It Is Not Only Liberals Who Must Compromise to Stop Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

When anyone but his supporters talks about Donald Trump, the conversation is clear and unwavering.  No matter the speakers' positions on specific policies, from lefty progressives to hardcore right-wing neoconservatives and all positions in between, everyone understands clearly that Trump poses an existential danger to the the rule of law.  All agree that he must be stopped in order to save constitutional democracy itself.

Yet an odd thing happens when it comes to Democrats actually choosing candidates and articulating positions in opposition to Trump.  Suddenly, those resolute anti-Trump voices are unsparing in their criticisms of Democrats who -- we are told endlessly -- are being too extreme to win over voters.  Democrats are being told (ad nauseam) that they have to compromise in order to win.

Because "compromise" is one of those exalted concepts in American punditry -- right up there with "moderate" -- this puts those accused of not being willing to compromise in a difficult position.  Why not give a little ground in order to stop Trump?  What is wrong with you?

Yet there is an absurd asymmetry in all of this.  Progressive Democrats are told that they should support people whom they do not truly support so that other people do not have to compromise on their positions.  But why are liberals the only ones who are supposed to give up their first choice when opposing Trump?

The asymmetry is even worse, however, because the usual line from supposedly sympathetic non-progressives is that "the voters will never go for such a crazy lefty."  Yet because even the most left-ish candidates in the U.S. today are defenders of the rule of law, the pearl-clutching critics of progressives should be willing -- in the name of stopping Trump -- not only to support people they do not view as a first (or second or third) choice.  They should be willing to do all that they can to convince people that the red-baiting hype against progressive Democrats is dangerous nonsense.

Yet those centrist and right-leaning writers seemingly cannot be bothered.  Are they truly anti-Trump, when push comes to shove?  If the choice is between a "democratic socialist" who is in every way committed to opposing Trump's authoritarianism or a Republican who won his primary by promising to protect Trump from the Mueller investigation, why should anti-Trump people carp about having to compromise?

Indeed, as I will argue below, it is Trump's conservative critics who bear a unique responsibility to stop attacking democratic socialists and start educating the public about what progressive Democrats actually support.

The chorus warning the Democrats not to "go to the crazy left" is bipartisan.  The op-ed pages of both The New York Times and The Washington Post are filled with regular columnists and guest writers who fret about the Sanders/Warren wing of the Democratic Party becoming too powerful.  NeverTrump conservative Bret Stephens and anti-Trump liberal-lite Frank Bruni warn about the danger.  James Comey tweeted a plea to Democrats not to move to the left.

Even the news pages include nominally objective stories that are framed around false narratives of the supposedly extreme leftiness of the Democrats' left wing.  Even though many others (for example, Paul Krugman) have noted that there is very little (if any) policy space between iconic "centrists" like Conor Lamb in western Pennsylvania and the progressive wing of the party, the notion persists that the Democrats are nominating extremists.

Over the past year, I have occasionally written here and on Verdict about NeverTrump conservative Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for The Post who pens brilliant take-downs of Trump and his craven Republican enablers.  (She writes five or six columns per day -- no kidding -- and any random sample will include some powerful examples of the anti-Trump genre.)  Rubin has become my measure of what a conservative who is appropriately horrified by Trump should look like.

But my background question has always been: If we did not have fear and loathing of Trump in common, could we have a reasonable conversation that might actually lead to productive compromises on real-world policies?  In my latest Verdict column, published yesterday, I offer evidence both hopeful and not-so-hopeful on that score.  That column also offers a jumping-off point for my concern here about who should be compromising in order to beat Trump.

As I discuss in that column, Rubin recently did something wholly admirable.  Rather than viewing Senator Elizabeth Warren as presumptively a wacky lefty, Rubin openly wondered if there might be common ground on policy matters between progressives and moderate conservatives.  Warren responded in depth, and Rubin printed that response along with her own reactions to Warren's views.

So far, so good, except that Rubin not only failed to understand Warren's point but even defaulted back to Cold War tropes to mischaracterize Warren's arguments.  Essentially, Warren said (and I agree) that capitalism can and should be great, but whether our economy produces good results or bad results depends on creating rules by which people can operate in free markets that are fair and transparent.

To summarize an argument that I summarized in more than a thousand words in my Verdict column (and which I have laid out in at least a dozen columns here on Dorf on Law over the years), Warren recognizes that there is no natural baseline of rules of the economic road.  People can transact and compete under any set of rules, but each set of rules is no more nor less "natural" than any other.

This means that one can be a fully pro-capitalist progressive, because we are saying that honest competition among vendors and buyers is potentially a good thing that can lead to prosperity and growth, even while we criticize current rules that directly and indirectly increase pollution, suppress wages, allow gender and racial discrimination, and so on.

In the title of my Verdict piece, "Why Elizabeth Warren Is Right That Capitalism Should Be Great," I tried to capture this idea by including the word should.  Unlike right-wingers who say that there is only one set of rules that count as "capitalism" and we must like it or suck it (which is essentially what Margaret Thatcher said when she argued that there was "no alternative" to capitalism), the Warren left says that there are many types of capitalism, and we are willing to make the case that capitalism works better under our preferred rules than under Ronald Reagan's, Mitt Romney's, or Paul Ryan's.

