430 Comments

This is great advice but I think at their core, progressives (as opposed to liberals) are dispositionally opposed to implementing it.

The borderline religious nature of modern progressivism—you don’t have to look hard to find analogous shibboleths, taboos, sacred texts, chosen tribes, etc—makes it unwilling to compromise in the name of pragmatism. I grew up in an evangelical church and similar arguments would occasionally break out among the congregation about how to “grow” the church, either in furtherance of the gospel or just to help ensure sufficient future tithing revenue. One might reasonably suggest toning down the constant mentions of eternal damnation for unbelievers (doesn’t poll well), propitiation by the blood of Christ (kind of icky), regarding premarital sex as a deeply greivous thing (turns out young people enjoy it), and insistence on literal interpretation of scripture even where that seems pretty strange (God created the world in seven literal days? Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale?) but these arguments failed to grasp the crucial point that for the devoted, orthodoxy is more important than growth.

It seems to me that for a critical mass of progressives, this same sentiment prevails, indeed for the most zealous progressives I know personally, so much of their identity is tied up with oppression and victimhood narratives that I think they would find durable majorities utterly intolerable. What would suit them best is a system in which they could continue credibly claiming to be an oppressed minority (and reaping the energy that comes from this stance) while in actuality operating the levers of power that are only available to cameral majorities.

The modern Republican Party has managed to achieve precisely this (a base that feels stricken and discriminated against, even as they rule!) due to the quirks of population distribution vis-a-vis the Senate. Progressives rightly recognize this as a tail-wagging-the-dog dynamic, but I don’t think they are opposed to that dynamic per se, I think they just feel that in a just world they would have control of the tail instead, without ever having to soil their hands with that damned spot, compromise.

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This post is brilliant, spot-on and beautifully written. I was hoping someone would make the point that both sides are competing for victimhood. I find the fanaticism of the progressives really scary and creepy, and it is seriously puzzling to me why everyone on this substack doesn't. There are some who do, but there a bunch of otherwise intelligent, well-read people who serenely spout the dogma (cancel Dr. Seuss, no saying certain words...). As if it's obvious, as if it's a foregone conclusion.

None of us is perfect. People are flawed and a product of their time. This desire to wash the world of all its imperfections is no different than the zealous call to ban books by the devoutly religious.

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"For the devoted, orthodoxy is more important than growth" +1

"The modern Republican Party has managed to achieve precisely this (a base that feels stricken and discriminated against, even as they rule!)" - by what measure does the GOP base rule? Senate filibuster capacity, Supreme Court representation, state governments, Christian churches, police unions- yes. Congressional majorities, Presidency & Executive branch, media & entertainment, education/academia, corporate America HR, social media- no. It seems like some of the progressive religious fervor comes from the fear that our "rule" is tenuous or non-existent, yet some of the most passionate pushback we see in the culture war is a reaction to using our "rule" too zealously.

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As an Old (old Gen Xer), I am stupefied that this argument has to be made, but Matt makes it very effectively and I'm glad he's doing it. I am a center-left rustbelt native, and while I now live in NYC I've been locking down in my home state of Michigan during the pandemic for family reasons.

I used to work in policy in DC when normal people didn't know what things like "cloture" were, and I've been hearing my whole adult life that Democratic domination was just around the corner; demographics and revulsion over Republicans' meanness and stupidity would deliver us. Most of the Youngs I worked with in New York dismissed my fears that Trump would win in 2016, then they took the position that if Bernie had got the nomination, the Dems would have won. I didn't believe it then, and having spent a fair amount of time back in the rustbelt, I sure don't believe it now.

I'm staying in a small blue area in a wider red region. Every time I venture out, I see Trump flags still flying. The closest town with a real grocery store has both a strong civic/philanthropic/genuinely Christian culture and the most overt displays of racist symbology I have ever seen. I am sickened by these things, but I am also exasperated that the left spends so much time in circular firing squads, renaming schools and cancelling Dr. Seuss.

Do the work, people! Run for local office, then state or national if you have those aspirations! But try actually governing and/or implementing any kind of policy before you denigrate compromise.

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The offending drawings in the Seuss books were pretty rancid. I know it's bait for Fox News, but I'm okay with what the owners of the Seuss books did (private property rights!) Maybe they could just have excised the offending cases, but it's their call.

Lots of Seuss books still available; pretty weak tea as far as "canceling" goes.

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I think the thing about Seuss books is a good example of easy pandering opportunities. You're right on the substance of the Seuss books, and the law. So it would be bad for democrats to say "we should pass a law fining or punishing the Seuss company for this."

But what Matt is saying is democrats in swing or red states should do is lambast this sort of thing on twitter, or the thing with Mr. Potato head, while not actually taking any actions or policy positions. I.E. Exactly what Republicans politicians do.

A lot of swing voters seem to value this pointless pandering greatly. If there is a subsection of voters who want things like more healthcare access and a higher minimum wage but want politicians to "stand up" to the "elites" by giving stupid soundbites (and it sure seems like there is) then that is something democrats should be doing.

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I wouldn't plunge into the Seuss or Potato Head cases; they're too superficial.

A better case would be the Smith College one: privileged elite college student levels baseless accusation at a working stiff janitor and feckless school president slobbers all over her. That is a golden Sister Souljah moment!

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Boy that's a great example. Hate to go here, but it would be smart for a candidate: "some people think that janitors have more power than kids whose parents can afford $70K in tuition. But sensible people know better."

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Sure, but I would emphasize the college president's role more than the student's: never punch down

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Man, that article was both damning and heartbreaking

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This is what I don't understand about the Seuss books: if the problem was a few drawings, then why don't they just modify/replace the drawings? Why nuke the books?

If they used sledgehammer when they could have used a scalpel, that sounds like cancellation to me.

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I dunno, personally I don't really want my political representative to have opinions on Dr. Seuss books or Mr. Potato head on my behalf. But there seem to be a critical mass of swing voters who want that sort of thing, so Democrats should give it to them.

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This take is mostly BS, if you ask me. There is definitely at least one really bad drawing in If I Ran The Zoo, which is getting all of the play in the various articles on this topic. But many of the other books that are losing publication are borderline at best.

