Moderation as a Political Strategy: What Are the Lessons from History?
This is the second panel from “Beyond Left and Right: Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism,” A Niskanen Center conference held on February 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Moderator: Will Wilkinson
Panelists: Elaine Kamarck, Damon Linker, Yascha Mounk
Will Wilkinson: Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention please. If you could have your seats, we’d like to start the next session, we’re running a couple of minutes behind. I’m a man of natural authority who is never ignored. [laughter] I’m glad you’re all so stimulated that you can’t stop talking, but we want to start our next session on what are the lessons of history. I have a distinguished panel up here, who I will introduce in a moment. My name is Will Wilkinson, I’m Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center. And we want to talk a little bit about what we can learn about the nature of moderation, and the perils of attempting to implement moderation in history.
Will Wilkinson: We’re at a critical moment in our history now. Public trust in democracy, trust in public institutions in general, as has been pointed out, is in the pits. Today’s Republican Party is led by a populist demagogue who treats the residents of our multicultural cities, which is about half of our population, either as invaders or as traitors against the real American people. And he treats his political opposition as almost inherently illegitimate. In the Democratic Party, we’re seeing socialism again on the rise as an intellectual and moral force. And in this climate of polarizing political sentiment, it has become nearly impossible to get anything done, which makes us dangerously unable to solve problems, to address and contain crises. So it’s important to know how we got here and what we can do about it.
Will Wilkinson: So what does history tell us? Is moderation a route to a solution, or historically does the attempt to implement moderation lead to its own brand of troubles? That’s what I want us to talk about today. I’ll briefly introduce our panelists. Here at the end we have Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. She’s most recently the author of Primary Politics. She was a founding member of the New Democrats and served in the Clinton White House. Here we have Yascha Mounk, who’s an associate professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins and is the author of, most recently, The People vs. Democracy. And here next to me we have Damon Linker, who’s a senior correspondent at The Weekand the author, most recently, of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege.
Will Wilkinson: So the first question I’d like to present to the panel… And I think what I’m going to do is to ask each of you a question in turn to get started, and then we’ll kind of open it up. So my first question is… This conference is devoted to reviving moderation. But I think a lot of people see moderates as the ones who got us in the bind that we’re in. They see moderate people who screwed up so royally that they let the Visigoths take over. If I were to pick two historical events that I think brought the sorry state of our politics into being, I’d pick the invasion of Iraq and the financial crisis. Both of those things were arguably due to the views of people who could plausibly be described as moderates, which raises a host of troubling questions. So I wonder how much truth is in that, and I’m going to start with you, Yascha. In your book you make a distinction between a liberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism. A two-party democratic competition has a kind of natural centripetal or polarizing tendency. In the context of polarized democratic passions, the impulse to moderation sometimes takes the form of technocratic or elite administration that kind of goes over the head of passionately polarized people. So I was wondering if you could tell us something about what you see is the history of what you call undemocratic liberalism, and the role you see it playing in the sputtering reputation of democracy.
Yascha Mounk: That’s a great question. I think… Is the microphone on? Yes, all right. When you think about moderation and centrism, there’s a squishiness in that concept which makes it not very helpful sometimes as a way forward. The same squishiness can also mean that you can blame it for everything that went on before. So I think part of the question we have all to ask is: What kind of moderation and what kind of centrism? Now, there’s a kind of moderation or centrism which I think is obviously wrong, which is a split-the-difference approach. I think that never made much sense, because in politics at all times there are many ideas which everybody agrees about which are foolish, and many ideas which are important that nobody is really thinking about. Splitting the difference between those is never a particularly good guide. That’s perhaps especially the case in a moment in which… I don’t know how you start to split the difference between Donald Trump and anybody else, but that certainly is not the right approach. Now, I think there is a certain way in which moderation and centrism can be action-guided, and that goes to values which perhaps have always existed. But trying to think about new ways to actually realize them… I think two of the core ambitions of our political system are entailed in the name we sometimes give it, which is “liberal democracy.” It is… This basically sounds horrible, right? Let me switch this off and I’ll just shout. Is this better?
Will Wilkinson: No, we’re livestreaming.
Yascha Mounk: Well, okay, livestreaming, but nobody can hear it in this room. Apologies for that. So look, the core of our political system is the idea of liberal democracy, which means that we want to have freedom as individuals, to be able to decide on our own what to say or not to say, how to worship or not to worship, and so on. And we want to have a democratic element, that collectively we actually rule ourselves. I think we need to realize that our societies are better at putting those ideas into practice than just about any other society in the history of the world. And our society is also incredibly far away from fully realizing either of those ideals. And for me, moderation or centrism means that we don’t think we have to throw out the values that we’ve had for a long time because we’ve never lived up to them; we need to take those values as an inspiration to fight for their realization much more fully.
Yascha Mounk: But we also need to understand that doing that will entail a lot of radical change, a lot of fixing things that people are rightly very angry about. And we can have a whole conversation about what those things are. I do think that undemocratic liberalism is an important element of this. I think that one way of understanding what’s going on at the moment is that a lot of citizens have been saying, “Nobody’s listening to me anyways, what I say doesn’t matter.” And you think about the ways in which our legislature has become less responsive to ordinary people for all kinds of reasons, including the huge role of money in politics, the revolving door between lobbyists and legislatures, the way in which our political class has just distanced itself from ordinary Americans — all kinds of complicated sociological phenomena. And then the rise of all of these independent institutions, from supreme courts to independent agencies, to things in Europe like the European Commission, to trade treaties and so on.
