There are many cleavages in American politics, but at this moment only one of them truly matters: Are you for or against democracy?
Over the last four years or so, the Republican Party has become the anti-democracy party. However hyperbolic that may sound, there’s a strong case to be made that, to borrow the words of How Democracies Die co-author Daniel Ziblatt in a recent interview with Vox, the GOP is now “the central weakness of our political system.” Its complicity in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, and its continued assault on voting rights since, has only strengthened this argument.
Arguably the biggest national challenge moving forward is finding a way to defeat Republicans without completely breaking the political system they’re undermining. Whatever that resistance looks like, it’s very likely it will involve some kind of partnership between progressives and moderates.
E.J. Dionne is a longtime columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country (2020). Dionne’s book is part manifesto, part plea. His argument, then and now, is that a pro-democracy alliance is essential if we’re going to right the ship before it’s too late.
I reached out to Dionne to talk about what that political marriage might look like, what stands in the way of its formation, why mere “bipartisanship” isn’t the answer, and why this version of the Republican Party has to die if we want to restore American democracy.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
The premise of your book is that we’re facing a political emergency, so I’ll start there: How worried are you?
I guess I’d start with a quote from Léon Blum, who was the prime minister of France in the 1930s: “I believe it because I hope for it.” What I think is that if you believe in democracy, equality, and justice, you have to believe that these ideals will be vindicated, and there’s enough evidence from history that they will be.
I have a very Obama-esque view of American history: We take a few steps forward and a couple steps back, but we were better off in 1970 than we were in 1880, and so on. I really believe that’s true.
But these ideals — democracy, equality, and justice — are being attacked, and there are people on the other side, with whom we have disagreements on all kinds of stuff, who are nevertheless willing to stand up and defend our democracy, who are willing to break with their own side. Aligning with them doesn’t mean we let them off the hook on everything, but it does mean that we can recognize there are moments when we have to stand together for this shared project of American democracy.
This is one of those moments.
There might be space for a brief alliance between progressives and moderates or center-right Republicans, but as you know, there’s a lot of skepticism about the idea, mostly because Democrats like Obama — and now Biden — have taken a very centrist approach, which has only accelerated the GOP’s anti-democratic drift. How is your call for an alliance distinct from a bland plea for bipartisanship?
One of my colleagues at the Washington Post, Jim Downie, recently had a great line in a piece. He said that if one side says, “Two plus two is four,” and the other side says, “Two plus two is eight,” the right answer can’t be that two plus two equals six. There’s a version of centrism and a version of moderation that just says, “If we split everything down the middle, we can move forward and everything will be fine.”
There are a couple of problems with that. Sometimes just splitting things down the middle is flatly wrong. You can’t be just for a little bit of segregation, and you can’t be just for a little bit of voter suppression. You’re either against voter suppression and segregation, or you’re willing to allow it. On the other hand, moderation itself is a genuine virtue. One of my heroes is the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said we must look for the truth in our opponent’s error and the error in our own truth. That’s a good human habit.
There are also times when you want to take six steps forward, but the political circumstances only allow you to take two, or three, or four.
The line I use is actually from a great American socialist, Michael Harrington, who talked about “visionary gradualism.” I love that term because you can ponder it all day and wonder how the heck those two words fit together. I think it really is about taking as many steps forward at a time as you can. Harrington always said that he positioned himself on “the left wing of the possible,” and that’s a great way to think of it.
I may be a little gloomier than you on the prospects here, so I’ll ask what you’re seeing now that gives you hope for a genuine pro-democracy alliance between progressives and moderates, and even some conservatives?
I think we’re seeing some of it already. We could see it all through the Trump era, although on the right it was coming more from people outside of politics rather than inside. The anti-Trump movement among Republicans was mostly led by commentators and intellectuals and not Republican politicians. There were people who stood up, even before the 2016 election, and said, “This isn’t acceptable, and this is anti-democratic and dangerous.” Those people deserve our respect.
In Congress, not so much. It really is disturbing. I think one of the roll calls that historians will look at carefully was the roll call on whether or not to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the January attack on the Capitol. You had 35 Republicans willing to stand up there; you had six Republican senators. That’s not nothing.
What I worry about going forward is that we have a big group of Republicans who won’t stand against Trumpism because they need Trumpist votes in 2022. Most of them don’t even want a Trumpist party. We need to call them out and say, “You can’t move on without defeating this movement. This is at least half your party.”
Does the Republican Party, as it exists today, have to die?
We’re falling apart. That’s a reality. So yes, this version of Republicanism has to be defeated before we can move forward to a different politics.
I think Republicans know how weak they are because if they felt stronger, they wouldn’t be advancing these voter suppression bills. If they felt the future was theirs, they wouldn’t be working so hard to undermine democratic institutions. Republicans can see the America that’s coming, not only in terms of racial and ethnic diversity but also [in] the attitudes of young Americans versus older Americans.