McElligott’s pool? Not so much. It’s a great book, and there’s no way that anyone would think twice about it except for the fact that it was mentioned in the “study” in an extremely vague way. If you want to argue that a drawing of an Eskimo is inherently racist then that’s your prerogative, but subjectively it really takes some bad-faith reaching.

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Yeah, somehow people think that dunking on Twitter is also the way to treat your conservative classmates / colleagues / family / that random person with the Trump bumper sticker. Shocking to see how vile and dismissive many libs are to conservatives *in person*.

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Where, by "in person", these days we now mean "in public direct statements to named individuals on the internet". I'm not quite sure how that compares to "in person" in the old-fashioned sense, but it's notable that this sort of interaction has some things in common and some things very different from actual "in person".

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Oh no I meant in person. Thinking about what I overhear students saying, and the phone calls among my family members that get reported back to me.

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^^^when normal people didn't know what things like "cloture" were^^^

I fear they now even know what the reconciliation rules are, and might well possess a pretty accurate idea as to what the Senate parliamentarian does.

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What I meant was that normal people didn't obsess over/base their self-identities on politics. It's good if people know how government works, but, IMO, it's not great when politics becomes a kind of extreme spectator sport.

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Sure, I totally get it. I wasn't being snarky (if that's how it came out). It is true that a lot of people do politics/policy/ideological tribalism etc as an actual *hobby*. (Hell, I'm one of them). I'm also an older GenXer fwiw, and I, too remember a time when things weren't like this. I also happen to agree with you that Sanders probably wouldn't have defeated Trump in 2016.

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Same. Obama won in part by dialing back the righteousness of leftist positions. Same with Biden. Same with Bill Clinton. Same with Jimmy Carter.

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Unfortunately, Bernie got hold of the Dems narrative even though Joe won the popular vote handily. His Democratic Socialist Activists (as he used to call himself) are prolific writers and manage TV and Social Media better than the left-center people. All surveys now sent out by the DNC are written in an all or nothing way so it appears the person answering is all in on the Progressive agenda.

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Tbh 2016 Bernie was much more focused on economics than culture stuff (I think Matt has written about Bernie's 2020 pivot towards being woke). Bernie was a "guns are great for rural people" and "immigration is spooky" sort of guy back in his earlier days as well, so it's plausible that he would've won the 2016 election.

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It seems to me there's a potential path to victory for Democrats that involves giving up *nothing of substance at all.* As Chris Hayes said, the vast majority of the Republican party platform is social grievance with absolutely no policy or legislative fix. It's just old man yelling at clouds stuff. So..... What if a Democrat played along? On paper at least, they could assuage these kind of grievences but then pursue quite liberal policy. This is essentially Matt's point, but I think there's a chance Democrats don't even give anything up to do this - nothing besides silly dunks on Twitter that is.

Unfortunately many Democratic voters are just as committed to performative, grievence-based politics as Republicans are and will never go for this.

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I think Manchin voting down Neera Tanden is an interesting potential example of this.

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Not sure. No one hated her more than the progressives I know; she's an entirely centrist creature. Frankly, if a white guy were on record outing a victim and shoving an employee, I think we would've ended that person already (unless it were Biden and voters liked him).

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Yeah I mean the big issue at CPAC was

*check notes*

standing up for Mr. Potato Head?

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This is a solid list. I have a very particular personal history, and I'll try to explain it as briefly as possible: I'm originally froma college town in Kentucky. I went to work on the floor of a factory in Kentucky in my early 20s (mid-90s) because I grew up poor, was seriously (religiously) debt averse, so I decided to do this ad a means up saving up money to pay for law school. Not the kind of thing you could do over a single summer, even then. I ended up helping to organize a union, then I got elected to the first bargaining committee. When that was finished, I actually left the manufacturing environment and became a union organizer.

I was only (relatively) briefly a union organizer, then I moved into another sphere of lefty politics (that, being non-labor, was staffed almost exclusively by what a small band of us secretly referred to as "trust fund babies"). I did that work for nearly a decade, moving all over the country. Then I ended up geographically near someone that I worked with in the factory. He had started on the floor, moved into salaried engineering, and been successful, moving to work at other plants. I was probably on my way to a similar experience when I left that place; they were actually trying to move me into engineering, but I was working a ton of overtime and (a) the salary-without-overtime would've been a huge pay cut for me and (b) I wanted to see through the union thing.

My acquaintance had me come interview for engineering-adjacent work. I had already been considering leaving the political work because I thought I might not want to be a workaholics for the rest of my days (we used to say " it's not a job, it's a lifestyle ") and I didn't want to die almost as poor as when I was born. Then they offered me a job, and it was for an amount of money that sounded almost supernatural to me at that point in my life. So I went back, have been unbelievably fortunate and now make a living that no sane person would see as working class. No, I still haven't been to law school.

Anyway, I still spend most of my time on plant floors. I work with both customers and suppliers, so I'm on lots of plant floors and I'm in all the break rooms. Maybe not surprisingly, even with my now-background, I'm still more comfortable there than among the chamber of commerce types with whom I'm in business. And, please believe me: 'economically conservative' is a thing that barely exists among the working class. And not because of Trump; this was true for at least the last few years of the Obama administration. I hear people talking about how we have to tolerate Manchin and Kaine rolling back banking regulations because of all the economic conservatives. That's nonsense. They simply vote for rolling them back and then no one mentions it again because, let's be real, most Democrats don't want to talk about it either.

But culturally conservative is still very much a thing. And it's not as 'regressive' as we say. There are studies that show most Democrats being *more* sympathetic toward other races than their own. Um, that's the unusual thing. I'd almost bet that it's a world-historical first. Last summer, a politically motivated group took over a section of a major American city. The cops just stayed out until they surrendered, which didn't happen until people got murdered. This event virtually doesn't exist outside the conservative echo chamber. Before you hand-wave that, consider if a conservative-sympathetic group did a similar thing, would there ever be a day when it didn't come up on MSNBC? Even CNN?

The Paper of Record did one lonely story from the perspective of people who had businesses destroyed last year (I keep waiting for poor Nellie Bowles to get run out of there), in the midst of a billion dollar property destruction event. That seems strange. I think that's objectively strange. By the way, have you ever tried to get an insurance company to pay up when your ability to pay your bills depended upon their doing so quickly? Neither have I, but merely thinking about just made me instinctively flinch.

