It’s A Mistake For Democrats To Oppose Everything On Principle


Flowchart for a rational debate
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With Democrats nearly fading to obscurity after the 2016 elections — Republicans gained control of all three branches of the federal government, control 34 of 50 governor’s mansions, and 66 of 99 state legislative bodies — I think Democrats are mistaken to oppose everything the new regime proposes.

And it’s even more true of partisan liberal organizations and liberal citizens than it is of the Democratic Party.

As a group, we seem to have forgotten that the biggest beneficiary of any debate is the audience.

The flowchart pictured above-right (see larger) refers only to the two opponents in a debate/discussion. It indicates that the discussion isn’t worth having if the other party won’t agree to certain ground rules, or if the other party says nothing will change his or her position. This is only true if the discussion is private.

But in a public debate — which is really all politics is — it doesn’t matter whether the opponent agrees to certain ground rules or whether the opponent might possibly change his/her mind. Because it’s the audience that you’re trying to influence.

In the U.S., more of us identify as Independent than as either Republican or Democrat. Independents lean right or left, and often switch sides on national elections, depending on who has swayed them. Neither Republicans nor Democrats usually hold a majority of voters.

Watching the rhetoric from the DNC and other left-leaning political organizations since Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, I’ve noticed a severe case of preaching to the choir. Similarly, an awful lot of rank-and-file liberals aren’t helping the cause either.

It’s one thing to commiserate; it’s cathartic and many of us needed it. It’s quite another to design ongoing messaging that further alienates the indecisive middle.

It’s one thing to commiserate; it’s cathartic and many of us needed it. It’s quite another to design ongoing messaging that further alienates the indecisive middle — because those are the ones you’ll depend on in 2018 and 2020.

I’ve seen calls for Democrats in the Senate to obstruct “just like the Republicans did” on every issue, every nomination, every GOP-sponsored bill. This won’t be helpful, long term. One reason many voters identify as independents is because they can’t stand the partisan bickering or the “party-over-country” attitude that both sides often display. We independents are far more impressed when politicians break with their party to do the right thing than when they toe the party line.

(Caveat: Obviously I’m generalizing here. Many independents are very conservative and others are very progressive. Some are conspiracy theorists, nut jobs, and pro- or anti- nearly every issue. A lot of independents are simply uninformed. But the fact remains that nearly every national election is won by the side that sways more non-partisan voters.)

Also, purely from a strategic point of view, it’s pointless and wasteful to fight every battle. The Trump administration and the GOP majorities in Congress have moved swiftly and triumphantly since Trump’s inauguration, both with legislation and confirmation hearings. Almost all of them are bad, yes, but not all of them are worth fighting endlessly. The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind. Also: “Is this the hill you want to die on?”

I was impressed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when she decided to vote “yes” on Ben Carson’s nomination as Secretary of Housing And Urban Development. Despite facing a massive backlash from the left, Warren noted: “Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted. But ‘the nominee I wanted’ is not the test.” She carefully explained her reasoning for discontinuing her opposition and decided to move on.

“During the nomination process, I sent Dr. Carson a nine-page letter with detailed questions on a whole range of issues… Dr. Carson’s answers weren’t perfect. But at his hearing, he committed to track and report on conflicts of interest at the agency. In his written responses to me, he made good, detailed promises, on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that – if they’re honored – would help a lot of working families.

Can we count on Dr. Carson to keep those promises? I don’t know. People are right to be skeptical; I am. But a man who makes written promises gives us a toehold on accountability. If President Trump goes to his second choice, I don’t think we will get another HUD nominee who will even make these promises – much less follow through on them…

We’ve got a lot of nominees to consider, and a lot of places where we need to turn up the heat under the Senate Republicans. (Yes, Betsy DeVos, I’m looking at you. And Pruitt, Mnuchin, Puzder, Price, Tillerson – it’s a long list.) Either way, we need all of us in this fight.”

We need more of this from our Democratic senators. It’s not “giving up”; it’s reasonable compromise in order to move on with more important business. There are nominees to oppose endlessly, including the aforementioned Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and others. There are house bills that need to be filibustered until they die, but we should choose carefully.

Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, isn’t one that should be opposed, at least not purely because he’s a Trump nominee. In fact, he’s probably the best SCOTUS nominee we could have expected from a Trump administration. I actually feared we’d get someone like Michelle Bachmann or Chuck Norris — someone that would cause a public uproar lasting weeks while the administration committed worse deeds quietly in the background. Instead, we got a relatively solid, non-controversial jurist. As surprising as that is, I say let it pass. No, he won’t be good for all our progressive causes — certainly not for reproductive rights or separation of church and state — but we can expect him to be reasonable and independent.

Because — again — this isn’t about convincing your base; they’re already convinced. And it’s not about winning over Republicans — 95% of them are lost to you anyway. This is about winning the middle, the independents, the undecideds. This is about the audience.

The best way forward is not to adopt the 2009-16 GOP playbook of ubiquitous obstruction, government shutdowns, and taking your ball and going home. That’ll only make you look as silly and as immature as they are. The best way forward is maintaining composure; using reason to consider each nominee, executive order, and law; and above all to remember the audience.

6 Comments
  1. Dana says:

    “It’s one thing to commiserate; it’s cathartic and many of us needed it. It’s quite another to design ongoing messaging that further alienates the indecisive middle — because those are the ones you’ll depend on in 2018 and 2020.”

    One – I don’t think there’s an “indecisive” middle anymore; and two – I think the Democrats lost the election because many “Democrats” (not independents) voted for Trump (i.e. people who in the past would have traditionally voted Democrat, such as union workers).

    Politics is (and should be) about compromise but that does not mean that the Republicans have a “mandate” and that the Democrats should just let them bull-doze their ridiculous (and harmful) agenda through congress or that all (or even any) of Trumps horrific nominees should be approved.

    (Oddly, from a solely work standpoint; I’m ok with Trump’s pick for Supreme Court, as he is “good” on criminal defense issues.)

    I think the Democrats in Congress right now are in a very tough position. If they compromise, they may attract some of the independents in the mid-term elections. But if they compromise too much, they may lose more of their base (who may choose not to vote, or throw away their votes to unelectable third party liberal candidates).

    And finally – the “middle” seems to me to be a lot of middle-aged to older white males, who believe they are victims. There’s not a lot of common ground for me to have a dialogue with them. That’s not my constituency and I’d have trouble supporting a candidate who catered primarily to them.

    “That’ll only make you look as silly and as immature as they are. The best way forward is maintaining composure; using reason to consider each nominee, executive order, and law; and above all to remember the audience.”

    Hardly anyone spoke up or complained when the Republicans stalled and prevented anything from happening during 8 years of the Obama administration. It was a successful political tactic then and didn’t hurt them come election time. Their base grew – not shrunk. The Republican voters, the Tea Party and many Independents did not see it as immature – only the liberals viewed it that way. I’m failing to see why the Democrats should employ a different strategy. I haven’t read a convincing argument yet why the Democrats should engage in compromise.

    I don’t think my elected officials are refusing to play ball just for the sake of being difficult. I don’t think Trump nor Congress has yet put forth anything where they should compromise. I believe that when (if) that situation ever presents itself in the next 4 years, that my elected officials will act appropriately and not be obstructionist merely for the sake of it.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “I don’t think there’s an “indecisive” middle anymore…”

      Maybe “indecisive” was an inaccurate word choice on my part. But it’s undeniable, statistically, that there is a very large group that do not identify as either Democrat as Republican. There’s another very large group (with some overlap) that was eligible to vote but didn’t in 2016 (even if after subtracting those discouraged by voter suppression, etc.)

      These two groups have decided every single presidential election of my lifetime, either by not voting, or being swayed one way or another.

      “Oddly, from a solely work standpoint; I’m ok with Trump’s pick for Supreme Court, as he is ‘good’ on criminal defense issues.”

      That’s indeed one area I’ve read about that makes him acceptable. Also, he’s probably the best we could have expected from Trump at this point.

      “If they compromise, they may attract some of the independents in the mid-term elections. But if they compromise too much, they may lose more of their base…”

      True; they must walk a fine line. But what I’m reading is an awful lot of “obstruct everything; just like the GOP did for 8 years!” I think that fine line is reachable.

