The Democratic Party Can’t Lose Itself

In the introduction to his 1973 compendium of essays entitled, Coping: Essays on the Practice of Government, the late former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan extolled the virtues of “commonplace competence addressed to near-term issues” in government. This ideal required more close-range foresight than long-range vision; more precise definitions of problems than utopic musings. 

 

Even in his own time, Mr. Moynihan brought a unique form of liberalism to American politics—a strain that believed in the federal government’s ability to do immense good in this nation while acknowledging that there were profound limits to the good that it could do. Unfortunately, Sen. Moynihan’s strain of uncommon liberalism seems to be growing more unique than ever, and it is in danger of wholly fading from the Democratic Party. For the past four years, the Democrats have stood opposed to the GOP and the current occupant of the Oval Office. But rather than proving themselves to be the adults in the room as our president engages in name-calling and grievance politics, the Democrats have devolved into hysteria in more ways than one. Democrats could remind President Trump and his followers that politics is about public service and pragmatic progress, not performance. They are failing on this front, especially as of late.

 

Take the two most recent examples: Democrats’ responses to urban unrest this summer and their reactions to the news that President Trump will be nominating — and likely confirming — a Supreme Court Justice to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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In response to the murder of George Floyd, many Democrats at the state and local levels implemented real, meaningful police reforms. But their federal counterparts failed to rise to the occasion. Too many Democrats in D.C. opted for woke performativity rather than hard-nosed liberal reform. They donned kente-cloth stoles and kneel for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, but they could not bring themselves to sit down and negotiate with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and the GOP Senate majority. This was a truly unique opportunity for the Democrats to make real progress on the governing front. After all, the Trump-led GOP has proven itself uniquely disinterested in actually governing these past four years (Trump’s recent abandonment of stimulus talks are Exhibit A of the GOP’s inexcusable reticence to even feigning an interest in governance), and Senator Scott’s bill thankfully strayed from this norm. Scott had put forward a meaningful – albeit imperfect – piece of police reform legislation. That Scott’s police reform proposal did not abolish qualified immunity, an absurd, Court-made legal doctrine, was a problem. Still, the legislation did include a variety of transparency measures, and it incentivized local police departments to halt the use of chokeholds and to use body cameras. 

 

Scott’s bill constituted an incredibly solid start, and yet, in the words of Senator Scott, the Democrats “just said no.” Yes, House Democrats had already put forth a more police reform bill. But the governing reality here in 2020 is that the Republicans control the Senate. Pelosi and the House Democrats should have sat down with Scott and other GOP Senators sympathetic to the cause of police reform and found room for consensus. Real progress could have been made at the federal level—progress upon which Democrats could then build if they take back control of the Senate and Presidency this November. But for the time being, even if the Democrats have grand dreams of non-violent, social services-oriented policing, that doesn’t excuse them from thumbing their noses at real progress in the here and now. 

Senator Moynihan would be disappointed in his party and its current penchant for purity politics – not only regarding policing, but also concerning the bigger picture question of race in America. The ascendant rhetoric of third-wave anti-racism is emblematic of the “leakage of reality” from American political discourse that Sen. Moynihan lamented decades ago. Rather than pushing back on some of the more absurd tenets of the anti-racist zeitgeist, some Democrats have moved to empower the federal bureaucracy to carry out “the work” of anti-racism, as it is so often called. Democrats and their allies would be better off issuing fewer sweeping condemnations of America as inherently or structurally racist and instead actually work towards more tangible improvements geared towards reforming the criminal justice system, strengthening low-income black families, improving police-community relations, and enhancing black Americans’ educational and vocational training. 

 

The Democrats ought to have been able to find the common sense and courage within themselves to stridently denounce the violent rioting and looting that has upended so many urban, low-income communities of color this past summer. Senior leaders like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C) were right to quickly and vigorously condemn violence and differentiate it from peaceful protest. However, it seems that too many Democratic politicians – particularly younger ones – could summon neither the courage nor the political acumen to do the same.

 

On August 27th, as Kenosha burned in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted the following: “This isn’t hard. Vigilantism is bad. Police officers shooting black people in the back is bad. Looting and property damage is bad. You don’t have to choose. You can be against it all. You can just be for peace.” Well said. Still, within a matter of hours, Murphy had deleted the tweet and apologized for “mistakenly [giving] the impression that I thought there was an equivalency between property crime and murder.” Writing in The Atlantic, George Packer noted that Murphy’s tweet deletion were part of a larger, more worrisome trend: Too many Democrats had proven overly “reluctant to tarnish a just cause, amplify Republican attacks, or draw the wrath of their own progressive base,” Packer wrote.

 

As Moynihan said, “Liberals must see more clearly that their essential interest is in the stability of the social order.” This is still the case. The Democratic Party must either act like it or openly forsake the honored liberal tradition and throw in their lot with the misguided and incoherent “successor ideology” gaining steam on the left.

 

Regarding the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, Democrats must tone down the hysterics and re-tether themselves to reality. These past four years, Democrats have been at their strongest politically when they have called out President Trump for his rampant norm-breaking. If history is our guide, though, the norm seems to be that election-year Supreme Court nominations are confirmed if the president’s party controls the Senate, and not confirmed if the opposite party does. If the Senate GOP confirms Trump’s pick, they may be engaging in hypocrisy, but not necessarily norm-breaking.  Real norm-breaking would entail packing the Supreme Court. Democrats must explicitly disown that possibility rather than ominously warning like Senator Chuck Schumer recently did, that “nothing is off the table” if the GOP Senators exercise their constitutional right and confirm Trump’s nominee. 

Democrats should eschew the hysterics, stand upright, and be real with the American people. Despite his imperfections, Joe Biden has thankfully proven himself a model on this front – telling the truth, articulating real ways in which Democrats can help make America a better, more just, more prosperous, and more equitable nation, and not unrealistically promising the American people the world.

As a ‘Moynihan-style’ Democrat, I am disgusted by the GOP’s descent into demagoguery, but I am also concerned by the Democratic Party’s direction. I hope and pray that the rest of the Democratic Party follows in the footsteps of Moynihan and Biden in the years to come by staying true to the very best that their liberal predecessors had to offer – a commitment to facts, an abiding devotion to individual human dignity, equality, and liberty, and a belief that government can indeed improve our collective lot.

 

For the time being, the Democrats must persuade voters that the federal government can indeed still act boldly and competently to help alleviate the nation’s many ills, including, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of our immense, innumerable challenges, we need a political party explicitly committed to coping with challenges like COVID, extreme poverty, and health care costs. So long as they rediscover concepts like reality, limits, and pragmatism – concepts so central to Mr. Moynihan’s life and liberalism – the Democrats can still be that party. 

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