What politicians cook up isn't necessarily what people want. This "representation gap" is threatening American democracy.
Thanks so much for a wonderful, down-to-earth essay that looks at the big picture in a practical way. The four types of response to the "representation gap" provide an excellent framework.
If I’ve read him correctly, I believe historian Sean Wilentz has a somewhat different evaluation of the most effective strategy, and it can be explained very nicely within this framework. He suggests different, but equally important, roles for the party and the movement.
To put it simply, we need good politicians to implement the best policies that are currently politically feasible. And we need the movement to change public opinion in a progressive direction. In terms of your framework, the politicians need to be strategic compromisers, while the movement is needed to persuade the voters.
This sharing of roles is more effective for several reasons. (1) Politicians are not burdened with the risky business of explaining to the public why they shoud change their minds. (2) Research on politicians trying to persuade − the bully-pulpit effect -- shows it almost never works and often backfires. (3) The movement can easily take positions that are ahead of the curve (often too easily, so it must be cautious). In fact, persuading is its sole purpose. Hey, that’s us! The persuasion community.
Think of LBJ and MLK. MLK led the movement and persuaded. Had he been the politician trying to hold office, he could not have done his part of the job. LBJ was behind the curve, but a fabulous strategic deal-maker. Together they accomplished great things.
The same relationship held for Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive movement, while he was president. (See Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit (a catchy but misleading title)). And something similar was true for FDR − the quintessential compromising politician who followed the lead of movement organizers like Huey Long (far and away more powerful than the socialists and communists).
Suggesting that the politicians should be the persuaders, opens the door for the Sanders’ movement. He literally spoke of using Air Force One to fly around the country and persuade everyone of his democratic socialism. Robert Reich argued that this was the reason to vote for him rather than Clinton. But, as poli-scientist George Edwards shows in “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit,” this would almost surely backfire. And we know it would.
Reich and Edwards are explained here: https://zfacts.com/ripped-apart/left-myths/bully-pulpit/
Under the persuasion strategy, you mention that “progressive activists erred,” but you don’t mention them under the intransigence strategy. In the conclusion, you say “progressives favored intransigence.” I think this signals that the progressive activists believe (and convince many) that they are the persuaders, but their psychology prevents this and makes them intransigent.
I think the Wilentz approach suggests that they should get out of politics, learn to persuade, and do so by leading an MLK-style movement. I am not optimistic. But it may help if we are clear that persuasion mainly belongs outside the party and intransigence is lethal.
Thanks for this neat primer. The stance of many progressive university students (and university grads) is intransigence on a number of issues, including: defunding police, abolishing prisons (and instituting "community justice" or therapy for crimes at all levels of severity), abolishing standing armies, abolishing single sex facilities of all kinds, and assuring that people are fired from their jobs for voicing disapproval with key elements of the radical-progressive worldview. If these and other demands aren't met, many of my students and some faculty members say that a reasonable response is, yes, to burn "it" down, where "it" can be the US government, the two-party system, or other institutions. If traditional academic disciplines don't foster the aspirations of rad-progressive young adults, then those should also be burned down. As I've written before, this isn't my interpretation of what these students--and some faculty--want. This is a phrase I've heard time and again from students and colleagues. I can report from inside the factory of rad-progressive ideology--not, that is, from a traditional discipline--that students categorically reject the idea of persuasion and the possibility of incremental change it promises. They have no interest in giving reasons for what they want and listening to the real, as opposed to predictably caricatured, concerns of those who disagree. An irony is that these students (and faculty) regard themselves as the tribunes of the poor and marginalized, many of whom of course want nothing to do with the positions these intellectuals want to enact. Of course, this is not a new dilemma for far left reformers, but it always seems vexing and incomprehensible to those reformers.
Excellent piece. You don’t say much about intransigence, but your pithy characterization – “rather than openly grappling with the unpopularity of policies, it views this unpopularity as a sign of the majority’s ignorance or immorality” – strikes me as key. This majority-denigrating, sometimes even majority-demonizing stance is an open invitation for majoritarian populists to represent progressives not only as out of touch, judgmental, and condescending but also as anti-democratic.
"Refund the Police." Increase the number of cops AND integrate unarmed social workers into the police force to minimize "Death by Cop" suicides. Increase money for pre and post prison rehabilitation and fix the prison go around. These are very popular solutions and ones that actually work.
Plot twist: Persuasion (the community) turns out to be an Independent PAC specializing in persuasion ;)
Regarding: "concession leaves moderates unable to attract disenchanted citizens longing for inspiration from their representatives." It does seem there are voters that the moderates can't reach--but it seems they can reach more voters than other Democrats ("If you really look at which candidates overperform the fundamentals — which is to say, candidates who do better than you’d expect, given how voters in a congressional district voted for governor the year before, or how it voted presidentially, or whether it’s an incumbent — you see that moderates do better than ideological extremists"-David Shor; https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/11/david-shor-analysis-2020-election-autopsy-democrats-polls.html). I would argue that the "progressives" and the voters they can reach that others can't that can't get "inspired" by responsible and mature political engagement need to be the target of persuasion: to explain to them, as this article partly does, that what appears them as "boring" and "impure" is the result of a necessary engagement with the electorate and that their approach is polarizing and destructive of democracy.