      Democrats have an amazing opportunity here. They can squander it bigly, if they so choose, by giving in at every opportunity, by fighting even unnecessary battles, or by caving to big financial interests — which even many Trump voters loathe.

      • Dana says:

        What is this amazing opportunity? I think (for a myriad of reasons, too lengthy to discuss here) that the entire country has swung to the right and is going to remain there well past mid-term elections or even the next four years. (Note that Europe, as well, is swinging to the right.) I think the Democrats are damned if they do; damned if they don’t. They can go down swinging or go down being complicit in this Administration’s particular brand of insanity but either way, they’re going down. No one is predicting any gains in Democratic seats in Congress – and without that, the only thing they can do is dig their heels in and refuse to make anything easy. They have no other leverage.

        There are essentially no checks and balances to the Executive power in this country right now. I’ll feel better if the Democrats exert whatever pressure they can (powerless as they are) against this administration. Because the Republicans certainly aren’t going to take Trump/Bannon to task for anything.

        If you look at recent history – the Republicans flat-out refused to hold confirmation hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee with NO repercussions whatsoever. It did not hurt their political capital in the least. They did not suffer any election losses. Those in the middle ground, still voted for Republicans and Trump in droves.

        The Democrats have nothing to gain by confirming Gorsuch. Gorsuch will be confirmed regardless of whether the Democrats play along or not. I don’t see what the upshot is for the Democrats (other than perhaps avoiding the Senate Republicans changing the voting rules).

        “But it’s undeniable, statistically, that there is a very large group that do not identify as either Democrat as Republican.”

        It’s undeniable that a large group refuse to wear the label of Democrat or Republican, but I don’t think it’s truly a large pool of people that would truly embrace liberal candidates if only the Dems could finesse their message.

        • Wil C. Fry says:

          “I think that the entire country has swung to the right and is going to remain there well past mid-term elections or even the next four years.”

          My wife thinks so too. I hope you’re both wrong. If so, we’re probably fucked as a country. I don’t say this lightly, and I realize a lot of crises have threatened to end our noble experiment in the past. If we can’t start pulling them back by 2018, history will record that the 2016 elections were the ledge we stepped over and couldn’t come back from.

  2. Timothy says:

    Hello Wil. I recently came across your blog just over a week ago and liked what I saw. I liked that you used evidence and references, and I agree wiht much of what you have written. I plan to continue following you. As you said in you previous blog post, it is not about gaining followers, but engaging in discussions. So that is what I am here to do.

    I myself am an Independent, I detest being placed in a box and expected to as the party dictates. I usually explain it as I make up my own mind, not have it made up for me because that is what the party believes. I switched to Democrat for the primaries to vote for Sanders because I believed him to be the best choice. Once he lost, I switched back to Independent. I may not have liked Hilary, but Trump was not a valid choice at all. I am one of the ones in the middle that you are speaking of. I lean left for the most part which means I tend to lean toward Democrat, but I have some conservative hard points as well that I agree with Republicans at times too.

    I agree with you that the Democrats should walk that fine line and not be as stubborn as the Republicans were during Obama. Why, some ask? As Dana said above, they wont gain Republican voters, but I think they could lose Democrat ones as well as Independents. I say this because it would make me think less of the Democrats if they resorted to such tactics just to be contrary. Setting the example, doing what is right is hard. Being the change is hard. People need to strive to be better, not sink to the level of those that have done them wrong.

    This is not to suggest that they should not fight tooth and nail, and pull out every dirty trick they have for important issues. I am saying they should not be stubborn for stubborn sake. I hope to see more actions like Sen. Warren’s.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Timothy, thanks for reading — and commenting. Sorry that your first comment got held up in the moderation queue. After this, they should go through more easily.

      “…it would make me think less of the Democrats if they resorted to such tactics just to be contrary. Setting the example, doing what is right is hard. Being the change is hard. People need to strive to be better, not sink to the level of those that have done them wrong.”

      Yes, I agree with this, and your next paragraph.

      I didn’t mean they should just vote yes on all Trump’s nominees. I meant they shouldn’t flat-out *obstruct* as the Republicans did, should pull back from government shutdown scenarios, and should spend what little political capital they still have on fighting the *worst* of the nominees.

      If our country’s going to become a third-world dustbowl, let it happen as slowly as possible. :-)

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