At least have of black Americans want more police. Among lower income black Americans, like the people who live in the property destruction zones, that number is well over half. Why doesn't their perspective exist in the media that I consume? That's odd, right?

Democrats have largely become a boutique operation culturally, and the market that they serve isn't black Americans. It's trust fund babies. That's a problem. It's unfortunately the kind of problem that, if you'd like to even discuss it, I'm afraid you'll need to leave Vox and set up shop with Substack. Our information ecosystem won't even countenance the point of view that most Americans have. Hand-wave if you will, that's a legitimate political problem.

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I normally glance over, skim or skip long comments but I read every word heree. That's a great way to describe the NYTs coverage choices last summer, I'll probably borrow some of it when I try to explain their lack of objectivity.

I think I see today's politics in a similar way. Liberals seem to think Ds and Rs are split by race and racial issues. There's some truth to that. But the bigger issue, the one that really moves votes, is class. All the energy in the Democratic camp comes from the college and advanced degree holders, especially in the big cities and those are the voices that get magnified and catered to.

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Great comment. I have a similar background where I’ve been able to straddle between being around very highly educated, elite educated people and factory workers and other working class types. I joke with my friends that I identify as “culturally deplorable” but I’m a registered Dem and I’m saddened by what the Dem party has become given the GOP is an absolute mess. There is a market in Middle America out there for more progressive economic politics mixed with a culture war truce. The Dems better get it before the GOP figures is out.

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Yeah, the recent nymag interview with David Shor has a passage where he talks about how Dem embrace of race related social justice issues has resulted in the party trading non college educated white, black and hispanic voters for college educated white voters, and I think your comment explains this well.

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Excellent comment. Thanks for sharing.

The one thing I'll push back on a smidge is the "Dems being more sympathetic towards other races" bit. I can construct a scenario in my head where the thinking would be "minorities have it bad so I feel bad for them" or something that makes sense like that.

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Wish I could edit a few things. Whoops :)

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As a gay who works in a city for big tech but is from rural Pennsylvania and I 100% agree. I think a lot of people in my life now, on some level, don't entirely believe conservatives exist and that if we just advocate for liberal culture louder we'll win.

And we will, eventually. Demographics and the arc of the moral universe seem to be on our side. However, for that to be in any way relevant, we need to maintain power so we can make sure that the US is still a democracy 10 years from now. And that, unfairly, means pandering right-of-center in the mean time.

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I really disagree with this "demographics and the arc of the moral universe" logic that is so prevalent on the liberal/left end of the spectrum. I believe it breeds complacency. On the former point, I don't think the Dems can count on Latinos being a reliable vote. There will be some realignment of the parties as the racist old people in the GOP die off. On the latter, China may overtake us as the global imperial power this century and I hardly think the world will be a better place if that happens.

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"a lot of people in my life now, on some level, don't entirely believe conservatives exist" is amazing

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It's a mark of how polarized we are. I'm in NYC and literally everyone I know here is somewhere between center-left (like me) and fully woke progressive. They kinda sorta believe that conservatives exist, but they seem them as dead-eyed camo cosplayers, decked in muscle-Trump propaganda images and waving guns 'somewhere out there'.

Obversely I recently hosted some folks from exurban MO. They commented 'so this is where all the liberals are'. It's sobering.

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I know the feeling having lived and worked in a liberal part of LA. But the interesting thing is that even in those areas (NYC, LA), when you look at precinct level voting, you can see there's quite a lot of Republican voters all around the county. Not in every single precinct, but plenty of "normal" city neighborhoods voted 20-30% republican.

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I mean, I definitely know the feeling. As Scott Alexander said in this old essay, I abstractly know that 40% of Americans believe in young-earth creationism, but they might as well be dark matter, because they're supposedly everywhere, but I never see them.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/

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It's ridiculous to believe that Trump got 74 million votes. Here where I live in west Los Angeles I've met, what, a couple people who voted for Trump. Extrapolating that out to the entire nation indicates that he got a few hundred thousand votes at best.

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Where I live, in a county that is 10 points redder than Texas as a whole, I don't actually know anyone who voted for Trump (though probably there are plenty of them around me at the grocery checkout - at least, back in the days I used to grocery shop in person). Probably a lot of this is because my social life (in the Before Times) revolved around the university, gay people, and the hipster bars in the quaint historic downtown - colleagues who are parents are more likely to know Trump voters through their parent social events.

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Kenny: That is a great read. Thanks.

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^^^if we just advocate for liberal culture louder we'll win....And we will, eventually.^^^

Not if Republicans destroy our democracy first we won't.

I don't disagree that, if we let nature take its course, demographic change is likely to continue to benefit Democrats (last fall's election was a sobering check on reality, mind you, but that result tempered my optimism with respect to demographic, it didn't eviscerate it). The problem is Republicans are well-aware that demographic trends don't favor them, and they're not squeamish about stacking the deck in their favor -- or hell, out and out mounting a coup -- if they can manage to do so before the political landscape becomes overly challenging for them. I'd say there's a fair chance they're going to succeed.

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How much of the demographic change theory is based on the condescending “people of color” concept that was blown out of the water in the last election? No guarantee at all that most of them will "stick" to the left's POC definition in the coming generations. Democrats can't wait for the promised land to come to them. They have to go out and find it. And always did.

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Amen. However, one problem is the nationalization of congressional elections. Here in Oklahoma, moderate Democrat, Kendra Horn, managed to win the 5th District seat in 2018, which had lower turnout than in 2020. She was then defeated in 2020 by Stephanie Bice, a Trumpy conservative who tied Horn to the usual liberal characters (Nancy Pelosi, et al.). Plus, there was defund the police, socialism, AOC, and other progressive bogeymen/women for Bice to run against in 2020. Until the national Democratic Party cleans up its image, even moderate Democrats are going to be defeated in red states.

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Yes, having a more moderate national profile at least on some issues would be helpful.

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Isn’t this making the assumption that voters will know of the moderation you propose though?

In the states and districts you’re talking about, the main news sources people have are Fox News, talk radio, Newsmax, OANN, and right-wing Facebook posts. Those sources will always portray Democrats as baby eating communists.

