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Jamie Peck Democrats need to discard their incrementalism and end their capitulation

Party leaders must learn from the GOP and listen to their base, which skews as progressive as the Republicans’ does reactionary
Image: Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill on Monday.Joshua Roberts / Reuters
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Senate Democrats on Monday voted overwhelmingly to end the government shutdown without protections for the DREAMERs — law-abiding members of society who were brought to this country as children by undocumented parents, many of whom know no other home and who were protected from deportation and allowed to legally work by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy eliminated by President Trump in 2017.

In a speech on the Senate floor on Monday morning, Majority Leader McConnell promised a “free and open debate” on immigration next month if — “if” — the issue is not settled by then. “Every day we spend arguing about keeping the lights on is another day we cannot spend negotiating DACA or defense spending or any of our other shared priorities,” said McConnell. He promised “a level playing field at the outset and an amendment process that is fair to all sides” before adding that he’s got a bridge to sell the Democrats, too, should they act quickly.

The Democrats' unwillingness to hold out for more than a weekend is even more absurd when compared to the last time the GOP shut down the government in 2013.

For the Democratic Party’s progressive base, their capitulation was a disappointing end to a moment in which it seemed like the party might finally take a real stand against abhorrent Republican policies. Considering the massive unpopularity of Trump’s immigration agenda — a recent CBS News poll found that some 87% of Americans believe that the DREAMERs should be allowed to stay in the country, should they meet certain requirements — the budget negotiations seemed like an ideal opportunity for the party to draw a line in the sand and then blame the shutdown on the GOP’s single-minded commitment to racist, reactionary policy.

It was almost no question who voters would be more likely to blame: Not the party that sets forth consistently reasonable (some would say too reasonable) goals and has not shut down the government any time in recent memory, but the party that wants to spend taxpayer dollars rounding up college students and putting them on planes to countries they barely remember.

The Democrats' unwillingness to hold out for more than a weekend is even more absurd when compared to the last time the GOP shut down the government in 2013: They did it overfunding for a centrist healthcare bill, based on one once written by conservative Heritage Foundation, which is better known as Obamacare.

It’s time for Democrats to re-evaluate incrementalist tactics like these, based on their actual outcomes.

The DREAMERs were meant to be an unassailable group of people after whom not even the most craven of elected officials could justify going. And yet, here we are.

Maybe Obama should have pushed for a more significant immigration reform from the start, instead of carving off the most sympathetic group for assistance under DACA, then putting off the rest of immigration reform for President Clinton to deal with on a day that would never come.

It’s time for Democrats to re-evaluate incrementalist tactics like these, based on their actual outcomes.

Our opponents are playing by a different set of rules, and Democrats must finally take a cue from the GOP and listen to their base, which skews about as progressive as the Republicans’ skews reactionary. The Overton window has not really shifted so far to the right that voters perceive Democrats taking a stand on DACA to be as extreme as Republicans taking a stand against funding Obamacare. What’s the point of amassing endless political capital if you never use it for anything?

What’s the point of amassing endless political capital if you never use it for anything?

When you look at which Democrats brokered the deal to fund the government — Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill, lawmakers up for re-election in 2018 in purple states that went for Trump over Clinton — it's clear that these politicians hope to repeat the 2016 strategy of pandering to moderate Republicans in wealthy suburbs to save their seats. While it may prove effective in some races, like those in which the Democrat is lucky enough to be running against an alleged pedophile, such a strategy is far from foolproof, as we saw in 2016. (It’s also fair to ask at what point the value of “electing Democrats” is canceled out by said Democrats’ increasing resemblance to Republicans.)

And yet, there are reasons for progressives to be hopeful. Among the Senators who voted on Monday to stand firm and keep the government shut down are Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Bernie Sanders, I-V.T., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — i.e., every liberal openly eyeing a presidential run in 2020. These politicians are not necessarily more progressive than their colleagues — some have records heavily marked by centrist triangulation and capitulation — but they know which way the wind is blowing in the party.

Grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, the Women’s March and the Bernie Sanders campaign have demonstrated that liberals are willing to devote an unprecedented amount of energy to progressive causes; Trump's election only served to increase their numbers and fervor. Even people who were previously complacent on these issues are making signs and taking to the streets.

As 2018 and 2020 approach, Democratic candidates would do well to keep listening to progressive movements and leaders, not Trump voters they hope can be turned at the polls.

The Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that falls to the left of liberals and works on issues from electoral politics (sometimes allying with Democrats) to housing to healthcare, has seen its membership explode in the past year. The reaction to Trump’s immigration policies has been especially intense: Recall the throngs of protesters — leftists and liberals alike — who shut down airports last year in response to the so-called Muslim ban Trump enacted upon taking office.

That every serious 2020 contender voted to stand firm on DACA shows that these movements are having an effect. As 2018 and 2020 approach, Democratic candidates would do well to keep listening to progressive movements and leaders, not Trump voters they hope can be turned at the polls.

Likewise, progressive citizens should remember that electing the right candidate is only one piece of the puzzle. Whether we have a lifelong Democratic Socialist or a soulless careerist in the White House, what they do in office will be heavily mediated by the underlying social forces at play. We can give up and let them to take it from there like we did with Obama, or we can keep the pressure on.

As celebrated progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt reportedly said (possibly apocryphally) to a group of labor leaders following his election in 1932: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Jamie Peck is a freelance writer and a producer/contributor at the political podcast The Majority Report with Sam Seder. She writes regularly for The Guardian, Broadly and her own reader-supported blog.

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