What Do Anti-Trump Conservatives Owe to Future Generations?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The word socialist has again become one of the talking points that Republicans are using against Democrats.  With some progressive Democrats now following Bernie Sanders's lead and calling themselves "democratic socialists," there is worry on the left and hope on the right that Democrats will lose some voters who would otherwise be open to persuasion.

I plan to analyze this issue in two ways.  In today's column, I will expand on a point that I made in my most recent Dorf on Law column, in which I stated that anti-Trump intellectuals who are to the right of the political center bear a special responsibility to educate centrist and right-of-center voters about the non-scary reality of what the democratic socialist label actually means.

In short, it is not just liberals who must write columns with titles like: "It’s Time to Reclaim ‘Socialism’ From the Dirty-Word Category."  That should now be what NeverTrumpers spend their time doing.

In Thursday's column, I will explain why the red-baiting in which Republicans are gleefully engaging is unlikely to be particularly effective with the younger voters who have the power to turn the 2018 midterms in the Democrats' favor.

The larger point of these two columns is that, although I continue to regret the risks and the energy that it will take to neutralize the potential downsides of reintroducing the word socialist into mainstream political conversations, the reality is that this now has to be done -- and it actually need not be a problem.  It will, in fact, be a net positive going forward to have defanged one of the right's favorite McCarthyite tactics.

My argument in last Thursday's column was that NeverTrump intellectuals, who by definition are somewhere between very conservative and extremely conservative -- having stuck with their party as it hurtled from Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Tea Party-fueled obstructionism, only abandoning ship when Trump came along -- are nonetheless smart enough to know that the equation of Sanders-style democratic socialism with Stalinist terror is nonsense.  Whereas in the past these NeverTrumpers could rationalize the red baiting, they no longer have that luxury.

Consider a hypothetical conversation between a NeverTrumper (NT) and a typical Democrat (TD):

NT: Wow, I had no idea that my party would ever go for someone like Trump.  I'm horrified and scared, and we need to find common cause in fighting against him.

TD: I agree completely.

NT: Nothing is more important than defeating a threat to the constitutional order and the rule of law.  Trump is an obvious dictator wannabe, and my former party is not in the least bit interested in reining him in.

TD: Right, so what do you suggest?

NT: Well, you Democrats should only nominate centrists and center-right candidates, so that people like me can feel comfortable supporting them.

TD: Interesting.  You might have failed to notice, but people like me have been told all of our lives that we had to support Bill Clinton's brand of center-right corporatism in the name of winning.  We stayed with Al Gore's painfully careful centrism, John Kerry's lifeless caution, and Barack Obama's concessions on economic policy (to say nothing of deportations).  Even though we saw growth in Hillary Clinton's views, we knew that she would have disappointed us time and again as president.  But we supported all of those people because we were told that something bigger was at stake.  Now, with the stakes so much higher, it's your turn to swallow hard and make a real compromise.

NT: Fair enough, I guess.  But we're talking about socialism now.

TD: No, we're not, and you know it.  At least, not socialism of the sort that should scare anyone.  You know better than that.

NT: Yes, you're right, I do.  But why did you guys nominate a few people who needlessly tie themselves to that label?

TD: That's the way the primaries have worked out.  To quote one of your side's less noble figures, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want."  Besides, you know what these Democrats are actually in favor of, and it's not collectivism and five-year plans.  It's raising the minimum wage, Medicare for All, progressive changes to taxes to fight against inequality, infrastructure building, and so on.

NT: Yes, and I'm against all of that -- at least to the degree that Democrats would do it.  Medicare for All, for example, would require a big increase in taxes.  Even some Democrats admit that.

TD: But that's exactly the point.  You know perfectly well that Medicare for All would replace insurance premiums with taxes, but health care would -- as is currently done under Medicare -- still be provided by a combination of profit-making and non-profit companies.  It would also be much cheaper -- fiscal conservatism! -- and unless you insist on screaming "Big Government!" to scare people, you know that there is nothing radical about this.  It's a matter of expanding a proven financing mechanism, not "socialized medicine."

NT: True, but it is not my first choice to do it that way.

TD: Welcome to my world.  We are no longer able to insist upon our first-choice preferences.  We are way beyond that.

NT: But how could I ever say that I think the minimum wage should go up, when I don't think it should?  How can I say that it is OK for the government sometimes to impose tariffs -- not as Trump does obviously, but even strategically?  How can I say that the corporate tax rate should be increased?

TD: Again, welcome to my world.  You seem to have forgotten how much compromise goes into politics.  (Did you think I liked it when I had to defend Hillary Clinton's invocation of Henry Kissinger as a foreign policy expert in 2016?)  Surely, you did not think that George W. Bush was your best candidate -- and surely even you were scared by Dick Cheney, right?

NT: Well, yeah.

TD: But you supported them, because something bigger was at stake.

NT: Right.

TD: Well, now something truly enormous is at stake.  Trump, as you have said many times, is an existential threat to democracy.  You need to recognize the magnitude of that threat and put your money where your mouth is.

NT: But why didn't you give me candidates that I'd feel more comfortable supporting?

TD: Sorry, but that was not under my control.  What matters is that you now have a true lesser-of-evils choice (which, again, is what I've been given my whole life): Either support Democrats -- some of whom even use the dreaded s-word -- and end up with a government that might adopt some policies that you truly oppose, or support Trump and see it all end.  Which is it?

There are two possible answers:
NT: Yeah, this is unpleasant, but I'd rather save the country at the cost of some policies that I oppose -- and which I'll be free to oppose and try to reverse in the future.  It was fun to red-bait you guys for all these years, but the stakes are now too high for that.  Time for some grown-up behavior.
NT: No, I've talked about how much I hate Trump, but I'd rather elect Republicans who will enable him to consolidate power than support people who want to enact some policies that I think are wrong.  It's your fault, though!
It is clear that NeverTrump conservatives would prefer to create and support a center-right third party, but that is a 2020 proposition at best (and even then, it would be a long shot with serious downsides).  They truly face only two choices, one that is a threat to the American experiment but supports many of their preferred policies, while the other is a not-at-all-radical party that respects the rule of law even as it supports policies that make conservatives grind their teeth.

Which will it be, right-leaning intellectuals and pundits?  You talk about country over party, and you have been at least complicit in impugning genuine patriots like John Kerry.  You know how dangerous Trump is.  It is time to educate people about what Democrats actually stand for, and why people outside of the Trump cult have no more excuses.

If we owe future generations anything, we owe them an intact constitutional democracy.  Policy disagreements are the proper subject of political compromise and even gamesmanship.  This is not.  Even people who disagree with me about nearly every substantive policy issue should agree about that.  Our children and grandchildren are counting on us.