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Are Dems just screwed, then? Sounds like in addition to moderation, Dems need to figure out how to get their message to right-leaning voters. Also, I find it hard to believe that even with Fox pushing the "every Democrat is a communist or a tool of the communists", that voters didn't see Biden as less extreme than some of the other primary candidates.

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The only way to be unscrewed might be to do some democracy reforms. It sounds like Congress can address gerrymandering but I really don't know how to address the Senate and Electoral College

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A lot of people see through it but most conservatives do not. A lot of right leaning voters are legitimately terrified right now because they think America is embracing communism now that Biden is the President.

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I think you have to distinguish between "right-leaning" and "hard right", though. Only about 1% of the population watches Fox News at the height of prime time on a given night - most voters are not principally getting their news from Fox. Obviously Fox's influence is a lot broader than that, but it's perfectly possible to lean right and get your news from CNN, network news broadcasts, newspapers, etc.

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You’re right that even Fox is only a small part of the population overall, but I don’t think most of those other right leaning voters are watching CNN or reading a physical paper. A lot of those people are probably absorbing political information from friends/family and Facebook. Which presents the same issues as them getting news from Fox.

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Yeah I agree. It's not clear to me how much control Dems have over their brand

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But how do they do that? Dem leaders are trying to run on healthcare, checks, democracy reform, minimum wage - all popular stuff. There are always going to be more strident, uncompromising people in both parties but it's the RS who have let that faction take over.

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I think that Josh Barro was teasing you on Twitter for making these kinds of arguments while arguing in favor of Bernie as the nominee in the primary. Care to explain?

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He commented that he’ll write about it at some point.

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Yet "Democrats have moved left on policy since Obama’s runs not because they’ve all lost their minds, but because public opinion changed." Seems like moderating national profile would be giving up those votes. Can't have your cake and eat it too.

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"but because public opinion changed"

That really depends on the issue. And what the solution is.

For example,

I believe climate change is a problem. I also believe the Green New Deal is a disaster.

I agree that we need real criminal justice reform. I think "defund the police" is idiotic

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But you're forgetting that elections is an either-or situation. People who are already left of the center won't suddenly vote for Republicans if the Dems moderate more on cultural issues.

Now you can argue that some people (leftists) will stop coming out to vote out of spite, but the vast majority of those people are living in California / NY / states that are so solidly blue they can afford to not vote. Leftists in swing states like Georgia, Texas etc are much more aware of the implications if they do not come out and vote, so I don't think it's a stretch to say that we can bank on leftists still coming out to vote in swing states even if national profile shifts slightly right to capture some R+5 districts / states.

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I agree with all of this and I think Matt doesn't come out and say it because his saying it would be bad politics. Which is the same reason nobody who matters pursues the strategy and we're stuck playing footsie with the far left instead of winning.

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What does "moderating on trans issues" look like, pray tell? If it means giving in to blatantly unscientific and bigotry-driven "concerns" about trans people in sports then I'm out.

The Sistah Souljah strategy only works because you're NOT giving up anything material or abandoning your own principles to throw extremists under the bus. If you start accepting "trans women are men" as part of "moderation" then that won't work.

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Also, uh, trans rights has supermajority support for the most part, except for trans women playing sports with cis women, and even that's a single poll that was wildly slanted against the pro-trans side.

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Moderate Congresswoman Sharice Davids in Kansas could have easily joined "The Squad" and became a darling of liberal donors. A Native American, pro-choice, lesbian who was a former MMA fighter? But she resisted and represented her district and focused on real issues like transportation. She is awesome.

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I wonder why this doesn't happen to Republicans. They've pretty much fully embraced their image as "the party of Trump" but that hasn't done anything to stop the success of their relatively moderate members in places like New England.

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It works for them for state offices, up to and including governors, but not for national offices. Massachusetts also has 2 Democratic senators and an entirely Democratic House delegation, because voters know that they can vote for Baker without empowering McConnell and the crazies from the red states, but they will almost never send Republicans to Congress. This is also why Steve Bullock was governor of Montana, but couldn't become a senator from Montana.

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In states like Maryland and Massachusetts, those Republican governors are counterbalanced by Democratic supermajorities, so the voters are doing an interesting thing.

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A friend of mine lives in that district. The biggest difference between 2018 and 2020 was not the candidates but the fact that Trump was on the ballot.

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To be sure. However, as it is currently drawn, District 5 is purple and Democrats have a chance of winning it. I'm curious to see what happens in 2022 with Trump off the ballot. (Of course, it's not clear whether or not District 5 will be re-drawn based on the census by 2022, given the delay in the release of census data.) Interestingly, Bice has stayed Trumpy despite the fact that many in District 5 are critical of Trump and her decision to vote against certification.

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One thing that is helpful for Dems here is that at least in the Senate, individual senators are more able to publicly differentiate themselves from the rest of the party. GOP can shoot at Manchin saying he's with Pelosi et al. but it just doesn't work as well because his voters know he's bucked the party. My guess with Horn-esque house members is that their constituents don't know if they buck the party or not, so they're more inclined to shy away from her. Basically, Horn should run for senate and see what happens lol.

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Stephanie Bice is an interesting window to the pressures on Republicans right now. While in the State Legislature, she was one of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus, and she defeated the candidate seen as more right-wing in the Republican Primary for Congress. But since taking office, she has represented her narrowly divided district in a way that's mostly indistinguishable from the far right of her party. That's in stark contrast to Kendra Horn, who joined more bipartisan or cross-partisan efforts than maybe any other member of Congress. Maybe Bice expects redistricting to make sure she only ever has to appeal to Republicans going forward, but that's a sad way to view her own interests and the interests of her district.

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To me, the lesson of this past election is that the Democrats as currently constituted (a neoliberal ruling class + professional class + racial minorities + unions) will never win consistently, and the current reprieve from right-wing insanity is only temporary.

The country is in big trouble and needs big change. In the long historical view, big change requires big margins reflecting a national consensus. A margin of 51% won’t do it. Roosevelt and Johnson had 60% margins and supermajorities in both Houses. They could get big things done in spite of intra-party differences. Today, with the fecklessness of the Left, the only place for liberals to find the votes is to the right. This involves (for this liberal) letting go of our anger at people who had the nerve to vote for Trump and thinking about how to join these other citizens where they are at. That is, to have some tolerance which is in short supply in our times.