But I’ll say this: Republicans would be far better off if they looked at what happened in 2020 and said, “We made some inroads on the Latino and the Black vote. Maybe we can pursue an actual majoritarian strategy.” They’re obviously not there yet. Until they get there, we’ll have to defeat them.
You know there are some progressives who will read your book or this interview and say, “Here’s another milquetoast centrist arguing that we should moderate in order to win, which is exactly the thinking that brought us to the brink.” To them, you say what?
I’d say that I want as much progressive change as we can get at any given moment, and then I want to fight for more in the next moment. That’s No. 1.
No. 2, there are issues where the differences are tactical, not principled. The example I would use most is health care. Some of my friends on the left are for a single-payer system. Other people look at other universal coverage systems, like [those of] the Netherlands or Germany, and say, “You don’t need single-payer to cover everyone and give every American good health insurance.”
I will not compromise, ever, on the notion that everybody should be able to see a doctor and get the health care they need and not be bankrupted by it, that everybody should have affordable and decent health insurance. I am perfectly willing to debate the means to get there. But I don’t want a debate about the means to be confused with a debate about the ends.
You’ve already seen some movement here. Joe Biden endorsed the public option. Right now, [Sen.] Bernie [Sanders] and progressives are saying, “All right, we’re not going to get single-payer, but what about lowering the age for Medicare eligibility to 60 or 55?” I can live with either of those outcomes.
I consider myself a progressive social Democrat, and one of the things I like about social Democrats is that they acknowledge the need for step-by-step change, because in a democracy you need consent. We’re not going to cram change down people’s throats in anti-democratic ways.
When progressives and moderates came together, they passed a $1.9 trillion-dollar rescue package that has done an awful lot to lift up the poorest people in the country. That’s what working together can get you. It was easier because it was temporary. It’ll be harder at the next step. But we got a heck of a lot done by working together. I didn’t see any of that as selling out.
I’m curious what, if any, prescriptions you’d offer? If Biden or Pelosi called you tomorrow, what would you tell them to do?
I believe that there are certain problems that Black Americans, Latino Americans, and white Americans who are part of a threatened working class and middle class have in common.
I was really influenced by the work of William J. Wilson, the great sociologist who wrote about the inner city and showed how the deindustrialization of the inner city in the 1980s set back the opportunities that Black Americans had at a critical moment in our history.
If you look at the places that voted for Trump in 2016, what you had was what Wilson was talking about in the inner city coming to places like Reading and Erie, Pennsylvania, and other industrial towns all across America.
Biden should underscore that all these groups of Americans have legitimate complaints. We can’t pretend a white worker is going to be stopped in his car because of the color of his skin, whereas a Black man might be. A white worker does not have to worry that his teenager might be shot in the street; a Black worker does. We have to be honest that race still matters, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot talk about these common problems. That is one place where I would put a great deal of stress.
The second place I’d put a great deal of stress, because I think it gets at another hinge of the process of coalition building, is on political reform itself. A lot of the new suburban moderates who recently voted Democrat did it because they don’t like the Trumpist turn in our politics and [because] they support reformist politics.
I think political reform is simultaneously about empowering groups who are threatened with being disempowered — young people, Black Americans, Latino Americans. It’s also about cleaning up the political systems in ways that middle-class reformers have always warmed to, and reducing the power of big money.
Many of us agree about what’s necessary. I’m just not sure what’s possible. I think the last four years have shown — or certainly suggested — that something like 30 or 40 percent of the population just doesn’t care all that much about liberal democracy, or their cynicism about the political system has overwhelmed their commitments to democratic institutions.
Maybe you agree with that, maybe you don’t, but if this coalition you and I both think we need fails to come together, what then?
I think the challenge to progressives and moderates who care about democracy is how to maintain the proper sense of alarm about the danger we face without falling into cynicism and hopelessness. We can’t give up or pull back. But I share your alarm.
I’m older than you, and we really haven’t seen an attack on democracy like this in a very long time. It existed in our country through all the years of segregation, through all the years of Jim Crow, and we overturned that in 1965. What you have is the second reconstruction of the civil rights years under attack now. We have to defend it. We have to face up to the fact that there are strong anti-democratic forces in this country, and they have to be defeated.
The Trump years were a real challenge to our democracy, and we did not get through it unscathed. We did get through with a lot of people organizing, however, and more people voting than ever. We can win this fight. I think all of the surveys show that we are still a majority of the country, but we need some forbearance with each other.
I don’t like centrists who spend all their time bashing the left, because where would we be without the energy of the left? In fact, the left often calls out moderates when they sell out, and moderates do sell out. On the other hand, I don’t like lefties who spend all their time bashing moderates as sellouts when moderates have, in many cases and with a lot of guts, broken with positions they held for a long time in order to stand up for democracy.
So we need forbearance with each other, and we need a ton of determination, but above all we need a sense of urgency.