The moderate fallacy

shutterstock_228125710Democrats face the same existential choice every election: do we play it safe or go bold? And every election, the folks who consider themselves the gatekeepers of the party tell us to choose the path of moderation, because Americans are by and large “moderates.”

But is that really true? What is the evidence that playing to the center is the only way to win political office? What can history tell us?

I’ve been mulling over a hypothesis about what works, at least what works at the national level for the Democratic Party — you know, the one that ostensibly represents the people, and not the 0.01% who currently run the country. The basic idea is this: The default success formula demands a progressive, forward-looking candidate and platform. Only when the opposition is hopelessly split can we afford to embrace moderate politics.

This is the opposite of the conventional wisdom we’ve always been handed by those who claim to know better: That Democrats can only afford to embrace progressive politics when they have the upper hand. That broad-based, middle-of-the-road politics is the key to success at the polls. That if we get too far ahead of the curve we risk frightening away otherwise-sympathetic voters. Never mind the staggeringly consistent polling data that show a solid majority of the people support progressive positions on just about every issue, from healthcare insurance to gun control to abortion to the climate crisis. The only poll that counts is taken on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in leap-year Novembers. And when it comes time to vote, Americans invariably opt for safe, moderate policies and politicians. 

That’s the argument. But a review of the last half-century or more of American history — any further back and we run into the pre-Civil Rights Act realignment era that makes comparisons with modern politics of little use — shows in fact that Democrats never win when they play it safe. In fact, the only exception to this rule is when the opposition is split among multiple candidates or in disarray. 

I am willing to be proved wrong. I’m not a professional historian of American politics and there’s a non-zero chance that I have ignored some factor that would handily destroy my hypothesis. I welcome any comments to that effect, so long as they are based on facts, and not wishful thinking. But I’ve looked at every presidential election since LBJ re-sorted partisan politics in the 1960s by handing the Dixiecrats to the GOP and the pattern is undeniable. Let’s start with the most recent example.

In the 2016 primaries, we faced a classic choice between a radical outsider and a party-establishment moderate. Although Hillary Clinton was the first female nominee in history, Bernie Sanders was the relative progressive. Hillary proudly called Henry Kissinger a valued adviser, while Bernie pushed for free taxpayer-funded healthcare. We chose the safe centrist, and, although the insider did manage to win the popular vote, Donald Trump won where it counted. The ultimate causes are legion (misogyny, bigotry, Russian tampering, James Comey, Fox News, etc.), but it all boils down to the fact that that not enough people who voted for the outgoing Democratic president in the previous two elections could stomach voting for Hillary.

The choice in the 2008 primaries was between the first serious African-American candidate and Clinton. Does anyone want to argue that Barack Obama (whatever his centrist leanings once he assumed office) wasn’t the more progressive of the two? Clinton, just as she would eight years later, and notwithstanding the promise of a shattered ceiling, managed to look like a step backward compared with her challenger. It’s easy to forget the Obama wasn’t a shoe-in for the general election, given his opponent was a widely respected war hero who was Jon Stewart’s favorite Republican interviews.

The choice in 2004? John Kerry was a progressive by most criteria, but he was also closer to the center than Howard Dean, who was the early favorite until he crashed and burned one night by cheering too loudly.

Four years earlier we went with Al Gore. Today, Mr. Climate Change sometimes defines progressive, but in 2000 it was a different story. The truth is Gore’s only serious primary opponent, Bill Bradley, easily out-flanked him on the progressive side of the spectrum by embracing bolder positions on gun control, health care, and campaign finance reform. Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college.

Then there’s 1992. The winner, Hillary’s husband, is practically the epitome of centrism, what with his adoption of work-for-welfare and tough-on-crime policies (both of which turned out to be bad ideas). To clinch the nomination, The Arkansas governor had to defeat California’s Jerry Brown and Massachusetts’ Paul Tsongas, both of whom were far more progressive than Clinton was back then. This might seem to undermine my thesis, but only if you ignore Independent Ross Perot. By splitting the Republican vote, Perot handed the presidency to Clinton, who won with only 43% of the popular vote. Perot wasn’t as critical in 1996, but he and Ralph Nader did deny Clinton another majority of the popular vote.

Continuing our trip back through time, we come to 1988, the lessons from which are less clear. Even still, I think it’s safe to say that if Gary Hart hadn’t been caught fooling around, there’s every reason to believe he would have handily beat Michael Dukakis. And Hart was the more progressive of the two.

That primary was a virtual rerun of 1984’s; just substitute Walter Mondale for Michael Dukakis. Hart, although almost unknown at the beginning of the race, managed to take New Hampshire and become a genuine threat to Mondale’s establishment candidacy for a few weeks. In the end, though the Dems went for the safer choice.

The fact that there was even a serious primary challenge in 1980 suggests we should be careful about using it to test any historical theory, but again, it fits the pattern. Jimmy Carter is remembered by disinterested historians as a profoundly decent president who can be credited with an enormously consequential arms-reduction treaty with the USSR. But his opponent, Ted Kennedy, was the bolder, more ambitious choice.

Carter won the nomination in 1976 by beating Gov. Moonbeam Jerry Brown, who never managed to mount an effective campaign. More important that Democratic politics, though, was the Republican Party’s failure to recover from Watergate, and Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon practically guaranteed a Democratic victory. The GOP was in no shape to contest the election.

The rules for previous primary races mean that comparisons with modern trends are problematic and I will concede the 1972 race doesn’t support my thesis as well as the later examples. Maybe it should be dismissed as an outlier. Still, it’s worth examining. The eventual nominee, George McGovern, and his main challenger, Hubert Humphrey, both enjoyed a fair bit of support from the establishment. McGovern was the anti-war candidate, but no honest appraisal would say he wasn’t a moderate in most respects. The only other serious competitor, the infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace, was sidelined by almost-successful assassination attempt. None of the three would even have had a shot had the establishment’s real favorite, Ed Muskie, not been forced out early in the race by a Nixon-orchestrated dirty-tricks campaign. A case can be made that neither McGovern nor Humphrey actually managed to convince the party to back them despite their moderate policies — each received only 25% of the primary vote and the outcome was decided in one of those smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide. 

What can you say about 1968? It was an even bigger mess, with an accomplished incumbent waiting until the end of March to announce he wouldn’t seek another term. Then the most popular and progressive candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, was denied the chance to lead the Democrats (or anything else) by Sirhan Sirhan. Did I mention the riots in Chicago? Again, it might be more responsible to leave this one as just too bizarre, but it doesn’t offer any evidence that undermines the thesis. In the end, Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were the big contenders, and the former won easily, with an endorsement of the most establishment of figure of all, LBJ. 

So let’s summarize the past half-century of primary choices and presidential election outcomes. Democratic victories are in bold. If you like, ignore the oldest two entries as historical oddities. It weakens the argument a tad, but doesn’t change the conclusions.

  • 1968: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 1972: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 1976: Moderate candidate, Democrats win over a GOP in disarray
  • 1980: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 1984: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 1988: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 1992: Moderate candidate, Democrats win over a divided GOP
  • 1996: Moderate candidate, Democrats win over a divided GOP
  • 2000: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 2004: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP
  • 2008: Progressive candidate, Democrats win over a united GOP
  • 2012: Progressive candidate, Democrats win over a united GOP
  • 2016: Moderate candidate, Democrats lose to a united GOP

From this we can take away three lessons. 

  1. Democrats can win with a moderate or progressive candidate, but 
  2. A moderate will lose unless the GOP hasn’t got its act together, and
  3. The only time we’ve ever won over a united GOP is the time we chose the more progressive candidate.

Of course, there’s no way to know what would have happened if we had picked more progressive candidates. It is tempting to conclude that moderates don’t generate enough enthusiasm, and this might be true, but it’s just speculation. Maybe we would have won more elections with candidates that fired up the Democratic basis. Maybe the margin of defeat would have been even greater. Maybe nothing would be different. If you like alternative histories, you’re better off watching “The Man in the High Castle.” 

What this analysis does do — rather conclusively — is put to rest the notion that a moderate candidate is the key to electoral success at the presidential level.

I’m sure you can figure out where I’m headed. At the moment, it looks like the GOP will be united behind Trump. Fortunately, just about every serious Democratic candidate this time around is decidedly progressive, and the difference between the most moderate and the most progressive among them is pretty slim, probably as slim as they ever have been. Maybe the need to get rid of the embarrassment that now occupies the White House renders all other concerns moot, in which case all this historical analysis will teach us nothing. But I wouldn’t be so sure.

One more thing: If we should get lucky, and Trump self-destructs before the 2020 election (a not entirely improbable scenario), does it mean we can afford to settle for moderation? I wouldn’t advise it. The problems facing the country and the world require radical, ambitious change, the kind that rarely comes from centrist, moderate leaders. Yes, I am talking about the climate crisis. 

Getting rid of Trump is critical, but do we really want to end up like Robert Redford, asking “What do we do now?” 


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