Throughout the Trump presidency, the Democratic leadership has begged progressive activists to appreciate the limits of their party’s power, and the wisdom of its strategic judgment.
When immigration advocates demanded a prolonged shutdown to secure protection for Dreamers in January 2018, the Establishment explained that such a gambit would do more to hurt their party’s red-state incumbents than to break the president’s will. When “the Resistance” read the Mueller Report as an airtight case for impeachment, Nancy Pelosi’s allies reminded their co-partisans that the Senate would never vote to expel Trump from office — but a Democratic push for impeachment just might keep him there until 2025, according to polls and historical experience. And when “the Squad” opposed new funding for Trump’s migrant “concentration camps” (in the absence of sweeping reforms to the administration’s asylum policy) this year, Democratic leaders insisted that such a stance would only deepen detained immigrants’ deprivation while muddying their party’s message.
And they may have been right. American politics is a messy and stupid game. Progressive voters are systematically underrepresented by our electoral institutions. Democrats really do need to worry about alienating the tiny, bizarre fraction of the electorate that still isn’t sure what team it’s on. Sometimes, maximizing policy gains does require tempering one’s demands. As the German sociologist Max Weber wrote in “Politics As a Vocation,” “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
Still, strategic capitulation to injustice will always be a bitter pill. If a party’s leadership expects activists to accept such prescriptions, it must preempt the suspicion that its appeals to pragmatism are just fig leaves for ideological disagreement, personal spinelessness, or moral indifference. Which is to say: The party leadership must demonstrate a commitment to maximizing its share of power, and using that power to advance its self-professed ideological goals to the greatest extent possible.
Alas, Senate Democrats have been demonstrating the very opposite. In fact, some members of Chuck Schumer’s caucus recently suggested that they are more invested in remaining friends with Susan Collins than in securing the opportunity to govern. As Politico reported Monday:
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who endorsed Collins in 2014, won’t say whether he will do so again. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) endorsed Collins, earning himself an angry call from Schumer.
“I can’t believe everyone’s so damn hypocritical. She’s the one person I work with all the time,” Manchin said. “Why would you not expect me to do that?”
“Yes,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), when asked if she’s conflicted. “I’m very fond of her. I consider her a friend. I trust her. I believe she’s a good senator.”
King is technically an independent, even though he caucuses on the left side of the aisle. And Manchin needs the Democratic Party a lot less than Democrats need his vote. So, while their derelictions of duty here are lamentable, they don’t necessarily reflect a broader pathology within the Donkey Party. But Dianne Feinstein represents one of the bluest states in the union. She is a senior member of the caucus with extensive clout and enviable committee assignments. She has no business being “conflicted” over next year’s Senate race in Maine, nor publicly vouching for Susan Collins’s credentials as “a good senator.”
If Feinstein’s praise for her colleague sounds innocuous, consider what Maine’s favorite “moderate” has been up to over the past three years. Collins did not just vote for the Trump Tax Cuts — she assured the American people that the legislation would “actually lower the debt” because “economic growth produces more revenue.” This was an intellectually indefensible statement at the time Collins made it, and is even more ludicrous in hindsight (somehow, the fact that Collins deployed wildly mendacious economic claims to sell the public on a wildly unpopular proposal to slash taxes on corporations and the rich has not stopped the mainstream press from calling her “moderate” without quotation marks). Meanwhile, the Maine senator did not just vote to confirm a notorious racist as America’s top law-enforcement officer — she personally vouched for Jeff Sessions’s integrity at his confirmation hearing. And Collins has not merely undermined reproductive rights by caucusing with virulently anti-choice party, but has served as a rubber stamp for anti-choice judicial appointments, including (of course) Brett Kavanugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court.
That Feinstein believes being a “good senator” is compatible with abetting the upward redistribution of wealth, the gutting of federal civil rights enforcement, and the rollback of reproductive autonomy betrays an almost nihilistic indifference to the stakes of partisan conflict. Ostensibly, in Feinstein’s view, Collins’s friendliness with her colleagues should count for more than the material consequences her voting record has had for the Democratic Party’s most vulnerable constituents.
But even if Collins were a genuine moderate, Feinstein’s reluctance to call for her ouster would be inexcusable. To retake the Senate in 2021, Democrats will need a net gain of three seats next November. And while Republicans will have 22 of their incumbents on the ballot next year, only two of those represent states that have leaned Democratic in the past two presidential elections — Colorado and Maine. Given the steady decline in ticket-splitting, and Doug Jones’s long odds of fending off a Republican challenge in Alabama, Susan Collins’s reelection would all-but guarantee the survival of the GOP’s Senate majority — which is to say, it would give Mitch McConnell veto power over a hypothetical Democratic president’s legislative agenda and judicial appointments in 2021. The question before Feinstein is, thus: Do you care more about whether the U.S. government takes action on climate change (and/or, expands access to health insurance, and/or safeguards reproductive rights, etc…), or whether you retain the workplace friendship of your favorite Republican colleague?
This question has the senator feeling “conflicted.”
Feinstein is not representative of her caucus on this specific issue. But the value judgement behind her stance — the prioritization of senatorial collegiality over policy progress — informs Senate Democrats’ widespread resistance to abolishing the legislative filibuster (an institution that is both vile on the merits, and an unscalable obstacle to virtually every item on the progressive agenda).
So long as the Democratic leadership refuses to subordinate bipartisan comity to the goals of building power and securing policy gains, progressive activists will not trust its sincerity when it implores them to subordinate ideological purity to those same objectives. Nor should they.