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This is true but it is important to include the biased electoral system. Democrats won way more votes, the system just doesn’t reward them fairly with power. They have to focus on changing that

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Every plausible path to changing that starts by winning elections under the current system.

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I will try to write this politely but that is an extremely ill informed statement. It's not wrong but it's missing the fact that for decades now Democrats have had that "win under the current system" attitude while Republicans kept changing the system.

The result is state elections like Wisconsin where Democrats win 53% of the vote and Republicans get 60% of the seats, and national elections where Democrats need to get 7 million more votes to take the Presidency.

Republicans are on the verge of making the whole country like Wisconsin, where they win under anything short of a total blue landslide. Democrats need to wake up and start taking systemic reform seriously before it's too late.

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What does it mean to "take systemic reform seriously", other than winning a majority so that you can change the laws that have rigged the system against you?

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The problem is when they have power, they don't use it. Right now, Democrats have H.R.1 which would address a bunch of problems and has 50% net approval among Republicans. *Democratic* senators like Manchin and Sinema are blocking it in the Senate. It's a disaster.

If you want more specific examples:

Supreme Court. Republican justices strategically retired in 2006 and 2018 and were replaced by Republicans. Democratic R.B.G didn't, and was replaced by a Republican.

US Postal Service: Obama left office with ZERO people on the USPS Board of Governors, so Trump could pick the entire Board, which he did. Roll forward to 2020 and the USPS appears to be interfering in the election to Trump's advantage.

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^^^The problem is when they have power, they don't use it....*Democratic* senators like Manchin and Sinema are blocking it in the Senate. It's a disaster.^^^

Well, as Matt points out, that's substantially a function of very narrow (the mathematically narrowest possible, actually) margins. If Democrats had, say, 56 Senators, they'd be able to survive up to five defections.

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The way to stop Manchin and Sinema's ability to block things is to have more Democrats in the Senate, in other words, to have Democrats win in more states.

Part of the solution to getting progressive justices off the court in time to get a replacement is to stop fetishizing them, making weird personality cults around them, and talking about how much power they showed in their dissents (a.k.a. their losing arguments) - why does Breyer have an incentive to retire early if RBG hung on disasterously long and got idolized post-mortem?

Obama *did* nominate people to the USPS Board of Governors, but they didn't make it out of the Senate because the Republicans controlled it, so again the solution is to get more Democrats in the Senate.

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This is exactly correct. And it's not just a Manchin problem--Democratic leadership seems to have real problems getting their own team on board (for example, Chuck Schumer personally recruited Sinema without getting any commitments from her whatsoever about eliminating the filibuster, and endorsed filibuster supporter Dianne Feinstein in her 2018 primary against perfectly-acceptable-Dem Kevin DeLeon)

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What sort of systemic reforms are you thinking of, and how do you propose that they could be accomplished? Agreed that the state level is critical, and winnable. Democrats are playing defense at this moment, though.

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+ 1,000,000

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Democrats won more votes. They didn't win "way more votes." Especially not to the extent its portrayed among progressives. In 2016, Republican's lost the popular vote for the Presidency, but won the popular vote for the house 49% to 48%. If we had a parliamentary system, then Paul Ryan would AND SHOULD have been prime minister. In 2020, Democrats won the house vote with a 51% to 48% advantage, which means they won exactly as many house seats as they should have by % of vote while the Republican's won 4 more than their share of the vote (they captured all the % given to third parties).

I take Matt's point to be that Democrats need to move from the 51% of the vote they have now to 55% or higher so they can capture enough seats to make real changes and safeguard democracy. Promoting moderate democrats is a way to achieve those goals.

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You're cherry-picking across both time and institution to focus on the least unfair parts of the US electoral system. In the Senate Democrats won 28 million more votes from 2016-2020 to get a 50:50 balance.

I support promoting moderate Democrats. But to repeat myself, I think Democrats and the entire country should be *way* more focused on how close the electoral system is to a point where Democrats can't win under plausible electoral outcomes.

David Shor gave an interview today where he said "the GOP has very rosy long-term prospects for dominating America’s federal institutions", without a majority of the vote, and while promoting unpopular positions. That's a disaster. Democrats have a bill that would reduce some of these biases and their own Senators aren't voting for it. It's very bad.

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/03/david-shor-2020-democrats-autopsy-hispanic-vote-midterms-trump-gop.html

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My point is that the "least unfair" part of the institution shows a really close balance between the two parties. Democrats do NOT have a large majority. Matt is suggesting actions to help them build a larger majority. This make sense.

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Oh and you're also ignoring voter suppression. Whatever votes Democrats get, their voters have to travel further and wait longer in line to get them

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Voter suppression feels like the Democratic version of Voter Fraud. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, just that I haven't seen any research showing it has a significant impact. Would you be able to point me to research showing otherwise?

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But if we’re winning by such narrow margins, which we are, 1% absolutely has an impact! I actually think the Dems should absolutely pander a little on culture war issues (bash Potato Head all you want!) while going all-in on HR1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Democracy reform is kinda boring to most voters and I think a lot of moderates/independents find the idea of opposing voting rights kind of icky. You can wrap the new VRA up in the flag and the legacy of John Lewis, do some very universalist messaging about it that emphasizes things like how hard it can be for elderly and disabled people to vote, and make Mitt Romney and Susan Collins feel pressured to vote for it. While complaining loudly about how silly it is that SF tried to cancel Abraham Lincoln.

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That just means that the Presidential popular vote margin needs to be that much bigger. The basic principle doesn't change. The presidential popular vote is the closest thing we have to measure broad national consensus. And if Democrats want to change the basic political system (more states, change the Electoral College, change the judiciary acts) they'd better come in with a pretty big majority.

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I don't understand how you can't see the flaw in what you wrote. If Republicans imposed a dictatorship, would it still be Democrats' fault for not winning a big enough majority to pass their priorities? Of course it's important to expand your coalition but the electoral system matters too and Democrats need to fight on both fronts

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We are talking past each other. I am talking about building consensus. You are talking about winning elections. We won't win if the Republicans rig the game, so of course the electoral system matters. But at the moment the Democrats are too weak to prevail even if the game were not rigged. And that is because they have failed to build consensus.

