2016 primaries, virtually all their candidates had gone full Tea Party. The next step – with Trump already shuffling toward it – is full Q-Anon.

  8. The president’s populist rhetoric—his hounding of elites and foreigners, his race-baiting—also proved to be much less of a turn-off generally than the Democrats had hoped. Bumper support from Cuban-Americans in Florida and Mexican-Americans in southern Texas saw Mr Trump more than double his winning margin in the first state and kill off Democratic dreams of winning the second. Exit polls suggest he increased his share of support from every group except white men. If that is right, Democrats won the election chiefly through their improved turnout effort, not by wooing voters from Mr Trump.

    His low approval rating suggests he has again been backed by Republicans who dislike him, but cannot bear to vote for the alternative. The logic of such hyper-partisanship is that, once he is out of office, many Republicans will shift their allegiance to a new leader, and be influenced by him in turn.

    Yet after a campaign almost entirely governed by negative partisanship on both sides, Democrats should think harder about how they may have actively repelled their flagging non-white base.

  9. Democrats are vying for control of the Senate and their ability to control the legislative agenda of a Joe Biden administration. As Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer recently stated to a cheering New York crowd, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America!”

    The Democrats strategy, however, is questionable at best. Though both Ossoff and Warnock are formidable and well-funded, their progressive roots and the Georgia Democratic Party’s more recent sharp left turn will make it difficult to prevail in a state that may be emerging purple but is definitely not deep blue.

  10. As a result, the main harm identity politics does to America comes through animosity and gridlock. Politics is supposed to resolve society’s conflicts, but democracy is generating them instead. Partly because tribes live in different information universes, matters of fact like wearing masks and climate change are transformed into disputes about people’s way of life. The result is that American politics has once again become unresponsive. It fires people up so much that it obstructs the compromises needed for society to move forward.

    Democracy is adaptable, too. In America’s election Republicans picked up Hispanic and black votes; and in Britain last year the governing Conservative Party won Labour seats in the Midlands. That mixing is just what politics in both countries needs, because it encourages parties on the left and right to break out of their tribal redoubts and to tilt the balance of political effort away from identity and back towards outcomes.

  11. “It’s not unusual for progressive groups to form circular firing squads over obscure technical disputes, and there are always ideological tensions between eco-purists and eco-pragmatists. But this spat is erupting at a particularly inopportune time for climate action. The clean electricity standard was already one of the most controversial planks of Biden’s $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan, and supporters worry that in a narrowly divided Congress, divisions within the green movement could imperil the entire plan — or at least its climate-related provisions.

    The dissenting groups — including Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity,, the NAACP and Food and Water Watch — say that no plan would be better than a flawed plan that values political viability over scientific necessity and could help prop up natural gas. The behind-the-scenes dialogue has gotten testy, with one critic accusing CES supporters of protecting a culture of white supremacy and “energy violence.”

    Supporters have countered that it’s political lunacy to fight a dramatic presidential effort to mandate clean power in the hopes that Congress will require a utopian renewables-only scheme for the grid. Even the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement, which rose to prominence in recent years by attacking Democrats for insufficient radicalism, has sided with Biden and the mainstream enviros.”

  12. The attack from the left is harder to grasp, partly because in America “liberal” has come to include an illiberal left. We describe this week how a new style of politics has recently spread from elite university departments. As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling “unsafe” and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed—with echoes of the confessional state that dominated Europe before classical liberalism took root at the end of the 18th century.

    Superficially, the illiberal left and classical liberals like The Economist want many of the same things. Both believe that people should be able to flourish whatever their sexuality or race. They share a suspicion of authority and entrenched interests. They believe in the desirability of change.

    However, classical liberals and illiberal progressives could hardly disagree more over how to bring these things about. For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up—and it depends on the separation of powers, so that nobody nor any group is able to exert lasting control. By contrast the illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.