Again, Warren made that point as clearly as anyone could in responding to Rubin.  Rubin's response (ignoring the muscle-memory attack on the minimum wage and any and all tariffs)?  But too much regulation is bad!

Of course, Warren never claimed that every set of rules was as good as every other, or that more rules are better than fewer rules (whatever that might mean), so this might be evidence of an opening for negotiations.  That Rubin refers to rules that she dislikes as "regulations" and rules that she likes as "deregulation" is troubling, but perhaps it is possible that two highly intelligent women like Rubin and Warren could negotiate in good faith about what the right combination of laws would be.

The more worrisome response, as I noted in the column, was Rubin's claim that progressives might "seek to centralize economic decision-making in the federal government."  What the f*ck?!  Where did that McCarthy-era crack come from?  Warren's entire argument is that the government's choice of rules will determine how people interact in private transactions, and the role of the federal government is to make sure that the rules allow people to negotiate fairly while participating in economic markets.  (Not allowing banks to generate overdraft fees by manipulating the dates when deposits are credited versus when debits are charged is just one simple example.)

There is no centralized economic decision-making there, at least no more than having the EPA decide that the burden of pollution should be borne by the people who breathe toxic chemicals rather than by the companies that spew those chemicals into the air.  Yet Rubin reflexively labels possible progressive policies as Central Planning, betraying a mindless red baiting that is more than a bit shocking.

In the end, Rubin endorses the milquetoast Third Way policies that are the current version of Bill Clinton's old Democratic Leadership Council days, when corporatist Democrats decided to vilify progressive policies (especially pro-union policies), supposedly to be more "electable."  That is her right, and although I would have expected her to have something better than a line evoking Soviet-era Five-Year Plans, perhaps she would open her mind a bit if she actually had a face-to-face with Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or others.

But to return to the larger point of this column, whose responsibility is it to compromise in the name of stopping Trump?  Let us say that Rubin does not like the Democratic nominees in various districts, and she even thinks that Democratic primary voters have made a big mistake in turning an easily winnable race into a toss-up.  What then?

Actually, I can easily imagine being in that position.  In 2016, I was surprised to find myself supporting Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the primaries, even though Sanders much more obviously embodies my preferences on many issues, especially most economic issues.  My decision was driven in part by Sanders's evident lack of specificity and experience in leadership and by my commitments to feminism, but also because I knew that being a "democratic socialist" was going to be toxic for Sanders in a national election.

Similarly, Rubin told her readers earlier this week that "Democrats will not beat [Trump in 2020] with someone easily characterized as a far-left radical."  The key words here are "easily characterized," as opposed to being an actual far-left radical.

If Sanders had prevailed in the Democratic primaries in 2016, I would then certainly have done everything I could to point out to people that what Sanders and his followers call democratic socialism is not Maoist collectivism but is in fact what Howard Dean once referred to as "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- that is, the extremely popular, mainstream ideas that Democrats stood for before things like Third Way came along, such as progressive taxation, health care for all, reproductive freedom, and so on.

Maybe Rubin will do all of that later this year.  (In some columns, in fact, she has already tried to make clear that the Democrats' actual policy proposals are non-radical.)  There will always be idiots like the Fox Business pundit who recently ranted about Denmark's supposedly dystopian socialism (to the bemusement of Danish officials and citizens), but we must remember that Republicans would call any Democrat a commie and make up stories about supposedly evil European pinkos.

Most importantly, it is not only Sanders and Warren who must push back against the "easy characterization" of some/all Democratic candidates as too far to the left.  Rubin, and especially Bruni and conservatives like Stephens, Comey, and all of the others are obligated to educate the public about the difference between Soviet/Maoist socialism and democratic socialism.  And I do mean obligated.

Those non-progressives should be willing to make the effort to educate the public because, even though their first-choice nominees are not on every ballot, the alternative is Trumpism.  And as I noted above, it is the right-wingers who oppose Trump who bear a special burden in this regard, because it is they, after all, who happily supported the Republican Party for decades as it went further and further off the rails, through Tea Party-induced debt crises and the cancerous xenophobia that produced Trump.  Should they not have to take a few extra hits for Team Democracy and support progressive candidates as a means of saving the republic?

Last week, I pointed out that the progressive left was not wrong in its criticisms of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), but I viewed the "Abolish ICE" slogan on the progressive left as an "unforced error."  I still consider it an error, and indeed, some Republicans are now using that slogan to dishonestly paint Democrats as being in favor of "open borders."  But the world that we live in includes some candidates who have adopted the slogan, so we need to make it as clear as possible that abolishing ICE simply means replacing our cruel and arbitrary immigration enforcement agency with something that reflects our values.  We must make the effort.

In short, I sincerely understand why people to my right who hate Trump might want more conservative (along various dimensions) Democratic nominees than we are getting.  Fine.  But this is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment, and the very people who have spent decades lecturing the progressive left about the virtues of compromise need to accept a not-first-choice slate of candidates and to take on the responsibility of educating people to understand that this is not your father's socialism.