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Fair enough. I think it's important to note that many idea with quite broad support don't pass. Raising the minimum wage has 65% approval. Democrats are struggling to even get it a vote.

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They are struggling to get a vote in the Senate, but because it does have broad approval, it seems like a great issue to put front and center in 2022 Congressional races.

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I agree that the Democratic coalition is awkward relative to the Republican Party, which seems to have melded tax-cut whites with working class whites motivated by trade, immigration and culture war.

This suggest an analogy I find amusing. The Democrats are divided, which makes them look like the Allies in WWI and WWI; the Republicans are fighting from interior lines, like the Axis.

Which makes the Reps the Nazis and a key member of the Dem alliance the Communists. Something for everyone!

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Who's Imperial Japan in this analogy?

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I wondered that too. Let me see - undermanned yet overpowered, punching above their weight, a wildly over-optimistic plan for victory, some success relying on surprise... sounds like the Stop The Steal insurrectionists of MAGA nation.

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Thirty years from now they'll be finding Stop the Steal people in caves who never got the word that the 2020 election ended.

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Politico found people who still believe the 2004 election was stolen: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/12/19/2004-kerry-election-fraud-2020-448604

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Since vague cultural issues seem so important in elections, a candidates image seems really important. Looking like a moderate seems more important than actually supporting moderate policy.

So wave an American flag. Act a bit out of touch with the latest whatever. Don't say "Latinx" or "cultural appropriation". Use the language of your constituents, not your college educated volunteers. And most importantly: stay off twitter.

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There are plenty of Dem moderates that swung seats in 2018 and held on in 2020. Matt (in his copious free time) should chat with Abigail Spanberger, who got fifteen minutes of fame by promising to choke out the next Democrat to say "defund the police."

Yet for various reasons I see a lot more coverage of AOC than Ms. Spanberger.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/06/politics/abigail-spanberger-house-democrats-2020-election/index.html

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founding

I think one point he is making is that, in a sense, for a moderate race like this, any coverage is bad coverage, because it's more likely to rile up the base for your opponents than to swing some voters.

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The Twitter thing is huge. I wish journalists, especially, would get a handle on just how few people are political on Twitter, and start learning the perspectives of people who aren't.

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If I were running the DNC, I would start straight up issuing Twitter bans. That shit fucking rots your brain. And ideologically i line up much more with Twitter than not with Twitter, but again, Twitter politics is one where anarchism is a seriously debated political philosophy and not something that evokes burning cities and rampant criminality.

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“ Say you don’t think it’s fair to call people racist when they worry about crime or illegal immigration — these are things lots of folks worry about, and the government owes them solutions.”

Anecdotal evidence here, but (as I frequently write in these comment sections) all the people I know that are concerned about illegal immigration are immigrants themselves. It’s a little bit funny that a US citizen would call us racists.

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For a second I thought I wrote this comment, because I've said the same thing in this comment section. The immigrants I know hate "open border policies" and anything that feels like line jumping. In general they are much more socially conservative and tough-on-crime than the white people I work with

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To be fair, everyone I'm referring to here (including me) is very socially liberal. And we would all like to see an increase in the number of green cards that are handed out each year (for very obvious reasons of self-interest). We still hate line jumping very very much though.

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That may or may not be racist, but it's definitely a shitty attitude to hold

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I'd reconsider that attitude. What I hear is versions of "I did everything right, filed a hundred forms, paid a bunch of fees, and waited a long time. And now the Democrats want to give citizenship to a bunch of people who are just cheating the system". You may not agree that with their characterization, but the basic feeling of "I played by the rules but the cheaters got the prices" is one that most people can relate to. So either explain why that's not actually the Dem position, or sympathize a bit. But just saying that's shitty isn't going to win anyone over.

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It's frankly similar to the feelings and resentments generated by student loan forgiveness.

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People who have followed a set of rules to get something are often not very happy when they see other people getting that something without following the rules. Especially when following those rules requires that they make significant sacrifices. And it seems to be a pretty universal human trait.

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Yes, most people are bad. This is the same logic that leads to hazing--"I had to do [unpleasant task X] so you do to".

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I think that implies that both sets of people get the same thing eventually though, right? I'm talking about people on student visas here, though, i.e., people who can be in the US for years following all applicable laws and still get no path to citizenship.

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I assume that in the grocery store you happily wave everyone else in front of you?

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There's a statement that wins Democrats the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

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"Come on you possibly racist, shitty-attitude-holding person, vote for me!"

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I'm for open borders, and I completely agree. Trying to guilt people into being open to immigration mostly just polarizes people against you. No person in Earth likes being condescended to!

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I agree with this statement! I just wanted to point out that being open to immigration can be consistent with wanting to deport people that have violated immigration laws.

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Oh, we can do better than "condescended to"; we'll call you a racist.

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As a moderate (“Never Trump”) Republican in Texas, this is 100% spot on. That little list of positions at the end of the piece would likely be enough to win the state. Just throw on a few popular left of center items like marijuana and Medicaid expansion and you’re good to go.

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I wish more liberal pundits were like Matt and could consider separately their policy preferences and their opinions on how to win elections. Too many automatically assume that candidates with their policy preferences are most likely to win elections. The best example of that liberals who were intent on defeating Trump and yet supported Warren's candidacy. (Fortunately, most Democratic voters were wiser).

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I was really frustrated by Warren's candidacy. I really like her and her anti-corruption focus could have been really popular but I felt like she drifted to much into unpopular positions on other issues

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I can imagine a hypothetical 2020 primary where Bernie didn't win (or dropped out after his heart problems) and Warren could've focused on the populist stuff more exclusively instead of fighting for the woke subset of the party, but it is what it is.

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Yeah, like many people, I think she would be a great president.

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💯. She's has the right values and understands how to work the system to address economic issues in a way that few others do

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She was the only one in the bunch who came into the game on focus - it's the inequality, it's the corruption. It's when she drifted off into the shoulder trying to pander to the Left that she really plunged in the polls.

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The one complicating factor is that she tends to underperform Dems overall in Senate races so it's possible her normal schtick doesn't work for her. Idk what to make of it

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What you’re describing is exactly what Matt termed the "pundit's fallacy" about 10 years ago. He defined it then as "the belief that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively". It’s a good term we should probably get into wider use.

