Damn Moderates

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – CC BY 2.0

The world owes Donald Trump thanks. But for him, our next president would be Donald Trump, and “moderate” Democrats – spineless defenders of the pre-Trumpian status quo and of the interests of the kinder-gentler wing of the ruling class — would have done even more harm than they did.

Needless to say, this is not how liberal media see it. As soon as the election was called, they went on the offense. Within a day or two, watching MSNBC and CNN became unbearable, worse even than listening to NPR or reading the drivel of most New York Times and Washington Post columnists.

Stephanie Rule, Claire McCaskill, Dana Bush and a few others were among the first to go on the attack, but within hours and with very few exceptions, they all followed suit – blaming not themselves and their politics, but the politics of leftists within the Democratic fold for the fact that the “blue tsunami” they were all expecting failed to materialize.

Because genuine progressives have nowhere else to go without marginalizing themselves, there is a large and growing left wing within the Democratic Party at the national and state levels. This drives establishment Democrats and their media flunkies crazy. They have to pretend that it does not however, that all Democrats are ultimately on the same page, because, at some level, they realize that, having nothing of interest to offer themselves, they would be nowhere without the progressives they abhor.

That realization goes only so far, however; witness their efforts to make advocacy of even the most anodyne versions of socialism taboo again.

Mainstream Democratic politicians have so far been more restrained than the pundits and experts on the cable networks, perhaps because, with two runoff Senate elections in the offing, they don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot. The best-known exception, so far, is a moderate not long out of the CIA, Abigail Spanberger.

She is not alone, however; others are chomping at the bit. It is hard to say whether this is because moderates go where the money is or because it is in their nature. What is clear is that Pelosiite-Schumerian Democrats, and Democrats even more retrograde than they, having honed their skills by going after foreign leaders, Vladimir Putin especially but not only, who resist American world domination, have become adept at demonizing their rivals.

This is a useful addition to their skill-set. The military-industrial-national security state complex has been calling for years for a new or revived Cold War and Democrats have been even happier than Republicans to oblige.

Too bad for them, though, that genuine progressives are a lot harder to cast in a disparaging light than Russian oligarchs or Chinese “communists” out on the capitalist road. But those who want to keep both duopoly parties on the wrong side of the class struggle have no choice but to take up the challenge.

To be sure, with the federal judicial system packed with retrograde judges, many of them Trump appointees, and with more than seventy million Americans having voted for Trump just a few weeks ago, there is still a chance that Trumpian skullduggery will somehow lead to the nullification of the results of the November 3 election.

However, the chances of that are slim and getting slimmer. A few Republican bigwigs, even The Wall Street Journal editorial page, have already come around to the view that Trump should be gracious in defeat. Good luck with that.

Trump’s obduracy hardly matters, however. He still has his base, but the monolith is cracking, and so far at least, there seems to be no way to stop it. Trumpian judges can’t or won’t, much to the Donald’s dismay.

However, we are not out of the woods by any means. For the time being, nearly all GOP Senators and Representatives, and many administration officials, continue to shame themselves by remaining under Trump’s thumb. As long as they remain conspicuously base and servile, the Trump base will remain conspicuously deplorable. Mayhem and civil strife therefore still lie ahead, and the consequences could be ugly.

This is one reason why the joy that followed the announcement of Trump’s defeat is giving way to apprehension. Another reason is that the realization that the election did not go well for Democrats is sinking in.

Had Joe Biden, riding an anti-Trump wave, not gotten at least 279 Electoral College votes (as of this writing, 45 more all but certain Biden Electoral College votes remain to be called), we would now be staring catastrophe in the face. Instead, we are looking at a post-Trumpian future in which Trumpism is unvanquished and in which our pre-Trumpian past could well derail hope for urgently needed fundamental change.

The Biden-Harris victory staved off disaster, and it is not inconceivable that much good could come from it – if, and only if, a militant left opposition makes it impossible for the administration not to go along.

For that to be the case, what happens outside the government will likely be more important than what happens within; it generally is. But what happens within matters too, which is why, in addition to Trump’s defeat, we can also rejoice in the fact that “the squad” survived the November election, and that there will be perhaps as many as a dozen more legislators in the next Congress who hold views similar to theirs.

