Mark Penn and Ann Coulter’s old boyfriend, Andrew Stein, wrote a very stupid column in the increasingly-worthless NYT. I’ll save you the trouble of reading it, not least because reading it actually makes you lose IQ points. The gist of it is that Democrats need to “move to the center,” and abandon any “leftist” ideas, especially any “identity politics” that fail to center straight, white, Xian men at their apparent rightful place, the very epicenter of the universe. It’s no different from hundreds of similar articles that have polluted our discourse over the years. And, like most of those other articles, it simply ignores facts in order to achieve its pre-determined objective: neutering Democrats.
We are subjected to these screeds when Democrats win and we are subjected to them when Democrats lose. When Democrats win, they are chastised to remember that “America is still a center-right country” and Democrats must not get carried away in the after-glow of what was really just a lucky win, a freak occurrence, a one-off. Democratic presidents are ALWAYS encouraged in the strongest terms to show bi-partisanship by putting some Republicans in their cabinet, preferably in charge of “masculine” and “important” issues such as defense, crime prevention, monetary policy — you know, the things that Republicans are “better at” than are Democrats. When Democrats lose, regardless of their platform or their candidate, they are chastised for having moved “too far to the left,” and for, as Senator Bernie Sanders says, “not being able to talk to” that all-important white, male, working-class. (Ignore the actual fact that those voters have never voted for Democrats since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; surely if we just move even more to the right and quit doing anything for women, minorities, etc., then, surely, that cherished (albeit ever-smaller) slice of the electorate will vote for a Democrat. Some day.) Democrats are told that the only way for them to ever stop wandering in the desert of loserdom is to be Republican-lite because, of course, people who want Republican policies will surely vote, not for real Republicans, but for Democrats in Republican fleece. (No, they won’t.)
Interestingly, pundits such as Mr. Penn never offer similar advice to Republicans. When Republicans win, the pundits are certain that the win is due to the fact that America loves Republican policies and Republican candidates and this is true even when their candidates (see, e.g., George W. Bush and Donald Trump) lose the popular vote. No one ever suggests that it is important for them to govern from the middle, to put some Democrats in their cabinet, to acknowledge all those voting groups who did not vote for them. When Republicans lose, no one counsels them to move to the left, to: quit fighting the government’s role in medical care, start to advocate that the government stay out of people’s personal lives (abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, where we go to the bathroom), advocate, as conservatives, for conservation of America’s natural resources. Nope. Doesn’t happen.
The notion that Democrats must always move to the center is belied by actual facts. President Obama in 2012 was farther to the left than he was in 2008, particularly on social issues such as same-sex marriage, etc. And, he’d already signed and implemented the ACA. Yet, he won. Secretary Clinton ran in 2016 on the most liberal platform of any Democrat, ever. In fact, after securing the nomination, she moved even farther to the left and never made the expected “pivot towards the center” that many counseled and expected. She won the popular vote by millions, and millions, and millions. Did you see anyone counsel Trump that, having been rejected by the majority of Americans and by nearly every single American newspaper, he should govern from the center, put some Democrats on his cabinet, be humble and reach out to the other side, try to govern in a bi-partisan manner? No. And, in fact, he deliberately did the opposite, moving avowed Nazis and white supremisists into the Oval Office, selecting a Secretary of Education who explicitly wants to dismantle public education, and simply refusing to fill hundreds of government positions.
“But she lost,” the liberal bros insist. Yes, she lost the electoral college due, we now know, to the way that Trump fed red-meat racism and sexism to a white, male base, angry at what they perceive as a loss of those privileges to which they believe themselves entitled and to Russian interference in our election. Advocating a “more centrist” position would not have saved Hillary Clinton. (Nor, no matter how the Bernie bros stamp their feet, would an even more liberal platform have saved her. She didn’t lose because she advocated debt-free college vs. free college. People voting their racist hatred didn’t care; they only cared that those brown people not get any college aid.) Similarly, Democrats are out of power in Congress and many state houses due to Project Redmap, voter suppression , and Citizens United — not because the policies Democrats advocate are “too liberal.” In fact, due to gerrymandering, even when many, many more people vote for Democratic candidates , Republicans get elected to Congress. Getting Democrats to abandon their principles isn’t going to change any of that.
In addition to being factually incorrect, the notion that Democrats must “move to the center” is particularly pernicious for one very important reason: the Overton Window . The Republican Party, far from moving towards the center, has, for several decades, moved farther and farther and farther to the right. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush could never win a Republican nomination nowadays; they’re not nearly extreme enough. Despite the media’s insistence on “both siderism,” a few people have pointed out the obvious: today’s Republican Party is a fever-swamp of nut-job racists, woman-haters, conspiracy theorists, science-deniers, and out-of-control enemies of the very idea of government. As the Republican Party has pulled the Overton Window steadily towards the right, demanding that Democrats “move to the center” is really a demand that Democrats allow Republicans to completely control our national discourse. Today’s “center” — to which Democrats are supposed to move — is actually a position so far to the right of what was once considered centrist politics that it is almost unrecognizable. And, once Democrats move there, the Overton Window shifts again and the “center” moves even farther to the right, so that the next time pundits tell Democrats to “move to the center” Democrats will have to move even closer to racism, oppression of women, destruction of the middle class, and hostility towards the notion of a commonwealth. In fact, if for no reason other than the Overton Window, Democrats should be adopting ideas farther and farther to the left.
You know what Republicans do instead of “moving towards the center”? They keep throwing red meat to their base. They find the ideas that get their base fired up, ready to go to the polls, willing to donate, happy to push online — and they advocate those ideas.
Democrats should do the same, while working to undo the gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dark money that has resulted in Republican control.
And they should tell Mr. Penn to shut up.