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True, although I think some of what you see today on the younger left is a desire for authenticity in reaction against an excess of Clintonian triangulation by the older generation of Democratic pols, which can come across as phony when performed by mere political hacks and not by a virtuoso like Bill Clinton himself.

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A desire for authenticity in national politics is a desire to lose, full-stop. (I know you're describing others' desires and not your own.)

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This is an excellent take. The democrats need to understand that wokeness and cultural progressivism are deeply unpopular, and these things will lose them elections.

What IS popular is true economic progressivism. That is, structuring our society so wealth is distributed fairly and more proportionally to effort and innovation, providing high quality public services like postal banking, and strong regulations against predation and abuse of the weaker by the stronger. Strengthening our society's institutions.

The combination of Wall Street economics and wokeness is an absolute loser and the most unpopular position it's possible to take. People hate the entrenchment of dynastic plutocracies (note the use of the word 'elite') and the feeling that there's an unbridgeable gulf between the working man and the ownership class.

Note current Republican messaging: they're pinning on dems the labels of cancel culture, anarchy, language policing, elitism, and unfair promotion of chosen identity groups, while positioning themselves as the champions of the working class.

If the dems don't act hard to counteract this, they're going to be SCREWED.

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One big roadblock to this is money. It takes millions of dollars to run a race House or Senate race, and that means you have to find thousands of rich people willing to give you thousands of dollars and/or you need to be able to tap into the national network of small dollar donors. Neither group is interested in a socially conservative/moderate Democrat. I've worked in Democratic politics in the South for a long time, and I can tell you that the political graveyard is full of very moderate Dems who (authentically!) talk the way you mention here, who could not raise two nickels to fund an actual campaign.

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Matt Jones, in Kentucky, considered running against Mitch, had one meeting with Democrats and backed out. All they cared about were donors. Shame, he's the only Den in KY who might be able to win that one.

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Beto O'Rourke isn't that left wing, is he? He got massive interest/attention/money from liberal (and probably progressive left, too) circles. Frankly Jon Ossoff didn't position himself as a hard progressive, either (opposed GND, IIRC, for instance). I'm sure there are other examples.

I think even pretty far left folks will open their wallets for moderate/centrist types to beat GOP/MAGA if they smell blood in the water.

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Beto isn't a Sanders-type, but he raised a lot of that money by doing the opposite of what Matt is saying here. For example, he waded into cultural issues, like NFL players kneeling, on the side of progressives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGWmh-maevk

He went viral for that and a few moments like it and raised a shit ton of money. But I heard Cruz's campaign manager speak at a conference for political consultants back in 2019, and he says their internal polls showed them losing the race before that went viral.

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Perhaps I'm tainted by the memory of his brief flirtation with the Democratic presidential primary. He barely registered with the Bernie/Warren crowd.

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There are sometimes big differences between economic progressives and social progressives. See: Bernie in 2016 (before everyone started calling him racist and sexist, at which point he started trying to placate those folks). Bernie and Warren are heavily into the economics. Veto seems like strictly a Twitter progressive.

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Beto, not veto

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I disagree with this take, because I’m hoping that the Stacey Abrams approach (increase turnout while staying true to your true values), is the path to getting red states to turn purple. Matt’s approach is too disingenuous in today’s world in my view - too much playing games and second guessing, I.e., I’m going to say X even though I really believe Y. I think one reason Trump was and is so popular within the GOP is that he says what he believes (at any given moment), and even though he says horrible things, people are attracted to that kind of genuineness. In today’s world being a hypocrite is worse than whatever policy position a person may have - e.g., liberal politicians telling people to stay home during COVID, and then going to restaurants and family gatherings themselves. That’s what the populace will remember - the hypocrisy, not the good policy position. So I just think that people - even politicians - need to say and do things that are pretty close to their true, heartfelt beliefs, while being open to different views and compromise. What Matt’s describing, in my view, is the politics of the past and “triangulation”. In this new media and digital world, that kind of disingenuousnous is not going to fly-too transparent. One thing about Biden is that he also seems pretty genuine-I think in the end, people liked that, no matter what his policies were and are evolving to be.

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It would be disingenuous for a liberal candidate to say a bunch of stuff she doesn't believe to pander to moderate voters. But it's not disingenuous for a liberal primary voter in Ohio or Texas to decide to vote for a Manchin-type candidate who sincerely believes that stuff—even if the voter her self does not. Because she might calculate that keeping Chuck Schumer as Senate Majority Leader is worth it.

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I also don’t think it’s totally crazy to think Obama and many other Democrats were lying about marriage in 2008 ... seems okay

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When Obama was a state senator he endorsed gay marriage and handgun bans, he also didn't sign the amicus on D.C. v Heller, although a majority of Congressmen did.

I think its safe to say that some of the Obama 2008-2012 positions were disingenuous, or lying. Or as Leo McGarry said in the West Wing, of course I lied to you, I am a politician.

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Also, it's not a lie unless the person (falsely) says "I believe such and such is the best policy for America and that's why I hold the position I do; it has nothing to do with politics."

Usually they simply announce what their position (at that particular time) *is* and (again, at that particular time) it's fair to say that now IS their position. After all, public support of or opposition to a policy on the part of a political leader amounts to a substantive position. (Far more so than private thoughts, which are largely meaningless when they remain private).

It's like when Hillary Clinton came out against the Trans Pacific Partnership during the 2016 primaries. I'm pretty sure she thought the US should ultimately join it, but I doubt she was "lying" when she announced she opposed the deal (she really did publicly oppose the deal at the time!). Rather, she just didn't articulate that the reason she opposed the deal was presidential politics. If she had claimed she harbored no private thought to the effect that it might be a good idea for the country in due course to join TPP she'd have been lying (at least I suspect so).

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It's not a lie to support same-sex marriage in one's own state -- especially if your state is Hawaii -- but not want to force it on states that oppose it.

Romney wasn't lying when he supported universal healthcare for Massachusetts, a state where most people wanted it, but didn't support it at the national level because there were plenty of states that didn't want it.