Yascha Mounk: A lot of decisions havebeen taken out of the hands of ordinary people. Now, the populist promise is to say, “All of that is a sham. Let’s abolish all of it. You just have to give all that power to me. I am the people, so that entails giving power back to the people, supposedly. And I’m going to fix everything.” And that’s both a wrong analysis of the causes of the rise of these institutions, which do actually often confront real problems, and a false promise, because all you’re doing then is to empower some authoritarian dictator. But we need to recognize the existence of this technocratic dilemma: that these institutions do important work, that we have to think about how to solve the things that they’re dealing with, but also that we have taken too many decisions out of democratic contestation. And just complacently saying, “These technocrats are doing good work, and we so we shouldn’t be worried about them” is a mistake. This technocratic dilemma, I think, is really underestimated as one of the things that a radical moderate politics — if that’s not too much of an oxymoron — has to try and confront.
Will Wilkinson: Thank you, that’s excellent. I’ve got a question for you, Elaine. Here at Niskanen, we’ve been engaged in a project to encourage the Republican Party to be a little bit more moderate. Now, the best recent historical parallel of that attempt to bring moderation to a major party is the New Democrats, of which you are a founding member. That was the movement that brought us Bill Clinton and Al Gore. I’d like to hear from you what lessons you think you learned about the difficulties of pulling a big political coalition toward the center and towards moderation, and what mistakes you think that the New Democrats made that we could learn from today.
Elaine Kamarck: Thank you very much, and thank you for having this conference. I think you have collected everybody in Washington who cares about the center, and we’re right here, and everybody else really doesn’t. What makes a political party move is very simple: it’s a defeat. Right? You just get beat too many times in a row, and guess what? Finally you say, “Ah, we’ve got to do something different.” And that was certainly the case between 1988 and 1992 when Al From, myself, Bill Galston (who was here for a bit), and Rob Shapiro put together the New Democratic movement and the Democratic Leadership Council. Part of what we analyzed was simply that Democrats were fundamentally out of step with mainstream America, and until they got back in step they weren’t going to win any more presidential elections. Our message to the left of the Democratic Party was, “Listen to us, because guess what? If you keep losing the way you’re losing, you’re going to lose the whole kit and caboodle including the social safety net, welfare, Medicaid, all the things that we as Democrats really created and cared about.” We had a kind of something hanging over their heads, which was that things could get worse. And in fact, they did in 1994 when we lost the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years.
Elaine Kamarck: That had a dramatic effect inside the White House, because even though Bill Clinton had run as a New Democrat, when he got into office he got seduced by the House Democrats into doing things that were in fact not the things that he had promised to do when he ran. Reinventing government — very unpopular among Democrats because it usually meant cutting some government. Welfare reform — very unpopular among Democrats. And then health care reform, which is always popular among Democrats, but he didn’t have a lot of specifics on it. So when he got into office, he kind of lost his way. 1994 was a wake-up call. Unlike this president — and this is kind of surprising — Bill Clinton sat down and said, “Oh gee, what did I do? What happened here?” He adjusted his priorities and managed to become the first Democratic president to win two terms in a row since FDR. So he had a good trajectory going, a little bit of a difficult start there. And then fate intervened. I once wrote a book called How Change Happens — Or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy, and I devote a whole chapter to “deus ex machina” — if you were put on bumper sticker it would be, “shit happens.” [laughter] In this instance, it was affair with an intern.
Elaine Kamarck: And so while Clinton had carefully prepared, in his first term, by balancing budgets… We forget there were two balanced budgets in a row — something incredible. That gave the wiggle room to actually do the big, big, big item in American politics: entitlement reform. And he was poised to do entitlement reform in the second term. It was a major undertaking, but everything was in place to do it. But in fact he spent his second term fighting a scandal that he should have never gotten into, and an impeachment that the Republicans should’ve never gotten into. And that was pretty much the end of the center. That really was the end of the center.
Elaine Kamarck: Now let me just say something about Obama for a minute — and Bush too. What we saw in the first two presidents of the twenty-first century were people who had very good intentions but actually were not quite ready for prime time. And I don’t see this as a failure of centrism. I thought your question was very good, Will, but I don’t see it as failure of centrism. It was actually a failure of capacity on the part of two presidents. Bush was easily led around — at least in his first term, if not in his second term — by Cheney and by the neocons. That led him into a disastrous mess which we are still dealing with in the Middle East. Obama, in his first two years, inherited this massive recession, and he listened to Wall Street, he listened to his gut. He didn’t go tough enough, he didn’t go far enough. There were fights inside the White House between Larry Sommers and Christina Romer over the size of the stimulus. Obama decided to do health care prior to doing something on jobs. So in other words, he was an uncertain president. Again, he got better as he went along. But what we had in both those instances of these two presidents were fairly unexperienced men, men who came into massive crises that they were frankly unprepared for. And I think that’s much more a function of the kinds of modern presidents we get than it is of a failure of centrism.
Will Wilkinson: Thank you. There’s a number of themes in there that I’d like to come back to, but first I’d like to ask a question of you, Damon, to get some more themes on the table. You’re a former editor of the journal First Thingsand you wrote a book on the rise of the religious right. I wonder if you could share some insight with us on the role you see the religious right playing in the current immoderation of conservative politics, and perhaps some thoughts about what the prospects are for bringing an ethos of moderation back to religious conservatives?
Damon Linker: That’s a difficult, complicated question. First, I think you have to understand that the religious right from the era that I was writing about when I wrote Theoconswas kind of the Bush–era religious right, and it had ties all the way back to Jerry Falwell and the idea of there being a kind of semi-hidden “moral majority” out there in the country that outnumbered the corrupt, secular liberals in Washington, New York, Hollywood, and so forth. And the hope was that through democratic elections, that majority would rise to power and take control, and would kind of take the country back from the universities, the media, the courts, and various elite institutions. There was a lot of hope about that under Bush. It didn’t work out entirely great as far as they were concerned, but they still hoped to fight another day.
Damon Linker: Then McCain ended up being the Republican nominee, and McCain had a very difficult relationship with the religious right. He had said very critical things about members of the religious right, so that didn’t make them very happy. That’s one of the reasons McCain chose Palin as his running mate, as a kind of sop to the religious right. And then what we ended up with was also Romney, who wasn’t particularly exciting for that crowd either. And then gay marriage came along with the Supreme Court coming out and declaring gay marriage a constitutional right. There was a lot of demoralization on the religious right and a sense that, “Maybe we’re just a moral minority. We’re outnumbered. The culture is moving away from us, we have no hope, we’re kind of lost.”
Damon Linker: There was a lot of despair until, ironically — the ultimate irony of history — Donald Trump comes on the scene — as the ultimate anti-religious right figure, you would think. But precisely because the religious right felt so beleaguered at that point, so put upon, so much backed into a corner, that they liked the idea that Trump promised to act essentially as a strongman protector. It’s like going into a bad neighborhood and finding the mobster you can pay off who will keep you safe. The idea was, “Maybe if he comes in, he might be a corrupt person and not a very admirable role model. But maybe those are things we can’t afford to care about very much anymore. He promises that if we vote for him, he will enact our agenda.” And because of the fluke of how the election turned out, he actually won and has since governed exactly in that way. You have Donald Trump, who personally is the furthest thing you would think of as an ideal for the religious right, who is appointing a slew of judges who make the religious right very happy, who is nonstop in defending a kind of pro-life agenda. And we could potentially end up with this very strange scenario where the hedonist Donald Trump actually ends up helping to orchestrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade. That’s kind of Part One.
Damon Linker: Part Two is the fact of the culture war. I’m always willing to admit my errors. A lot of people, myself included, have assumed over the years that the religious right is dead, either because of gay marriage showing that their agenda can’t get anywhere, or because of the demographic issue that I mentioned. But now Trump has turned all kinds of other issues into new fronts in the culture war. So guns are now debated not so much as a public policy issue but as a kind of signal, a symbolic stance showing whether or not you’re on one side or the other of a cultural battle. Are you with Americans who own guns or with those who want to take them away? And, of course, immigration, which was not a major issue in culture war battles at all at the time that I was working among some of those people. Now suddenly we have the “nation question,” or the national question, folded into conversations about culture war with the religious right. And so now you have the culture war reaching a new fevered pitch, and a whole host of other issues that, until recently, you would never have associated with that. So it’s a complicated issue.
Will Wilkinson: Thank you, that’s great. That brings up a couple other issues that I’d like to talk a little bit about, which is the relationship between moderation and liberal pluralism and toleration on one hand, and then the relationship between extremism and polarization with very strong views of besieged identity on the other. I wonder if any of you have thoughts about identity politics and its relationship to moderation?
Elaine Kamarck: I’ll start and say that I think the Democratic Party has had a real problem for a long time with its focus on identity politics, and that it’s almost caused the backlash which we see in a much more radical Republican Party, so if you’re a white Caucasian male in the middle of the country, you look at the Democrats and you say, “Oh, that’s not me.” I think that the Democrats have had a hard time promoting their social justice agenda — and promoting tolerance and all the things that Democrats care about — without at the same time being inclusive. They’ve had a hard time doing that. And I think that that has created a sense among a lot of people that, “Oh, well, they’re just not for us. They’re not for us.” And I think that’s very destructive. I’m hoping that there will be a new generation of Democrats who can figure out how to promote that agenda without creating the us/them dynamic which I think has contributed to the sort of radicalism that we see in the Republican Party.
Yascha Mounk: I think that, like a lot of terms, identity politics is not particularly helpful because it just can mean so many different things in the mouth of every person. There is a defensive identity politics, which I don’t find convincing, which basically says, “Well, whites have always had identity politics, so let’s have everybody have identity politics.” And my answer to that is that it’s true that you can read a lot of American history as white identity politics, and a lot of American history was deeply unjust and horrible. But the idea that just multiplying the things that were wrong with white identity politics, and having other groups embrace it as well, is somehow going to lead to a just and tolerant society seems very unlikely to me. Now, I think there’s also a way of brushing off identity politics, which essentially says, “Look, we should be so concerned for white moderates in the center of the country, but we’re not loudly standing up for minorities at a time when we really are under attack from Donald Trump.” So I think it’s helpful to try not to think about this as a one-dimensional scale from left to right, or from deep identity politics to no identity politics at all. The question is: What kind of America do we want? And how do we argue for it? And there, I think, the idea of moderation or the center in the value sense — what the American creed has always attempted to be, even if we’ve never quite lived up to it — should be action-guiding.
Yascha Mounk: The way forward for the center-left, which I see myself on, is to be absolutely clear in our defense of the interest of all people to have the same opportunities and to be treated equally and equitably, and to be utterly unhesitating in pointing out when our country doesn’t live up to that. And in the age of Donald Trump, it’s very obvious that we’re not living up to that. I also think it’s important to talk about this in terms of American ideals, in terms of a better part of American history and American tradition, and in terms of the rights of people qua Americans. And there I do sometimes worry that parts of the Democratic Party get this wrong. They’re not saying, when Donald Trump says outrageous things about Latinos, when he is using horrible dog whistles against African-Americans, “We are going to stand up against that because these are our fellow Americans.” Instead they say, “We’re the party of Latinos and African-Americans, and if we add them up we’ll have a majority and everything will be great.” It’s not about how much we talk about these issues, it’s not about how loudly do we fight for a fair, multiethnic future; it’s about how, in the name of which values, do we do that? And do we defend people who are under attack: as fellow Americans or as members of some group that is part of a coalition?
Damon Linker: It’s a very good question and I’m glad I got to go third after that question. I do think there are several layers to the problem. I tend to agree with both Elaine and Yascha that identity politics as usually described within the Democratic Party can go too far and can be a problem. But from my point of view, we need to go back to a deeper level of why that is happening in the recent past and in the present. And that has to do with the fact that the country as a whole has become polarized, and we no longer agree about what unites us. And when that happens, when we don’t have consensus on that question, the groups that comprise the whole begin to identify themselves with their part rather than the whole. Once that is happening, what you end up with is the fact that the Democratic Party has for a very long time been a coalition of interest groups. There is nothing shameful about that; it’s a reality. But the problem is that if you don’t have any overarching vision of what those groups belong in — a larger whole — what you end up with is the groups that you’re identifying with are those interest groups. And then you add in social media, which gives a megaphone to each group. And you end up with a party that is nothing more than the aggregate of interest groups and the activists that lead them. I think that’s sort of why we’ve ended up in this place.
Damon Linker: But what is the solution to that? The solution is, I think, to try to get Democratic politicians as much as possible to try and come up with some account of a larger whole in which those parts belong. That’s very, very difficult, precisely because we don’t agree. There’s a lot of disagreement among Americans about who we are and what is the national vision of the country. What does our history mean? Where do we go from here? What should the government be doing? Immigration, I’m sure, will keep coming up, but that’s a major fault line. You have 30-something percent of the country that really wants immigration essentially to stop, and then you have about two-thirds (maybe not quite that much) that actually is warmer to immigration than ever before. And that’s not a question where you can find an easy compromise and say, “Well, America is this, and it unifies these things.” It’s hard to see that. It’s like when abortion is talked about as either abortion on demand up to 40 weeks or banned in all cases. There’s no way to square those two positions. They contradict each other completely. That’s the problem, and I think that’s the underlying structural reason why identity politics is so much on the table.
Yascha Mounk: Now I’m going to stand up for compromise in the middle. I think there are actually reasonable middles in those things. By the way, Europeans have found a set of answers on abortion which are certainly between those extremes, and that has more or less pacified the politics around that in most of the continent. I think it’s possible on the other things you’re talking about as well. I think, by the way, that Barack Obama mostly did that in his story of what America is. Obama was never hesitant to speak about the darker sides of American history, but in talking about them, he always emphasized that the struggle against those injustices and the gradual (if incomplete) overcoming of them is just as much part of the American story. And he was very astute in showing that that was always a part of the American struggle as well: that of course African-Americans were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, but they had allies in every religion, every community in the United States.
Yascha Mounk: Cory Booker has very astutely, I think, used that in his announcement video for the presidency a few months ago. He was talking about the moving story of his parents desegregating a neighborhood, being the first black family to move into an all-white neighborhood — as the video says, with the help of some white lawyers who had been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. This has always been an all-American story, and I think that has to be our story. Kamala Harris rightly, at Netroots a year ago, said, “This is our flag. Don’t let them take it away from us. We need to reclaim the symbols of America, not by expunging the dark parts of our history but by saying that our progress against those injustices is part of what makes our national symbols and is part of what makes our national identity.” I think there is a center in which the large majority of Americans see themselves. There are some people on the far left fringe who just want to associate America with injustice, and we’re not going to accept that. I don’t think they’re particularly politically relevant. There are certainly a lot of people on the far right who want to say that any negative word about America, anything that doesn’t just make it a story of white triumph, is unacceptable. I think we can win against them without a problem. So that’s the story.
Yascha Mounk: There’s a second question that we don’t ask enough, which is: What’s our vision of the future? What, actually, do we want the future of a multiethnic society to be? And I’m thinking about that at the moment. I’m sort of trying to write a book on it. The key thing to me here is that we should both be more bold in predicting and more bold in advocating for a future in which we actually have lots of bridges between us. I think sometimes Democrats can be tempted to talk about the inevitable demographic majority: “We’re going to have all these different minority groups, they’re always going to build this stable coalition, they’ll all be quite separate from each other, and we’ll somehow keep them together and we’ll win.” I doubt empirically that that is going to be the case. If you fast-forwarded Irish-American voting behavior in 1920 and assumed that by 1970 Irish-Americans would all still vote Democrat, you would have been wrong. I think that’s going to be true of Asian-Americans, Latinos and so on going forward. But I also think it’s normatively and morally wrong. There are huge intermarriage rates among many minorities: Asian-Americans, Jews, Latinos, and a growing number of African-Americans. The reality that we have is far more mixed, it’s far more interactive, it has far more cultural appropriation of the good kind than people on Twitter seem to believe. And so I think when we’re both predicting against the fears of the far right and advocating against the most extreme outliers and outriders of a separate-lanes multiculturalism, the fact that America is going to mix and Americans are going to have more in common with each other as time progresses — that can be a second leg for this narrative to stand on.
Will Wilkinson: I like your point about the importance of knowing what you’re actually about and trying to just actually reclaim the values that are constitutive of American identity and ideals. One of those is equality, and part of our history is that we’ve never done it very well and there’s a lot of struggle to achieve it. I’m glad you brought up Martin Luther King, because I think he raises a nice example of the difficulty of distinguishing between moderation in a broader moral sense and moderation in a narrower political sense. If you ask me, moderation, like Aristotle said, is a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. And it’s hard to know where that is in any particular issue. But that’s not what the political dimension is like, right? The whole political dimension can be on one side of the mean, so one party can be more excessive and the other party can be less excessive, and if you’re just splitting the difference you’re going to be in second place in terms of committing the vice of excess. In that case, finding the actual mean, which is the moderate position — so for MLK, that was actually giving people substantive legal equality — that seems radical, right? MLK wasn’t considered a moderate. He was considered a radical agitator. But now he’s gotten a reputation for a certain kind of moderation, and I think it’s because he was appealing to this basic value.
Yascha Mounk: So, two very brief points. First of all, moderation is your guys’ term, not mine. It’s not a term with which I’d associate myself. But more seriously, moderation, to be useful, has to be thought of in relation to a set of founding values and philosophical ideals. And to me, those ideals are the ideals of liberal democracy, and I think a large majority of American citizens agree with that. Those have, imperfectly realized, always been the ideals of this country. Now, at the time of Martin Luther King, we claimed that those were our ideals, and the reality was wildly out of whack with it — and so in one sense you’re right, MLK was a radical because he was saying the status quo as it existed was deeply unjust. But in that broader sense, he was always explicitly making arguments about standing right at the center of the American moral tradition, saying, “I am making reference to the ideals of the Constitution, and all of you are failing to live up to it.” I think that’s the north star of moderation, which will sometimes require us to split the difference and sometimes require us to say that everything that’s happening at the moment is entirely unacceptable and we have to reinvent something.
Elaine Kamarck: Can I get in here? Moderation has a bad connotation. It’s not very sexy, it’s not very inspiring. But I think you have to look at the historical context of the country you’re talking about. The other way to look at moderation is incrementalism. Let’s take a radical idea, Medicare for All. What are we going to end up with when the dust settles on Medicare for All? We’re probably going to end up with 55-year-old buy-in to Medicare. That’s what we’re going to end up with — come on, everybody, we know that. Why? Because we have a multi-trillion dollar health care-insurance complex industry, and the transition cost in modern democracies — of moving from one system to another radically different system — always kill it. So that’s why, yes, the debate will sound radical, but the political reality in a functioning democracy — I don’t mean a country that’s never had a health care system or rule of law — is always going to end up being some form of incrementalism. And that’s not bad — that’s great! That means we are a stable society in which people can plan, invest money, et cetera. We have what so much of the rest of the world does not have, which is stability. I would just caution us not to… Yes, of course, we want to be grounded in our values, but we have enormous existing status quo systems in all the established democracies of the world. When those systems change, they’re going to change incrementally — unless, for some other reason, they all collapse, which frankly doesn’t look likely. What we’re looking at is radical ideas here. I beg to differ, they’re not so radical.
Yascha Mounk: But don’t you think we need to distinguish between what guiding values should be and what the reality may turn out to be? In the sense in which you’re talking about it, I agree that the most likely outcome of Democratic presidential candidates running on Medicare for All is that we get some kind of 55-year-old Medicare buy-in, which is incremental progress. And perhaps we should be happy about it, I don’t know. But if we then only aim for that, we end up with even less. It doesn’t seem to me that moderation in the sense you’re talking about… It may be a constraint on reality, it may be something where if we achieve that we can still go home and say, “We made the world a little bit better.” But that’s not a grand ideal we should be aiming for. There are so many different models of Medicare for All, I don’t know which one is which and whether I’m for it or not; it depends on the particular set-up. But even the most radical suggestion of Medicare for All is not radical in the scheme of the values of liberal democracy. Because you know what? Look around the world, and practically every other democracy already has it. It may not be a good idea substantively; certainly it may not be a good idea electorally. But to say that that’s radical and that we as moderates (insofar as we are) should reject it on those grounds? That seems to me to end up with much too much of a “Let’s split the difference and aim for a little bit of incremental change that’s sort of reasonable and fine, and let’s not aim too high.” That’s very uninspiring to me.
Elaine Kamarck: I would counter that just by saying that when politicians — year after year, election after election — promise the moon and deliver much less, it has a corrosive effect on democracy. We should not be shy about saying we can do A, B, and C to our health care systems.
Yascha Mounk: But you can do that while still aiming high. You can say, “I’m going to fight for Medicare for All, and you know what? I’m going to level with you, we may not get there. We may only get to buy-in at 55. But I’m going to fight for that.”
Elaine Kamarck: But that’s incrementalism. That, in the end, is incrementalism. In other words, it’s reality. I really think that we have gotten into a situation where… Remember Martin Gurri’s comments on the earlier panel? Social media has increased the attraction and the legitimacy of a set of ideas that, in fact, are simply not real. So to the extent that our political rhetoric diverges from the political possibilities, you really create an increasing distrust in the political class and a feeling that gives rise to forms of populism — a feeling that somehow the political class are corrupt, that there’s something wrong with them. There’s nothing wrong with them! I will tell you, having studied corruption around the world, that we have a marvelously uncorrupt governmental system. But in fact, the feeling of corruption is exacerbated when politicians go out there and say things that simply are not going to happen — and if they did happen, people would be up in arms. I’m going to give you a simple example: pass Medicare for All and prohibit all private health insurance. You want to see a revolution? That would be one, okay. That would be one.
Will Wilkinson: It reminds me of one of my favorite phrases as a half-Canadian: “What do we want? Incremental change! When do we want it? In due course!” [laughter] That’s sexy. That is sexy.
Damon Linker: Can I say something?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, please, Damon.
Damon Linker: I guess I would like to pivot the conversation, or at least attempt to a little bit, in that I feel like the way we conceive of what moderation is (and its political corollary of centrism) is kind of stuck. I mean that it’s stuck in our political culture to some extent, and in this room, definitely. We’re dealing with the exhaustion of where lines were drawn about three or four decades ago. You had Thatcher coming to power in England and then you had Reagan coming to power here, and as Elaine said at the beginning, Democrats lost in 1984, then they lost in 1988, and there was a lot of frustration that “We need to reform ourselves.” And due to Elaine’s very admirable efforts, the Democratic Party did. It reformed itself through the Democratic Leadership Council and other groups that were formed to try to move the party to the center. The center then was what? It was basically Reagan but light. You had an economic policy that was a slightly softer version of Reaganism: slightly higher taxes, slightly more regulation, but emphasis on free markets and cost-benefit analysis in looking at public policy. On social issues, you had pretty much liberalism, but liberalism a little moderated. You had “safe, legal, and rare” on abortion rather than abortion on demand in all cases. In foreign policy, you also had Reaganism but with more emphasis on multilateralism, going through the UN — but basically a hawkish foreign policy. And all of those issues were moderate. They were moderations of where the Democratic Party was, say, from McGovern through the 1980s presidential elections where the Democrats lost.
Damon Linker: I think what we need to keep in mind is that maybe the lines have started to shift. And Trump’s shocking victory is a sign that those lines are shifting and have not settled yet, and we’re still trying to figure out where a new moderation should be. And yet, what I keep hearing is people from the center-right, people who were deposed by Trump winning. And then on the center-left, you hear a kind of repeat of vaguely-stated Clintonism. I would actually say that I think Obama was pretty much in that vein, pretty much where he came down on things.
Damon Linker: What I would like to propose is to take account of what was found in the voter study groups from June 2017 — this scatterplot with two dimensions where you had economic left-right and social identity questions left-right. And what you found with voters in the 2016 elections was that you had the voters scattered in all three quadrants except for the quadrant that contains what you might call soft libertarianism, which is sort of where we’ve been placing the center. Hard Reaganism would be Cato Institute libertarianism, but he even himself wasn’t there, but kind of in that direction, and then Clintonism moderated that a little bit but not that much. And then similarly on social issues, that would be total liberalism on social issues, but moderated a little bit. That quadrant is relatively empty of voters. If you want a new center, it is in the opposite quadrant on that chart.
Damon Linker: And what is that? Soft Trumpism, basically. You could also call it soft communitarianism if you want to be more polemical, or soft authoritarianism. And there are a lot of voters in that quadrant. What you see when you look at the chart is that Democrats are very much clustered in the liberal/liberal quadrant, but Republicans are actually spread almost evenly between the other quadrants — which explains how Trump could win with what he was saying. So what would that be? Industrial policy, trade restrictionism — not necessarily hard tariffs on everything, but open to a message of that in order to protect American jobs. Protections for middle-class government benefits — remember Trump ran saying he was going to protect Social Security and Medicare? Although he hasn’t really done anything about that at all, and in fact ended up going with the Paul Ryan agenda when he got into power. Higher tax rates for the wealthy — totally open to that. What, like 60-70 percent would favor sharply higher taxes on high-income Americans. Suspicious of open immigration — not “Build the Wall” necessarily, but concerned about the mix of low-skill/high-skill, and saying that we can’t just default to allowing whatever happens to happen, and let whoever comes get in.
Will Wilkinson: Would it be bad to aim at that?
Damon Linker: I actually don’t think it would be bad. I think that that’s where the center really is in this country. I wish that someone in the parties — a more responsible Republican than Trump or a good smart Democrat — would be willing to try to occupy some of that territory.
Will Wilkinson: So it’s kind of like a soft nationalism?
Yascha Mounk: You’re owed my deepest respect and most acute love, Damon, but you just presented a relatively reasonably set of policy ideas in the least attractive possible clothes. I know that you were being polemical in saying that’s soft authoritarianism, but I think as long as you’re thinking in these one-dimensional scales, you’re going to go wrong. What Lee Drutman and company’s very nice scatterplot does — and I encourage you all to go look it up — is to disaggregate the one-dimensional scale and say let’s have two scales, one for the economy and one for social issues. That’s still simplistic, because I think where people are is off of those scales on each of those. I started talking about that on the social stuff; you can call it any policy you want, I think it goes beyond that, it’s not a very helpful term. People aren’t at the arithmetic midway point between, “Let’s just be an association of communities in which we lead completely separate lives and have nothing to do with each other, and unless you’re Mexican you’re not allowed to cook Mexican food”… Nobody in this country is there, and people are also not at the other extreme of basically being more or less explicit racists. Trying to find the middle between those two things is only going to confuse you. Instead, we’re in a reasonable place where they’re saying, “We want to make reference back to American ideals. We want people to be valued as individuals. And, at the moment, there are some individuals in our country who, because of their belonging to a particular group, are discriminated against, and we want to fight against that with all of our might.”
Yascha Mounk: It’s the same on the economic thing. If you say Americans want some middle between Paul Ryan and AOC, you end up with complete incoherence. What does make sense is to say that Americans want capitalism — you’re not going to convince them to vote for socialism, you’re not going to convince them to abolish capitalism — but they also think that the capitalist system at the moment isn’t working very well at all, that it is screwing them over, that the rich don’t have to play by the rules. On economic issues, it’s to say, “Look, we like free enterprise, we like opportunity. But we also think that at the moment, most people have to play by the rules and the rich don’t. And we have to stand up on behalf of people against what basically is a form of crony capitalism.” I think, in substance, that’s not so different from what you were saying. But I think as long as you’re framing it as “The extremes are here, and let’s go in the middle between them,” it’s going to be muddled. This is actually a coherent set of beliefs which is rooted in long-term American ideals, and which can point the way forward to some radical reforms that are moderate in values.
Damon Linker: Just briefly, in response to that, I think we’re saying potentially harmonious things. I listed a bunch of policies just to get them out there as what might comprise a new center, and what you’re saying is the absolute necessary analogue to them. People don’t, for the most part, vote because of policies; the political science literature on this is pretty robust. They vote for other things. Identity is part of it, identifying with some vision of the country and its future and whether they feel belong to that story. What you are articulating is one way of trying to tell a story about why those policies make sense and are just for a better America. All I’m saying is that the worst example would be a Howard Schultz — sorry anyone who’s friends with Howard; maybe he’s even here. There is a tendency of people to put a big centrist sticker on their chest and describe themselves as moderate and centrist. Well, what are you for? “I’m not Reagan but I’m sorta like Reagan on this, and I’m not like McGovern, I’m actually more like this kind of very more moderate version of that.” And it’s always said in relation to where we drew the lines post-Reagan’s election. And it might be that, actually, we need to reconceive of where people are and where they feel they belong in our country, and therefore the center isn’t there anymore. It’s not totally far out, but it’s different.
Elaine Kamarck: Maybe that’s because, to use an overused phrase, we’ve run through the neoliberal paradigm. Maybe it’s because we’re at the end of understanding one way of doing things, and we’re just groping towards a new way of doing things. I look at that in economics in terms of the rise of inequality. Okay, so what do we do about that? How do we not throw out the baby with the bathwater? I look at that in terms of climate change. Both cap-and-trade and the carbon tax have proved to be very unhelpful and unpopular, and we’re not going to get there. Okay, so what should we be thinking about? Maybe we should be thinking about adaptation, maybe we should be thinking about carbon capture. In other words, I agree with you: the whole paradigm that has existed really since Reagan and Clinton and through Obama doesn’t seem to offer us anything very meaningful anymore, and perhaps it’s time to turn the clock. Whoever can articulate that intellectually and then politically — I think they’re going to have a winner, and we’ll get out of this rut. We’re in a terrible rut right now.
Elaine Kamarck: I look at political change as a triangle. Down here in the bottom layer are academics, think tanks, people who are trying to think things through. Their ideas get picked up by the press, the good storytellers, who make them into stories. They get picked up by the politicians, who put them into speeches. And they finally become a bumper sticker. If you do not have all of those, if you only have the bumper sticker — it doesn’t happen. If you only have the academic papers — as many of us know, it doesn’t happen either. You need to have change that is not incremental, but that is really a big and a basic change. And I think that your scatterplot is showing a kind of rut that we’re in, and there’s probably something around the corner. I don’t know if I’ll be around for it, but I think that some people will.
Yascha Mounk: Just to pick up on that for one second… I mean, we didn’t really end up talking a lot about history on this panel, but I think you’re absolutely right about that. When you go back to Clinton, back to Tony Blair, those figures weren’t just, “Before me, some people were here and some people were there, and I, the genius, have figured out how to be here.” Right? If that was all that it took, then we’d have a figure like that at every election. They actually had a new analysis of what the divisions in society were, and a new analysis of how to act on that conception. You can have a 60-65 percent position that actually a lot of people are attracted to because it eschews the old terms. When the question on the panel is “How do we learn from history?” — it’s not by going back and running their model again and running their policy suggestions again, because they were developed in a different context in a different time. But it is to try and succeed in a similar undertaking today. And if Niskanen is going to succeed in something, I hope it’s helping to create and prepare the intellectual ground for that.
Will Wilkinson: Thank you. I would suggest that there isn’t a fact of the matter where the center is in terms of the opinions of voters, because they go all over the place so quickly. So if we’re talking about being open to protectionist trade policy or attitudes about immigration, those have gone all over the place just since Trump became president, which is part of the problem. Trying to triangulate where voters are doesn’t give you any guidance because voters are more guided by elites than elites really reflect popular sentiment. I’ll go back to the Iraq War, which is like — nobody wanted to do that. It’s not like there was some sort of pre-existing popular impulse to invade this country for any particular reason. But a bunch of elites decided that this was incredibly important, people were angry about 9/11, there was some connection made, and then that became the centrist position. That became, like, you were crazy if you were against it. Then it slipped again, where Donald Trump had to lie about always having been against it, because being for it was unpopular with Republican voters. Again, you have that kind of dynamic where you need some kind of principle that is tying you to a course of action, because if you’re just chasing the center, it’s just formless.
Yascha Mounk: But often you think that opinion randomly flip-flops when you don’t have an accurate analysis of what drives public opinion. So on a question like immigration, it looks like every public in Europe and North America has flip-flopped on this — because in every public you’ve had immigration-restrictionist candidates win, yet publics rebel against really cruel policies, whether it’s the separation of parents from their children at the border of the United States or the scandal of the Windrush generation in Britain. I think actually what’s going on is a deeper incoherence, which is that publics in virtually every country in the world — and America is perhaps the most pro-immigration at the moment, but even there it’s a plurality of people — want only legal immigration and less immigration. Now, they also don’t want any state cruelty in order to ensure that outcome — but unfortunately those two concurrent ideals just aren’t available. If you want to ensure that there’s no illegal immigration and that there’s quite restrictive legal immigration, then it will involve lots and lots of cruelty. And so the problem isn’t that publics are changing their minds all of the time; it’s that different parts of their temporally consistent (if on a deep level incoherent) preferences take precedence at different moments. Once you understand that, you can try and formulate a policy which minimalizes cruelty while still trying to give people a sense that they actually are in charge of who comes into the country. And then I think you can wait out those rough winds a little bit better. If it’s just a sense of, “Well, public opinion jumps back and forth, and let’s just wait for whatever happens” — I don’t think that’s very helpful.
Will Wilkinson: We have time for one or two questions before we wrap up. I think my conclusion from this so far is that we have not figured out what moderation is or what its lessons from history are, but we’ve started a good conversation. Are there some questions? I see a hand there, if somebody wants to bring that gentleman the mic.
Unidentified speaker: Hi, thank you all for coming. It seems that between this conversation, reading all of your writings, and seeing what Sherrod Brown is saying and what Marco Rubio is saying, one could imagine a new center on social insurance, immigration, the national question, and so on. It does seem harder, though, to create a new center on issues like abortion, guns, constitutional law, legal jurisprudence, and so on and so forth, let alone on foreign policy. How could we form a new consensus, or at least some kind of stalemate, if you will, on those older debates as opposed to new ones?
Damon Linker: I agree, it’s very difficult, and I’m a pessimist. The fact is that because of various structural things — the way elections are working in this country, social media being a big deal, negative partisanship… All of these things together create huge incentives — for whoever is the candidate nottrying to forge some kind of new consensus — to create a caricature of that new attempt, and to rally their own side in opposition to it by lying about it, and then to try to win on that basis. I don’t see how to stop that process. That’s the conundrum that we’re all in. That’s one reason why this isn’t just an American story but, as Yascha knows better than anyone else, this is happening in lots and lots of places. That means there must be causes that go well beyond this country and the pathologies of its political culture at the moment. Something is driving this kind of polarization of extremes. One of them, I think, is what Martin Gurri was saying about social media and, in general, the kind of flood of information — the way it gets manipulated for people and the incentive structure that it creates for politicians who want to win above all.
Will Wilkinson: On that question, I would say I’m a little more optimistic because I think issues on things like guns and abortion aren’t necessarily as intransigent as people think. I don’t think there’s broad recognition of the extent to which those views themselves are driven by partisan sentiment, and that partisan sentiment is driven by group identity and a drive to protect your group’s interest. Bearing down on abortion, bearing down on guns as symbols of commitment to a certain kind of white, Christian identity — that’s kind of the point of those things. They’re used functionally to keep a group of people together in a coherent block who share a bunch of really strong moral motivations that get them to the polls and help Republicans win. That block is really homogenous: relatively older, white, Christian, mostly rural people. If they can no longer win elections with that group of people, if they want to keep winning, it has to broaden, the coalition has to get bigger. They have to start getting inside the outer suburbs, bringing in more women, bringing in more nonwhite voters. That changes what the partisan identity is, and those issues soften as soon as people in your coalition don’t share the same identity that drives the commitment to those positions. I think we actually might be on the cusp of a lot of those things going away. But as Elaine was saying, what it takes is a devastating loss.
Elaine Kamarck: Right, exactly.
Will Wilkinson: We’ve got time for one more quick question, over here.
Richard Eidlin: Thanks, and thank you for all your comments. I’m Richard Eidlin with Business for America. I keep thinking it’s like Coke and Pepsi, right? So what makes us think that the Democratic and Republican parties can solve these problems? Because in many ways they represent a duopoly. I’d be curious to know the role of a third party or a fourth party. We’ve had those in this economy and this system before. It seems as though that’s maybe one path out of the current conundrum, where when we look at the word “moderation,” maybe neither party is really equipped to get us there.
Will Wilkinson: Political scientist?
Elaine Kamarck: Can I talk about that? Frances is looking at me because she knows what I’m going say. Can I tell you that political scientists will tell you one thing: third parties or fourth parties in American politics don’t succeed. They don’t succeed for the structural reason that we have a first-past-the-post system in the Electoral College and in Congress, so a minority party can’t ever get a proportion of the vote the way they can in a parliamentary, proportional system. There’s a real structural inhibitor against third or fourth parties. What third parties have done, however, is get eaten up by one of the big parties. We know now that the Ross Perot voters became Republicans. They became a piece of the Republican coalition. Third-party movements, to the extent that they get powerful, do one of two things. They either change one of the major parties — and that’s one of the ways how the major parties change, third parties become a faction within those parties — or they exist as spoilers in the election. Whether the third party is of the left or the right or the center, there’s a real danger — and that’s why a lot of people are very angry at Howard Schultz… There’s a real danger that in close contests a third-party candidate, an independent candidate, could in fact tip the balance in one direction or the other.
Elaine Kamarck: Third parties have never been the answer in American politics. And at least for the foreseeable future, I don’t think they will be the answer. That’s why I think a lot of people have realized that it’s actually primaries that matter, because primaries are where factions within each party play out the battle for the brand: Coke or Pepsi, right? The brand of each party is constantly shifting, the brand shifts mostly through the primary process and the struggle for power within that party. It doesn’t really shift because of third parties, unless you get a third party that’s getting into the double digits, which they usually don’t get.
Yascha Mounk: Just to run with that for one second… I like Coke and I tolerate Pepsi. The problem at the moment, though, is that we face a choice between Dr. Pepper and Irn-Bru. If we can get it back to Coke and Pepsi, that wouldn’t be too bad.
Will Wilkinson: Diet Dr. Pepper is superior. [laughter] Thank you for your attention and thank you for your questions, and let’s give our panelists a round of applause. [applause]