Democrats Must Be More Ruthless — When They Actually Have Power

Progressives need this man to be afraid of them. But they also need him to be Majority Leader. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

If the Democrats had a spine, the Dreamers would have green cards by now. In 2010, the party had the power to protect those American-raised immigrants from the nightmare they currently live under. The House had passed the DREAM Act, and a majority of the Senate supported the measure — if 51 Democratic senators voted to kill the legislative filibuster, the bill would become law.

But Senate Democrats valued norms and bipartisanship more than the security and well-being of a vulnerable minority group. And so they chose to preserve an institutional constraint on their power that appears nowhere in the Constitution, adds a gratuitous check on a system that’s already overloaded with procedural obstacles to responsive government, inherently advantages the right over the left, and single-handedly prevented the passage of anti-lynching laws and civil-rights legislation.

And now, the fate of the Dreamers lies in the hands of a president who (ostensibly) thinks they belong in “shithole countries.”

All of which is to say: Progressives are absolutely right to bristle at the Democrats’ tactical timidity. The party’s aversion to the ruthless exercise of power is a major reason why the state of our union is so god-awful today. And to have any chance of beating back plutocracy and climate change tomorrow, a mobilized left will need to pressure Chuck Schumer & Co. to use every weapon at their disposal.

But the case for radical tactics hinges on the certainty of their success. The ends can’t justify the means if the means don’t actually work. For this reason, tactical maximalism makes a lot more sense for governing parties than for opposition ones. If a Democratic Senate majority abolishes the filibuster to pass amnesty for all the undocumented — or refuses to confirm any judicial nominees from a Republican president, so as to preserve the possibility of a future Democratic president filling those open seats — there is no question that the tactic will succeed. In these cases, the party has the power to achieve its aims through extraordinary measures; the only question is whether it has the will to do so.

By contrast, if a Democratic Senate minority refuses to fund the government until Congress provides legal status to Dreamers, there’s no guarantee that this will work. The primary obstacle, in that case, isn’t a lack of will — it’s a lack of power.

At the end of the day, Donald Trump doesn’t have to sign any bill he doesn’t want to. Democrats can’t keep the government shut down forever, and because federal workers are a core Democratic constituency, they’re bound to be less insensitive to the substantive harms of a shutdown than the GOP is. Further, the historical track record suggests that shutdowns simply don’t work. Even if the opposition has an advantage on the underlying policy dispute, the ruling party has never had a hard time centering public debate on the seemingly more urgent — and widely felt — problem of the government’s paralysis.

Now, it’s still possible that Republicans — by virtue of being the majority party — have more to lose from the perception of government dysfunction than the Democrats do. And it’s possible to make the case for shutting down the government as a means of base mobilization, irrespective of its efficacy in forcing the passage of legislation.

But these are speculative theories, not certainties. And many progressives are treating them as the latter. On Monday, Democrats ended their short-lived shutdown without making any tangible progress toward legislation protecting Dreamers. The left proceeded to denounce the move and its authors in unconditional terms. In many (though not all) cases, their rhetoric suggested that the only thing preventing Trump from signing legislation that provides amnesty to Dreamers — and no new funds for his wall — is Chuck Schumer’s spinelessness; and, further, that the only thing Democrats have to lose from keeping the government shuttered is their reputation as invertebrates.

Both of these claims are suspect. The Trump administration has displayed a high tolerance for chaos and unpopularity. Even if Democrats “won” the messaging war during a shutdown, there is no guarantee that the White House would change course. The left won the messaging battle on the tax bill, after all, and Republicans still did as they pleased.

Meanwhile, ten Senate Democrats are running for reelection this fall in states that Donald Trump won. Several of those states are overwhelmingly Republican, overwhelmingly white, and unusually insensitive to the plight of undocumented immigrants. The Democrats’ internal polling reportedly suggested that an extended shutdown over DACA would hurt the Joe Donnellys and Heidi Heitkamps of the world. That might not be true. And even if it is, it might not matter by November. But do progressives think it’s completely implausible that a prolonged shutdown over immigration could cost Claire McCaskill a percentage point? And if it is plausible, shouldn’t that matter?

The left may have little love for Joe Manchin. But there are very few things more important to the progressive cause right now that preventing Donald Trump from appointing more federal judges (and, potentially, Supreme Court justices) in 2019 and 2020. Doing that requires Democrats to take back the Senate — and taking back the Senate almost certainly requires Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp to win reelection. (Note: Once Democrats have the majority, liberals can block Trump’s nominees in committee. They don’t need Manchin to vote against Trump’s judges; they just need to prevent the Senate from holding votes on judges, period.)

Should Democrats recapture the upper chamber, progressives will need to push for tactical ruthlessness. To keep Trump’s judicial nominees off the bench, the left will need to make Majority Leader Chuck Schumer fear his liberal base more than he dreads violating norms.

But if the point of progressive politics is to effect change — rather than to perform righteousness — then, on occasion, the most progressive tactic will not be the most radical one. Perhaps our current moment isn’t one of those occasions. Perhaps a prolonged shutdown would have worked. But on corners of the left right now, this speculation has attained the status of moral conviction. To question the premise is to betray the cause. This is an unfortunate development. For a movement to be truly ruthless in its pursuit of power, it must also be pragmatic. If the left cares about preventing a neo–Lochner era in American jurisprudence, it needs to care about Heidi Heitkamp’s internal polling.

Ultimately, an overly demanding Democratic grassroots is a good problem to have. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no inherent trade-off between progressivism and pragmatism. The Democratic Party would be a lot better off today, politically, if a mobilized left had forced it to govern more radically under Obama. A version of Obamacare that included a public option — and larger, deficit-financed insurance subsidies for the middle class — would be far more popular than the one we got. If Senate Democrats had abolished the filibuster, and passed a larger stimulus, more foreclosure relief, card check for unions, and citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants on a party-line vote, there’s a strong chance that Donald Trump would have never become president. Add a few million more immigrants to the electorate — and a couple percentage points to the rate of private-sector unionization — and you end up with a country that is both more democratic and more Democratic.

In this era of inequality and ecological crisis, America needs a left-wing movement that isn’t afraid to give the Democrats hell. But our country also needs that movement to be as smart and effective as it can possibly be. And if the left comes to believe that there is no distinction between the righteousness of its radical ambitions and the wisdom of any given radical tactic then it will become considerably less likely to realize the former.

Democrats Must Be More Ruthless — When They Have Power