Reactionary plutocrats and white Evangelicals dug deep in their pockets to forestall that possibility. This time, they lost. But there is no guarantee that they always will; plutocrats’ pockets are deep and religious fervor is hard to defeat.

Democrats will retain control of the House too, but there will be fewer of them in it than there now are. The ones who will be gone will hardly be missed by those who want to move the country beyond the Clintonite horizons of the mainstream Democratic Party, but the consensus view among liberal commentators was that Democrats would substantially increase the size of their caucus As it turned out, they diminished it.

Democrats were also expecting to “flip” a bunch of Senate seats, enough to make Mitch McConnell go back to his old Kentucky home where he could spend his days catching flies by some placid pond. That isn’t going to happen either. The best progressives can hope for now is a fifty-fifty split and therefore, if all Democrats tow the party line, to tied outcomes that would result in Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.

How the internal business of the Senate would be organized would then have to be negotiated. This is not a cheery prospect because Democrats are spineless pushovers while Republicans are hard asses. Maybe, though, with the stakes so high, Democrats will somehow find the strength within themselves to work something acceptable out.

To get to a fifty-fifty split, Democrats will have to win two runoff elections in Georgia. If they fail, McConnell will be able to call the shots even with Biden in the White House, and we can forget about undoing the harm he has done to the federal judiciary, and forget about pursuing anything like a progressive legislative agenda too.

This is why winning those elections in January is the new Job Number One. It won’t be easy, but with Stacey Abrams leading the charge, it just might happen.

There is no prospect, though, of undoing the fact that Democrats failed to flip the many state legislatures that were supposed to turn blue this time around. Therefore, as the 2020 census results come in, Republicans, not having to contend with significant legal or statutory constraints and showing flagrant disregard for (small-d) democratic values, will again gerrymander Congressional and other legislative districts to their hearts’ content.

In theory, voters in democracies choose their representatives, not the other way around. However, in this respect as in so many others, American democracy is “exceptional.”

It would therefore be fair to say that beyond the main thing, which was of course to send the Donald packing, that, for the most part, Democrats fucked up.

Trump blames everybody but himself whenever things don’t go his way; and when he accuses an opponent of X, Y, or Z – of corruption, for example – it is virtually certain that he is guilty as sin of X, Y, or Z himself.

Mainstream Democrats are not all that different. Like Trump, they cast blame away from themselves when things go wrong; and, when they do so, they are nearly as likely to be wrong as he is. Thus, they are falling all over themselves now, blaming AOC and the other good guys, and giving moderates a pass.

In truth, though, when Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and other party honchos quashed the Sanders and Warren campaigns — and especially when the “iconic” James Clyburn engineered a Biden victory in South Carolina, breathing new life into Biden’s flailing campaign — they all but made what became of the predicted “blue tsunami” inevitable.

Damn them for that; damn all the moderates; and damn Clyburn most of all.

Where are iconoclasts when we need them! And when, for that matter, will Democrats stop relying on South Carolina, a state full of conservative African Americans and incorrigible white supremacists, a state that they have no hope of carrying anytime soon anyway, to choose their nominee?

The short answer is: when the Democratic Party is led by real progressives, not by those who favor their own interests and the interests of the obscenely rich over the preferences of the actual and potential voters Democrats ostensibly represent.

It was easy, this time, for moderates to prevail. All they had to do was identify moderation with relief from the Trumpian maelstrom.

After all, in times such as these, who does not crave peace and quiet? Especially now, with a socially distanced holiday season looming, calling for anything more demanding than kumbaya unity seems almost as hardhearted as denying Tiny Tim and the other Cratchits their Christmas dinner. Even Scrooge couldn’t pull that off.

But the struggle must go on because a prolonged period of Bidenesque normalcy is a recipe for trouble ahead. The social and political order that we have been living under for the past quarter century or more is what made Trump or someone like him possible — and, if not inevitable, then the next closest thing.

