We’re just over a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and not a day goes by without coverage of protests. Big protests, yuge, luxurious protests, full of the most magnificent people protesting bigly, all doing an unbelievably great job being recognized by more and more people.
Sure, the protests haven’t all been pretty, though the flagship one certainly was. The Women’s March garnered around half a million people in DC and several million worldwide.1 It did so with nary an ugly incident involving the police, a fact that certainly had something to do with a fairly relaxed police presence.
Of course, the largest single-day demonstration in American history wasn’t without its naysayers. New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, a self-described liberal, thought the March—the aforementioned largest single-day demonstration in American history—was too exclusive, what with being called the Women’s March. After all, had the March moderated its name, it could’ve tallied a shitload of people plus Jonathan Chait!
That silliness aside, though, a lot of the protests and pushback against the Trump administration have featured elements more controversial than a name that only Amelia Bedelia could misunderstand. Protests the day of the inauguration featured Nazi wannabe Richard Spencer getting punched in the face and crying about it, leading to pundits credulously asking if it was OK to punch Nazis in the face. (Editor’s note: it is the editorial policy of Bitter Empire that it is always OK to punch Nazis in the face.) The inauguration also featured a race to photograph a burning trash can (and a burning limo, which at least seems somewhat more problematic in that people are at least sometimes found in limousines, whereas trash cans at best are only inhabited by Sesame Street characters.)
Not long after that, protests in Berkeley turned ugly as Milo Yiannopoulous—a dude so grotesque that the useless folks at Twitter suspended his account even before the news that he was extremely down with pederasty—was driven off campus. All of this opens up these ongoing protests to criticism: after all, violence and property destruction understandably put people on edge—these are not things that people expect to see in their everyday lives.
And then there’s the political side of this, with any Democratic vote for a Trump cabinet nominee or policy proposal being seen as “collaboration,” and thus worthy of an attempt to primary the collaborator out of office. As several analysts point out, it’s an echo of the Tea Party circa 2009, just with the roles reversed.
All of this, combined, has drawn a lot of criticism. David Frum, one of George W. Bush’s speechwriters and a Republican who opposes Trump, sees the current protest movement as, amongst other things, insufficiently conservative (read: insufficiently polite and orderly) and thus incapable of winning over the broad-based support needed to defeat Trump. Jim Webb, formerly a Democratic Senator from Virginia and at least technically a Presidential candidate in 2016, accuses his party of having drifted too far to the left. And any number of people have pointed out the accepted wisdom that liberal Democrats “just can’t win” in some areas, and that the likes of Joe Manchin in West Virginia are probably the best one can hope for, writing off entire seats and regions in the process.
All of these people have a point: the current protest movement is too chaotic to attract the David Frums of the world. Jim Webb probably isn’t comfortable in the modern-day Democratic party, which has drifted somewhat leftward over time (more on that in a bit). And imposing purity tests on Democratic incumbents lest they be primaried will absolutely lead to losing seats that’d be otherwise winnable.
But if your politics are leftist/progressive/liberal/whatever, none of that should matter. The Tea Party quite ably demonstrated that even with missteps, the threat of contested primaries do a damn good job of implementing one’s agenda. So long as the goal of the protest movement is “Fuck Donald Trump and all he represents, we prefer this set of policies”2 rather than merely “Fuck Donald Trump,” it’d be a strategic blunder for the movement to moderate in order to appease folks who’re more conservative.
We can work backward chronologically to prove this.
Let’s start with Trump’s already-embattled Presidency. His approval ratings are already underwater, falling anywhere from the high 30s to the mid 40s in most polls. Yet the poor aggregate ratings are not on the back of Republicans, who still overwhelmingly report satisfaction with the Trump Presidency. A recent Gallup poll has 86% of self-identified Republicans approving of Trump. There are clearly far more people outside of Frum’s camp than within it that the protest movement can successfully reach.
Going back in time a few months, it’s not at all difficult to see what’s accomplished by ignoring the far-left wing of the Democratic party in an effort to reach conservatives. After all, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer outlined that very battle plan during the Democratic National Convention: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Clearly, that plan worked out great for the Democrats, who lost winnable Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t even bother to campaign in Wisconsin, instead trying to poach disaffected Republicans. Her reward? A whopping 8 percent of Republicans crossing party lines to vote for her, virtually identical to the total Barack Obama managed against far less odious candidates like Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008. Party ID trumps almost anything else in American politics.
