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Popularism's Iraq War problem

My main objection to the current line of neo-centrism is that I’ve seen this all play out before. And it ended in disaster.
Photo illustration: Strips of red, blue and black white interspersed with each other with images of George W. Bush waving to the crowd, Obama speaking and of a soldier being rushed to a medivan.
How do you reconcile compromise and winning over swing voters when sometimes those swing voters get behind something monstrous?Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images file

Jason Zengerle published an interesting and personally clarifying piece in The New York Times Magazine last Wednesday about the present and future of moderate Democrats. Zengerle points to a school of thought that has gained a lot of traction in the last two years, sometimes referred to as “popularism,” and often advocated by moderates like David Shor, Matt Yglesias, Ruy Teixiera and other center-left pundits and practitioners.

Popularism is a hotly contested subject, though I find it can sometimes be a bit hard to pin down what exactly it is and what it’s not.

Popularism is a hotly contested subject, though I find it can sometimes be a bit hard to pin down what exactly it is and what it’s not. Zengerle helpfully quotes Yglesias as saying: “Part of what we’re doing here is rediscovering old ideas. I sometimes use the phrase ‘the wisdom of the ancients.’ None of these popularism ideas are particularly original or say anything that people haven’t said for a long time. They just became unfashionable briefly.” Shor has said basically the same thing in other venues.

This one quote helped me articulate for the first time what had been an inchoate frustration I had with both the theory of popularism and its application. But before getting to that, for people new to this debate, let’s just run down what popularism is.

Popularism holds that while its true politics has become increasingly polarized along party lines, there are still swing voters whose votes are basically determinative of the outcome in contested elections. That means appealing to swing voters is still the most crucial way to win elections and political power for Democrats. Swing voters are also, under this theory, ideologically cross-pressured: liberalish on some things, more conservative on others. The way to appeal to them is to tack toward their own ideological beliefs, informed by rigorous polling and analytics, and not to get too far out ahead of them on polarizing issues like immigration border enforcement or, say, trans rights.

Yglesias’ quote made me realize that my main objection to this current line of neo-centrism is that I’ve seen this all play out before, almost beat for beat. And it ended in disaster. When I was a young progressive writer graduating college in 2001, the world of center-left punditry was dominated by Michael Kinsley and Marty Peretz’s New Republic and the neoliberals of the Washington Monthly. There was an entire generation of boomer writers — almost all straight white men, I must note — who had watched the social upheaval and leftist movements of the 1960s and 1970s give rise to Reaganism and a moribund Democratic Party. They took from this era the lesson that Democrats had to ignore and even ritualistically beat up on its activist and leftist movements to win elections.

Whether borne of genuine battle scars and good faith, or a more cynical view of politics, it laid the foundation of a dominant form of punditry, from the counter-intuitive pose of Kinsley’s Slate to 1990’s TNR. It was connected to Clintonism and the DLC and Third Way movements, all of which believed the path to political power for Democrats was aggressively tacking to the center and constantly telling voters loudly that they disagreed with and even had genuine contempt for the left.

And at some level it was a smashing success. Bill Clinton was the first Democrat re-elected president since FDR. Substantively, that’s a complicated story, but I’m going to just skip over it on the way to my main point. Because then came 9/11 and the Iraq War.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, the hippie-punching instinct of the pundit class was on full display. Basically all of the most prominent voices in the center-left punditry supported the war. I won’t list them because it’s a looonnng list. But it's basically a Who’s Who of white, male center-left pundits. Not only that, but the entire Democratic consultant class was urging Democrats to either support the war or project bloodthirsty toughness, because the median voter wanted America to kick some ass. Iraq War polling was somewhat amorphous, but a pretty sturdy majority did support the war. So when consultants told Democratic presidential aspirants to vote that way, they probably were giving pretty good advice, based on the data. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and John Kerry, among others, all dutifully got in line.

Then the war was a disaster both substantively and politically. By 2006, Democrats won a wave election by criticizing the war (a majority of House Democrats, almost all representing safe seats, had voted against it.) In 2008, an extremely green, not-even-first-term senator named Barack Obama won the Democratic primary based in part on the fact that as an obscure Illinois state senator in a very liberal district, he had given an anti-war speech.

Supporting the war became both a moral abomination and also bad politics. So here’s the question for popularism: how do you avoid the next Iraq War? The people on the other side of this debate, for all their problems, have an answer. The socialist, activist, no-compromise-with-white-supremacy left does not believe in catering to the median voter and chasing their reactionary impulses. But if you think that politics involves compromise and winning over swing voters, and sometimes those swing voters get behind something monstrous, what, as a politician, do you do about it when forced to announce your position?

I may be a middle-aged pundit who is fighting the last battle, scarred by own early political experiences. But I can’t trust any theory that doesn’t give an answer. Because believe me, this generation’s version of the Iraq War is coming sooner or later.