More likely than not, Trump will soon no longer be a factor. Word is out that he wants to run for president again in 2024. That may be hard for him to do, though, even if he is still able, because if even a pale semblance of justice prevails, he will be doing time then at some Club Fed.

If we have learned anything from these past four years, it is that “it can happen here” is not just a cautionary tale but a live possibility. Unless we change the underlying conditions in ways that make that possibility far more unlikely than it evidently now is, it is more likely than not that what we have just gone through will before long recur. Then the danger will be that our next Führer wannabe may not be quite as disposed to doing himself in as Trump has been.

We dodged the bullet, sort of, this time, but we cannot count on dodging the next one or the one after that. This being the case, there is some urgency, even while still in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s defeat, in reflecting on what made what can happen here actually happen.

Blame the institutions; blame rightwing propagandists; blame respectable corporate media too for giving Trump and his co-thinkers free publicity and a respectful hearing. And, although the terminally “woke” are too goody-goody to say it, also blame the direct victims of Trumpian nativism and racism who went over to Trump’s side.

By some accounts, that would be as many as twenty percent of African American men and a larger percentage of Latinos.

The problem, it seems, is not just elderly, CIA sponsored, Cuban-American counter-revolutionaries in Miami and a few other enclaves, their children and grandchildren, and their class brothers and sisters, the dregs of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

Latinos in the West and Southwest are also part of the problem, not all that many of them except perhaps in south Texas, but enough to slow down the rise of progressive politics in LatinX communities. Class interests and family traditions don’t account for their moral recalcitrance, their willingness to make common cause with the enemies of “the wretched of the earth.” What, then, does?

There are many explanations at hand; not all of them without merit. There is merit too in the idea that, as Tolstoy put it, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner,” to understand all is to forgive all. In this case, though, I have to go with Jean-Paul Sartre’s declaration of contempt for victims who respect their executioners.

It goes without saying that none of this lets the more than seventy million, mostly white, dunderheads who voted for Trump off the hook. Trump conned them – conning the vulnerable is one of the few things he does well – but even so.

After Trump, no one can reasonably deny that the fascist temptation runs deep in the Land of the Free. There is no way to think soundly about the good and the bad in moderation without taking this sad fact into account.

Barry Goldwater was famously taken to task for reciting a line written by Karl Hess that was inserted into the Arizona Senator’s Republican convention acceptance speech in 1964: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Hess was an under-appreciated political theorist who, unlike Goldwater, was more an anarchist than a conservative.

I confess that I have never quite seen what is supposedly so awful in those words, though of course, in the first part at least, it all depends on what those who say or hear them mean by “liberty.” Free marketeers like Goldwater mean, roughly, freedom from constraints on private ownership and market transactions. On the left, since even before the French Revolution, the term has had more to do with how able persons are to do what they want than with how unconstrained by laws or other persons they may be, with non-domination, and with autonomy, the freedom to act in accord with our own rational choices.

The second part seems both unambiguous and unexceptionable. Moderation in the face of injustice is part of the problem, not of the solution. Moderation in opposition to fascism, not only in the original sense of the term, but also in the sense that describes the authoritarian impulses that Trump and his co-thinkers admire is certainly no virtue.

Influenced in part by the Democratic Party’s leaders and their media toadies, large swathes of the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file think otherwise. Their intentions are beyond reproach. But they are sadly, even dangerously, mistaken. In the face of a continuing Trumpian threat, with or without the direct involvement of Trump himself, moderation is certainly no virtue.


What then is to be done in these final two months of the Trump era, with some large chunk of the seventy million plus MAGA voters still unchastened and unenlightened, and with a moderate Democratic administration about to take over?

Plainly, the most important thing for now is to win those two runoff elections. If Democrats don’t, Republicans will control the Senate for at least for the next two years. From that perch, they will obstruct, obstruct, and obstruct some more.

More broadly, disempowering Trumpians should take precedence over everything else, because it is key to everything else worth doing. All the forces that were arrayed against Trump should therefore now double their resolve and focus on defeating Mitch McConnell and others in the Greater Evil Party who side with him; that would be nearly every Republican on Capitol Hill.

This is eminently doable. For anyone less retrograde than, say, Mitt Romney, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are more palatable candidates than Biden; and Mitch McConnell, though less odious than Trump, is every bit as vile.

Trump is and ought to be an object of contempt, but McConnell’s politics – Republican politics — is evil, and therefore so is McConnell himself. Kumbaya Democrats and corporate liberal pundits go on about how important it is that we all come together “across the aisle.” This is pure, unadulterated, moderate bullshit.

Drive that point home and voilà: the struggle against Democrats who want to restore the status quo ante and not to change it fundamentally, as is desperately needed, can resume.

After that, it is crucial to insist – to Biden and the others – that the Donald, Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, Ivanka especially, and Trump’s most perfidious cronies and underlings be held accountable, not just for the crimes they committed that fall under the jurisdiction of the State of New York, but for their many federal crimes as well.

Obama and Eric Holder and Biden too deliberately gave George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and other Bush era war criminals a pass. For liberal spin doctors twelve years ago, this was a wise and noble act – the country had to move on. In truth, it was what made Obama’s drone assassinations and other extra-judicial killings, the deportations he ordered, and his war on whistle blowers and others who embarrassed him and Hillary Clinton – Julian Assange, for example, and Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and others – possible. It was the Obama administration’s Original Sin.

Now is a time to impress upon Biden that this will not be acceptable in 2021. True justice for Trump and the others may be beyond human reach, and our legal system is ill-equipped to handle more than a small fraction of the crimes for which they ought to be held to account. But shame on Biden and shame on us if Trump and the others get off scot-free. Trump should die a broken and impoverished man. “What is to be done?” Make that happen.

It would be well to enlist Kamala Harris in that cause. She is a moderate too, though not nearly as egregiously as Biden is, and she has much to answer for – by, among other things, coming out in support of fracking and continuing to pander to AIPAC.

I must say, though, that since Biden picked her to be his running-mate, her performance has not been half bad. Better her at the top than Biden himself.

For now, she seems on track to become our first female president. Confining attention just to feasible alternatives, we could do better – Elizabeth Warren would be better, for example – but we could also do a hell of a lot worse; in 2016, we very nearly did.

Then, finally, now would be a good time to take up serious organizing around two initiatives, both of which are eminently defensible in their own right, because they would make the political order more just and more (small-d) democratic, and both of which would raise Republicans’ hackles in ways that would keep their odiousness in the public eye even after they break free, if they ever do, from Trump’s stranglehold.

The first is DC statehood or, if getting to that point seems too complicated, finding some less complicated way to end “taxation without representation” for a population larger than Wyoming’s and Vermont’s, and not much smaller than Alaska’s, North and South Dakota’s, and Delaware’s.

If they want it, Puerto Rican statehood should also be pursued. Because anti-LatinX nativism runs high in our country, especially after Trump, this would be more difficult to enact. But if Republicans really do want LatinX votes, they would have a hard time now, after this last election especially, putting their bigotry front and center.

The other initiative I have in mind would be to put resources into getting recalcitrant states to sign on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. A Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would be better of course, but, for now, going the Compact route seems more feasible.

The Compact is an agreement among signatories to award all their Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the overall popular vote in the fifty states and the District of Columbia. It would go into effect only when it would guarantee that outcome; in other words, when the signatories would be able to cast 270 Electoral College votes.

As of now, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington are on board, as is the District of Columbia. That amounts to 189 Electoral College votes altogether. The number would be 195 had the governor of Nevada not vetoed legislation that would bring that state too into the compact.

Meanwhile, the measure has passed through at least one legislative chamber in Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Were they and Nevada all to join, it would be necessary only to pick up three votes more.

With the 2020 election still fresh in peoples’ minds, with the popular and Electoral College votes out of line twice just in this century, and with the concern that this would happen again this year, now would be an excellent time to ratchet up the pressure.

These are suggestions all Democrats should find congenial, and they should be able to garner support more broadly than that. I would not be surprised if even some Republicans in state legislatures around the country would get on board.

Moderate Democrats should be especially eager to take these initiatives on, even if only out of self-interest. After all, they won’t always have a Donald Trump around to save them from themselves.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).