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The thing that drives me crazy about the original column is that it presents this as a new dynamic. The precise tensions between, "Democrats should be moderate to appeal to a broad electorate" and "Democrats should be proud Democrats and voice their values" was one of the major arguments between Kerry and Dean in 2004 (I voted for Kerry, FWIW).

It's true that Obama re-set that dynamic slightly -- in ways that are worth trying to replicate, but which aren't easy to pull-off.* But there's always been an argument between "half a loaf is better than none" and "we should still convince people that a whole loaf is possible."

The OP isn't wrong, but it does a poor job of engaging with the counter-arguments for why people would make the opposite choice.

* (note, I've seen research shows that women and minority candidates are generally perceived as _more_ liberal than their positions would indicate. Despite Obama's moderate moves, I don't think he was seen as the moderate in that race; by either Democrats or Republicans. He was seen as the liberal alternative to Clinton. That said, I think his moderate moves did make him more electable. I just think it's a difficult template to work from).

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Obama triangulated masterfully in '08. It was my first election. I had GOP parents and thought everything on Fox News primetime was dumb, the Iraq War was incredibly dumb, but also thought my many far-left classmates were dumb in their own way.

Obama drew me with his market-oriented green energy proposal, being able to say the Iraq War was dumb, and ultimately persuaded me on the basic idea of a right to healthcare whose implementation was worthy of debate. I (foolishly) believed he could close Gitmo. I saw him as more moderate than Hillary. On the Iraq War point, I received that as "just having common sense"/"recognizing risk to US int'l credibility," not about left-right positioning.

Many of my college peers saw him as very liberal, as did my GOP parents. For the latter, I blamed Fox News primetime. For the former? Who knows. Maybe some saw opposing Iraq War in left-right terms, unlike me. Maybe some got suckered by a masterclass politician. Maybe those two things are connected.

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That's a helpful perspective. My memory of the primary was that Clinton was courting the White Working Class and Obama ran as more progressive.

I think we're agreed that Obama was really good. Based on your comment I would still say that what he did, and where he positioned himself in American politics isn't easy to replicate.

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I agree with you wholeheartedly - I think Obama was a once-in-a-generation political talent, and also the media landscape may have changed so much even he couldn't pull it off again. It's just harder to tell these subtly different stories to different voters these days. I bet that I just missed the signals he sent to indicate he was more progressive than Hillary, and I might not miss those signals today.

Maybe this is why Biden stayed the fuck off social media.

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It's also not crazy to think Obama and many other Democrats changed their mind about marriage between 2008 and 2014 -- I'm one of those Dems myself.

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No, Obama was lying. It's actually amazing he got away with it when he's on record for supporting gay marriage prior to becoming a senator

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yeah literally everyone knows that the Democratic Party spent 30 years lying about their positions on LGBTQ+ rights, then telling the truth as it became more popular. The Dems ALWAYS had the private position that gay people should get married. Even all the way back to Bill. But the forces standing against queer rights were too strong.

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Yes, this is almost as much about voters as about politicians. It needs to be true *both* that politicians moderate, especially on "culture" issues, *and* that primary voters reward them for doing so because they recognize that their causes are better advanced by a moderate Democrat who wins by 5 points than a progressive one who loses by 5.

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erm you look familiar didn't you used to write for vox

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The point isn’t to lie, it’s to nominate genuinely more moderate people who can authentically disagree with democrats on some stuff.

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My overly-idealistic hope is that more smart Democrats will sincerely adopt nuance and understanding as one of their "true values," and stop sticking to their extremist guns in a way that fuels Republican efforts to increase their turnout.

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Same. I actually think style is more important than substance in this regard - though that’s a bad way to say it, because really it’s more that style IS substance. I think part of the success of both Obama and Biden was that a moderate white voter in Wisconsin or Michigan could feel that even if they were to the left of him on some issue, they weren’t judging him as racist or sexist or whatever. You don’t have to throw the whole progressive cultural agenda away to do that, you just have to break with orthodoxy and little and - more importantly - make people who disagree with you on these issues feel heard and like their concerns are being addressed.

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I think Matt is suggesting that the Democratic Party nominate good politicians. Good politicians both win their races and pass good legislation, but they can’t do the second if they haven’t done the first.

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Can I just point out that the Democrats’ victory in Georgia was razor-thin, a few tens of thousands of votes in 5 million? Yes, it worked, but just barely. There needs to be a better track record before it’s reasonable to call Georgia a purple state, much less a blue one. There is also the factor of Abrams personal talent, which can't easily be duplicated.

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And $2000 checks (or, well, $1400) during a pandemic. Republicans were practically suicidal during the runoff.

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"i.e., I’m going to say X even though I really believe Y."

Maybe recruit candidates that actually believe Y?

Most people aren't monolithic in their views.

I'm liberal on some issues, conservative on others, and libertarian on quite a few.

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I would disagree with your characterization of Trump in one important way—he says a ton of stuff that people like but there's very little indication HE believes it, and in fact many of my relatives who voted for him don't necessarily believe he believes it. They liked that he says what *they* believe.

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I hear what you're saying but I don't know think it's at odds with Matt's suggestions. Take Biden, he's good at seeming non-threatening to people with socially conservative values although his personal ideas are probably far to the left of a median voter on many of them.

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Yes... and...

Can we stop shooting ourselves in the foot by allowing horny old men like Cuomo to hang around? Yes, Republicans are worse, but they are also more shameless and don't think sexual harassment is real, so they can obviously get away with it in ways we can't.

Seriously, do an investigation and vetting the way we would any senior executive in corporate America, and be more proactive in terms of not elevating to power people who do things like that.

Again, nuance - this isn't about going after people who did minor things (Franken) - more these cases like Cuomo where the rumors were around for years.

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Anecdote: I wrote all my representatives - state + federal - early Sunday AM. I expect corruption and poor governance from any NY governor, but there's no reason you can't be a crook while treating young women with dignity.

Sadly the only reply I've received is from the lone GOP rep, my state senator. Seems this issue may be more of a political football for elected officials than a principle they can defend.

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Great article.

I should note that when you talk about the chart of top Democratic overperformance, it gets a bit confusing when you start talking about Sara Gideon and Elizabeth Warren, but we don't see them on the chart.

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Yeah, I would like to see a full chart that includes them.

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