Outside the courts, some of the biggest early muscle flexed by the anti-Trump movement has been in the realm of labor, a terrain that Bernie Sanders managed to leverage in the 2016 primaries to unexpectedly provide a significant hurdle to Clinton’s nomination. During the first weekend of the disastrous travel ban rollout, the #DeleteUber campaign, which led to at least 200,000 users deleting their accounts, proved sufficiently effective to get their CEO to drop out of Trump’s advisory council, and outlines a roadmap for similar low-effort, high-impact economic activism. It certainly seems a more fruitful approach than doubling down on centrism, as Clinton campaign staffer Jennifer Palmieri still argued for earlier this month. Whatever your feelings about Clinton, it’s fairly clear that a Democratic strategy designed to hew to the middle and pick off conservative-leaners is doomed to failure. If it couldn’t beat literally the least popular candidate in history, it can’t beat anyone.
Thus: unless the protest movement wants to look like David Frum (or Evan McMullin, or whatever other conservative denounces Trump) and include the far more conservative policies these folks have every right to advocate for, there’s little advantage in trying for crossover support. Recent history demonstrates it’s a disastrous strategy.
But that only addresses the “should the protest movement moderate to attract conservatives” fallacy; it does nothing to address the question of “should the protest movement accept ‘good enough’ in some areas and not enforce rigid purity tests?” So let’s unpack that one next.
Critics of the “purity test” approach are quick to point out that it ends up forfeiting otherwise-winnable seats by occasionally misfiring and nominating unelectable weirdos. And they’re absolutely right. The last eight years of American politics have seen any number of unelectable weirdos lose seats that a more mainstream candidate would’ve easily taken down. A quick rogue’s gallery:
- Virginia: Ken Cuccinelli managed to knock off sitting Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling in a gubernatorial primary, despite Bolling being rather popular and Cuccinelli being, well…not. He was so unpopular that he managed to lose the general election to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a man whose previous accomplishments boiled down to little more than “longtime useful ally for the Clintons.” McAuliffe’s < 3-point margin of victory was no doubt aided by…
- The Virginia GOP, unsatisfied with shooting itself in the foot with Cuccinelli, decided to shoot itself in the other foot by nominating E.W. Jackson for the position of Lieutenant Governor. Jackson’s greatest hits feature “doing Yoga leads to Satanic possession,” and “most people are dead spirits.” He lost by double digits (Governor and Lieutenant Governor are separate line items on the VA ballot.)
- In 2012, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill easily held on to what should’ve been a hotly contested seat thanks to the GOP managing to nominate Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin in the primary.
- Richard “the other GOP senate candidate who couldn’t stop talking about rape” Mourdock got beaten by Joe Donnelly in Indiana, losing a seat that’d been occupied by the retiring Richard Lugar, a Republican.
- In 2010, Harry Reid held onto his Nevada Senate seat because he ended up facing Sharron “2nd amendment solutions” Angle, who repeatedly made unforced errors that gave a vulnerable incumbent a fairly comfortable win.
- Saving the best for last: also in 2010, Joe Biden’s old seat (which was temporarily filled by Ted Kaufman between inauguration and the 2010 election) was open. The Democrats nominated Chris Coons. The GOP should have nominated Mike Castle, a popular former governor and congressman who almost certainly would’ve handily beaten Coons. Instead, a narrow swath of the electorate nominated Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party darling who was entirely unqualified but who also really wanted you to know that She Is Not a Witch. She also is not a senator.
…put all of that together and in theory you’ve got a great reason to not enforce purity tests on your party. After all, the GOP could’ve controlled the Senate sooner than it eventually did and had even more control of governorships than it already does. Yet all of that misses the point.
For all their high-profile misfires, the Tea Party won. Insofar as the Tea Party was about reflexive opposition to anything related to Barack Obama, it’s hard to argue otherwise. The Tea Party claimed the heads of a House Majority Leader, a Speaker of the House, and helped put Trump–who peddled a birther conspiracy for years–in office. Whether their victories (outside of GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices, including the seat intended for Merrick Garland) are sustainable absent Obama remains to be seen, but in the short term, the movement clearly succeeded. Sure, the Tea Party screwed up and lost winnable seats, but fear of being next on the chopping block keeps current legislators far more conservative than they’d be in a world without purity tests.
First, let’s point out that even in a “bloodbath” election, very few seats ever change hands. Districts are so hilariously gerrymandered that contested seats are a distinct minority in the legislative branch. The 2010 midterms, rightly referred to as a shellacking, featured a loss of 63 of the 256 Democratic seats. That’s absolutely a ton. It’s also less than a quarter of all Democratic seats. In other words, even in the most devastating of losses, the vast majority of incumbents had far more to fear from their own party than they did from the opposition.
For all of Congress’ atrocious approval ratings, each member knows very well who butters their bread. While all the attention is on the hilarious escapades of the latest Tea Party lunatic to lose a winnable seat, it overlooks the fact that incumbents fear a primary—and vote more conservative as a result.
Political scientists already have a publicly-available tool to measure the broad-scale ideology of a legislator, a party, or an entire branch: NOMINATE scores, which can be used to measure political polarization, party loyalty, and to create ordinal rankings of individual incumbents on a liberal<–>conservative continuum.
First, let’s look at aggregate liberal/conservative measures of each Congress (meaning each data point on the graph encompasses the two-year period between Congressional elections).
It’s immediately apparent that Republicans have drifted more conservative since the 1980s, with another inflection point around the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It’s no exaggeration to say that the current GOP is more conservative than ever before. Meanwhile, there’s been virtually no drift toward an ideological pole for the Democrats outside of a dwindling number of incumbents in the South. That’s less of a drift and more of a “most Southern Democrats have long since lost their seats to Republicans, leaving only the John Lewises of the world in their stead.”
If I were a Tea Party supporter, I’d look at that graph and be pretty pleased with myself. For all my high profile losses, I’d have succeeded in shifting Congress dramatically in my preferred direction. Yet it goes further than that: while the drift toward increased conservatism absolutely has to do with Tea Party-backed candidates winning office, it also has to do with non-Tea Party Republicans becoming more conservative—presumably in order to avoid being primaried.
There are 110 GOP Congressmen who served continuously from 2009-2015 in the Tea Party era. Of them, 70 (63.6%) vote with their party a greater percentage of the time now than at the outset of the Tea Party movement. In aggregate, this body of Republicans votes the party line 2.5% more often than they did at the outset of the Tea Party movement. 2.5 percent might not seem like much, so perhaps it’s important to put it in context. In the 111th Congress, this group of Republicans already voted the party line 92.0% of the time, which didn’t leave much room for improvement. By the 113th Congress, that number was 94.5%, more than 30% of the scant eight points of daylight between the 111th Congress and absolute party unity.4
In other words, purity tests worked brilliantly for the Tea Party: the entire body got more conservative, and remaining members are more than willing to go along with this drift in order to protect their seat against a primary challenger. Given that the GOP now controls the branches of the federal government along with an enormous number of state-level governments to boot, it seems pretty clear that embarrassing hiccups like O’Donnell were well worth the price.
Which brings us back to the current protest movement. If it wants to win, the Tea Party already laid out a great road map to victory, and moderation is a flaw in that plan, not a virtue. Strategically, there’s no reason for protesters to moderate in order to pick off conservatives who demonstrably are less likely to abandon Trump than anyone else. There’s also no reason to not make Democratic incumbents feel the heat for collaboration, even if such purity tests will inevitably result in the occasional high-profile blunder that costs a seat.
That’s not to say the purity test approach is a good one for the country as a whole. I’m sure any number of people would prefer their trash cans unlit, and for Nazis to go back to their basements and save pundits the trouble of debating the merits of punching them in the face. Yet that’s not the state of American politics in 2017, and it’s also mistaking a normative question (“Is this good?”) for a strategic one (“Will this work?”)
I make no claim as to the answer to the normative question. But it’s pretty damn clear that the answer to the strategic one is to not moderate, and that the current protest movement shouldn’t pause its efforts to coddle uncomfortable Republicans or tenuous Democrats.
Let’s not get too bogged down in the numbers. At some point, crowd estimates are tough to do with numbers alone and you end up with error bars in the million-person range where qualitative descriptions like “a shitload of people marched” are probably more useful. ↩
The 114th Congress, which just ended, isn’t in the data file ↩
To pre-empt the question: this shift was not present as a response to the 1994 GOP wave. ↩