With both major American political parties offering fringe candidates this election season, let’s look at the relationship between those fringes and the so-called moderates who are said to represent most of the country.
First, we have to know what we’re talking about. The reality is that most Americans are not moderate–that is to say, not politically centrist–even limiting ourselves to the American political spectrum. For one, most people may consider themselves “moderate” while holding decidedly partisan positions, even extreme ones. It’s a term meant to describe one’s perceived relationship to their external political environment, and most people don’t like to think of themselves as extremists. This makes the term “moderate” as a shorthand for “centrist” a rather useless one. What else could we use it for, then?
It can also describe the great mass of Americans who, while perhaps identifying with one party or another, are not beholden to any specific political platform. Many Americans are politically disengaged–over a third of eligible voters never vote–and those who are engaged tend to vote the same way from one election to the next. Americans treat their party affiliations less like coherent ideologies and more like sports teams. Your team is your team, and the other team is always wrong. This has two negative effects: it discourages critical examination of one’s own political faction, and it equates considering what the other faction has to offer with treason.
This election season, both major parties have developed rifts between, essentially, their ideological factions and their more pragmatic elements. The Democrats have Bernie Sanders, who offers a socialist platform, and Hillary Clinton, who is essentially campaigning on a continuation of Obama’s agenda. The Republican situation was, until recently, more complex, as ideological conservatives and more pragmatic (but mostly ineffective) Republicans battled to take support from Donald Trump, who has attracted a large share of people who normally vote Republican, but who have little in the way of coherent ideological sensibilities. Trump is able to succeed by running on a bizarre fascist platform because his supporters, by and large, are voting based on various fears and anxieties, rather than a realistic political vision. Some similarities can be seen from the Sanders side, as well, in terms of attacks on “the establishment” and activating voters who are anxious and angry. Trump can be seen as an outgrowth of the Tea Party movement that began in 2008, while Sanders’ rise is plugged into the same sentiments that brought us the Occupy Movement. To be clear, there is no moral equivalence here: Trump’s platform is inescapably racist, regressive, and authoritarian. Sanders offers an egalitarian vision, a more equal America created by clawing back power and money from those who have too much. Both men are obviously populists, but different targets draw their ire.
The danger is in taking their disdain for “the establishment” uncritically. There are indeed individuals and groups who have insinuated themselves into the halls of power, who do not represent most Americans, and who carry out priorities that are damaging to much of the country. However, most people in Congress–and in government more generally–are reasonable human beings trying to do a good job for their constituents or for the citizens they serve. There are undeniably large differences between the parties, and some of those gaps cannot be bridged by good faith efforts at bipartisanship. A Republican legislator intent on oppressing gay or transgender people likely can’t be talked out of it, but that’s where political horse-trading comes in. This involves a word that seems to have become toxic in our current environment: compromise. The ideological rigidity rests almost solely on the right, however, and forms an essentially unbreakable logjam unless and until the composition of Congress is shaken up. That’s something we have a great opportunity to accomplish in 2016.
One thing that will not accomplish it, however, is the belief that the answer to partisan obstinacy is to engage in it yourself. As much of a beating as Democrats seem to take in the public eye, more people identify as Democrats than Republicans. Democrats have an easy population edge, as well. Democrats also habitually run away from leftward policies on the belief that they will be punished for espousing or embracing them. If the rise of the Tea Party is anything to go by, what matters is not policy content, but expressiveness. Sanders, whatever his faults, has done an excellent job of articulating why many Americans are unhappy with the status quo. But being able to articulate this is not the same as being able to lead policy to address it. Conversely, Hillary Clinton is constantly lambasted for appearing “untrustworthy” and “ingenuine”–she is dinged, not so much for policy content, but how she expresses herself. In actual leadership roles, she is unquestionably effective, no matter what one thinks of her politics.
Trump and his supporters express a worldview so hostile and backward, it alienates most Americans. Those Americans are responding, not because they hold complex political beliefs and engage in point-by-point assessments of his platform, but because they find the tone and basic contents of his message appalling. Sanders is, at worst, dismissed as a raving old man, or a crank–few believe he is actually dangerous, and his policy positions are so rational when held up against Trump’s that the choice will not be difficult for most.
But Sanders’ constant attacks against “the establishment,” and insinuations that anyone who hasn’t immediately jumped on board with his campaign is corrupt, against democracy, or are otherwise citizens who have failed their country, work well as red meat for his true believers, while at the same time turning off the large number of non-ideological Americans who need to be engaged in order to secure a victory. To me, the irony is that, as reasonable as I find most of Sanders’ platform, I have much more confidence that Hillary Clinton could actually execute it than Sanders ever could. And it is precisely because she is part of that “establishment,” which is another way of saying she has friends and colleagues in powerful positions. Little gets done in this country without those kinds of connections, and to denigrate them is to misunderstand the ways in which power flows. Hillary Clinton herself has real political beliefs, but she is generally willing to put them aside, to compromise on them, in order to get a few steps in the right direction. This can be a strength or a weakness, depending on the circumstances, whereas ideological ridigity is almost always a weakness.
With all this said, where do “moderates” fit in? It’s simple: when a politician is taking the temperature of the electorate, they look to the mainstream, to the majority of Americans who do their best not to pay attention to politics. As long as you’ve not alienated those people–and better yet, if you’ve gotten their attention with your ideas–you have a much better chance of getting something accomplished. Divisive language, telling people “you’re either with me or you’re with the corrupt establishment,” these burn at least as many bridges as they build. The key to politics is navigating between what the idealists want, what the general public will put up with, and what is politically and practically feasible. Trying to run roughshod over any or all of these does not yield results. As wary as I am of Clinton’s hawkishness and her corporate white feminism, she is the only candidate with a chance in hell of accomplishing any of the things Sanders wants to. To push her to the left is reason enough for Sanders to stay in the race–he cannot win the primary at this point, but he can help set the agenda for the general election, and that’s crucial.
It’ll be up to Clinton to run with it and prove that, while Americans want change, we know better than to try burn the whole country down in order to get it.