    Progressives of the old school remain champions of free speech. But illiberal progressives think that equity requires the field to be tilted against those who are privileged and reactionary. That means restricting their freedom of speech, using a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice. It also involves making an example of supposed reactionaries, by punishing them when they say something that is taken to make someone who is less privileged feel unsafe. The results are calling-out, cancellation and no-platforming.

  13. This credo still lacks a definitive name: it is variously known as left-liberal identity politics, social-justice activism or, simply, wokeness. But it has a clear common thread: a belief that any disparities between racial groups are evidence of structural racism; that the norms of free speech, individualism and universalism which pretend to be progressive are really camouflage for this discrimination; and that injustice will persist until systems of language and privilege are dismantled.

    In a book entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind”, Mr Lukianoff and a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, posit that overprotective parenting in the shadow of the war on terrorism and the great recession led to “safetyism”, a belief that safety, including emotional safety, trumps all other practical and moral concerns. Its bounds grew to require disinviting disfavoured campus speakers (see chart 1), protesting about disagreeable readings and regulating the speech of fellow students.

    Many students latched onto a body of theory which yokes obscurantist texts to calls for social action (or “praxis”) that had been developing in the academy for decades. In 1965 Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist, coined the phrase “repressive tolerance”, the notion that freedom of speech should be withdrawn from the political right in order to bring about progress, since the “cancellation of the liberal creed of free and equal discussion” might be necessary to end oppression. Another influence was Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (published in English in 1970) advocated a liberatory pedagogy in the spirit of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in which “the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation”.

    The embrace of this ideology by students and professors might have remained inconsequential had it not been for the part played by administrative staff. Since 2000, such staff in the University of California system has more than doubled, outpacing the increase in faculty and students. The growth in private universities has been even faster. Between 1975 and 2005 the ranks of administrators grew by 66% in public colleges but by 135% in private ones. As their headcount grew, so did their remit—ferreting out not just overt racism or sexual harassment but implicit bias too. The University of California, Los Angeles, now insists that faculty applying for tenure include a diversity statement.

    An upheaval in mass communication accelerated the trend. On Twitter, a determined minority can be amplified, and an uneasy centre-left can be cowed. “Weaponisation of social media became part of the game. But what I think nobody foresaw was that these tactics could so easily be imported to the New York Times or Penguin Random House or Google,” says Niall Ferguson, a historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “The invasion…was just a case of the old problem: that liberals defer to progressives. And progressives defer to outright totalitarians.”

    “Corporate wokeism I believe is the product of self-interest intermingled with the appearance of pursuing social justice,” says Vivek Ramaswamy, a former biotechnology executive and author of “Woke, Inc.”. He argues that Big Tech pursues corporate wokeism because appearing to embrace social justice suits such firms’ commercial interests—both in terms of recruitment and appeal to their customers. It performs allegiance to identity politics while simultaneously rejecting the left’s critique of capitalism. “A lot of Big Tech has agreed to bend to the progressive left,” he says, but “they effectively expect that the new left look the other way when it comes to leaving their monopoly power.”

  14. Today’s radicals demand the enforcement of codes of behaviour and speech. A poll of more than 4,000 four-year college students for the Knight Foundation in 2019 found that 68% felt that students cannot say what they think because their classmates might find it offensive.

    Religious faiths have always had a vanguard, such as the Jesuit order, who see it as their job to move the boundaries of belief and behaviour towards righteousness. The vanguard of the woke revolution are young activists. Belief in foundations of liberalism such as free speech declines with each generation. The Pew Research Centre notes that 40% of millennials favour suppressing, in various unspecified ways, speech deemed offensive to minorities, compared with 27% among Gen Xers, 24% among baby-boomers and only 12% among the oldest cohorts.

    Progressives replace the liberal emphasis on tolerance and choice with a focus on compulsion and power. As in many religions, righteous folk have a duty to challenge immorality wherever they find it. They find a lot of it, believing that white people can be guilty of racism even if they don’t consciously discriminate against others on the basis of race, because they are beneficiaries of a system of exploitation. Classical liberals conceded that your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. Today’s progressives argue that your freedom to express your opinions stops where my feelings begin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *