The Stubborn Rhetoric of Moderate Democrats

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory demonstrated the growing strength of leftists in the Democratic Party. Big ideas like socialism (however ill-defined) are no longer taboo and more specific policy goals like the abolition of ICE must be taken seriously.  The Democratic base is moving left, and this poses a problem for moderate Democrats who have traditionally defined the party’s identity. How should moderates relate to the rising left, and also vice versa?

Both factions have uncompromising positions. Moderate Democrats like Nancy Pelosi say that Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are valid only for NY14 and should otherwise be ignored. Hard leftists demand that all Democrats must toe their line or risk a primary challenge. If both factions hold to these positions, we’ll be unable to form a winning coalition across Congressional districts composed of various constituencies and win Congress. This is the worst of all outcomes because it guarantees that the Trump administration will have no institutional check on its authoritarian abuses of power for the next two years.

To avoid this, left-progressives who live in swing districts in which a hard left candidate would lose may have to accommodate moderates to win a single congressional seat, even though their policy positions might not perfectly line up.  In my mind, that’s worth it to get actual socialists from safe progressive districts like Ocasio-Cortez into a Congressional majority. If the party can be a big tent, moderates and left-progressives can both get what they want. But they have to agree to coexist.

Consider what this means for leftist demands to abolish ICE. Even if moderate Democrats disagree with this policy position, perhaps because they represent a district like NY19, they cannot bluntly say they are against abolishing ICE. If a moderate answers yes, they make progressives vulnerable to attack from the hard left and force them to question their commitment to the Democratic coalition, ultimately weakening it and potentially breaking it apart. And since weak coalitions usually don’t win elections, moderates can’t afford to do this.

As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post demonstrates, the entire question about ICE itself as a rhetorical trap created by Republicans that attempts to force a debate among Democrats that divides them. Moderate Democrats shouldn’t take the bait. They have to approach ICE in such a way that enables them to maintain a moderate-progressive coalition despite their contradictory policy positions. Here, rhetoric and framing is extremely important. Moderate Democrats have to engage in multivocal signaling, otherwise known as speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth. They must speak to multiple audiences at the same time and gain their support, despite the fact that those audiences understand their rhetorical statement in different ways that resonate with their different identities.

Now, some people might say that’s bullshit – politicians should mean what they say. That’s cute, but building a majority coalition always involves some degree of speaking to multiple audiences. Moderates have to say something like “ICE represents a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. It must end deportations immediately and be completely reorganized to ensure it no longer violates the human rights and due process of undocumented immigrants,” as opposed to “I don’t believe in abolishing ICE.” Something like this statement can appeal to progressives because it resonates with their defense of immigrants, although it doesn’t perfectly line up with their policy preferences. Let the media read between the lines and discern the policy meaning. Most people won’t catch the nuance. If moderate Democrats do this, they can broker a coalition that wins elections. It they don’t – perhaps because they stubbornly want to spite the left to recreate some mythical political center – then they will produce a fractured political coalition that will likely lose, much like Hillary Clinton in 2016.

We work in a coalition or not at all, rhetoric included.


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