How Democrats Are Failing

The problem with moral purity.

Anti-Trump protesters demonstrate on Feb. 19 in Pittsburgh.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Thomas B. Edsall, one of the pre-eminent commentators on American politics and elections, has written a piece for the New York Times, provocatively titled “Liberals Need To Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears.” In it, he argues that the roots of President Trump’s success—and our increasingly bitter politics—should be laid at the feet (to continue with the body-part metaphors) of liberals. “Many Democrats,” he writes, “continue to have little understanding of their own role — often inadvertent, an unintended consequence of well-meaning behavior — in creating the conditions that make conservatives willing to support Trump and the party he is leading.”

I spoke by phone with Edsall recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how much “open borders” rhetoric has hurt Democrats, why President Obama succeeded where Hillary Clinton failed, and the most productive way for Democrats to talk about Trump’s racism.

Isaac Chotiner: What is it exactly that you think liberals have their fingers in their ears about?

Thomas B. Edsall: One thing is that when liberal views are taken to an absolutist level, an unbending level, they become part of the whole polarization process. The belief in free expression is fine, but when it becomes an absolute requirement in effect, or when immigration—unfettered immigration—becomes a stance, it becomes part of the polarization process. And liberals, by viewing it as a given, unchallengeable premise, don’t recognize that they are actually angering their opposition by the moral purity of their stance.

Hillary Clinton had a different position than Barack Obama on immigration; he deported a lot of people. His presidency, though, didn’t seem to calm down the Republican base on the issue.

No. I looked at Hillary’s position pretty carefully, and she had an eight-point stance, and only part of one of the eight points said anything about enforcement. She was basically not on enforcement at all. Trump, in Hillary, had the perfect opponent on the issue of immigration. She allowed him: By her not taking a more moderate stance, he could take a more extreme stance with much less problem. She was seen as basically saying, “Let the gates be wide open, with no restraint whatsoever.” Obama would have been a tougher opponent for Trump on that issue.

On what other issues do you think this weakness has shown up?

I sympathize on the liberal side of these issues, but for example the cake baker and the gay couple wanting a cake. There are many Americans who think that the cake baker has a stance: That is, he is legitimately defending his religious beliefs, and to force him to do otherwise is unfair. When these kinds of issues come forward as pure yes or no with no compromise, and many times liberals take a position that it has to be a pure yes, they do two things. They make the issue undebatable, and they define those that disagree with them as basically immoral. To take another case: The description of Trump’s supporters as racist creates the most intense reaction, and Trump campaigned on that portrayal of his supporters.

OK, but whether that is objectively true, it’s also inherently ridiculous. You are essentially saying people are going to vote for a racist if they are called racist. There is some sort of tautology there.

It’s not that. It’s that Trump’s supporters had a lot of reasons for supporting him. There were a lot of racists who did support him. But to describe his supporters all as racist is a crazy strategy.

I agree it’s a crazy strategy, although I haven’t heard any Democratic politician say, “All of his supporters are racist.” Let’s return to the cake baker. What is your advice for liberals about an issue like that? I think many liberals take pride in saying they were on the “right side” of various matters involving civil rights, and they don’t want to come up with a wishy-washy position about an issue of principle. I think politics should be the art of the possible, but I am not sure I want to tell people to pull back on fundamental issues of decency. Maybe by framing it that way I am proving your point.

I think the great strength of the Democratic Party is that it has been on the progressive side of social change and social change for the better, historically, since the 1930s on. And that is something the Democratic Party would be crazy to abandon. The problem is that when you initiate social change, you are often disrupting communities and ways of thinking and value systems. And you have to recognize as you do this the costs you are imposing.

The classic case of this is Boston school busing back in the 1970s. There was a school busing order created out of legislation and enacted entirely by suburbanites outside of Boston, which then imposed busing on South Boston and Roxbury, two working-class communities. The people who did this felt very righteous and well-meaning, including the editors of the Boston Globe. But they were not involved in the process and had none of the costs and none of the consequences fell onto their laps, except politically. And that’s the kind of thing, when liberals disregard the cost that the social changes they want and should pursue, they are really damaging their own agenda and their party. And the result is electing someone like Trump or Ronald Reagan.

So what do you draw from the busing controversy then? What advice would you have given racial justice advocates in the 1970s?

The goal of school integration was a crucial and important one. The mechanism to achieve it—of pitting working-class whites against working-class blacks—was not the way to achieve it. Liberals in the 1970s should have struggled intensely for cross-county busing, and they should have tried to legislate that. Instead, all busing was done within single urban areas. It created extraordinary disruptions. If Democrats are going to undertake something like that, they have to look very carefully at how the process is going to be achieved. If you look at the current Boston school system and its racial makeup, you would have to say the long-term goal of integration was a failure, and not just politically.

It’s just very hard to tell people who see issues with fundamental values on the line that they should find a middle ground.

I think politically, historically, the one time this was addressed by a Democrat effectively was in the 1992 campaign by Bill Clinton, who basically focused his whole campaign on issues of the Democratic Party.

How do you think Obama dealt with these types of issues?

I think he did fairly well. He tended to be reasonable. The one time he went overboard in the liberal direction and said the thing about clinging to guns and religion, he acknowledged it was one of the dumbest things he said. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s a subtlety in looking at things and not conveying the quality of being an absolutist, but rather conveying being a committed person willing to listen to the other side, and to take into consideration, as you move toward your goals, the concerns of the other side.

I agree. I also think it’s worth thinking about why Trump could say the clinging to guns and religion thing on tape and no one would care.

Trump adds a whole new element to the equation. He has basically destroyed truth, and the damage he has done may well be beyond repair. I think it may well be. To address him, we have to start the whole debate or discussion over again. He raises very serious problems for Democrats in another fashion, in that they use truth-based arguments against him, and he dismisses him. It’s a whole new dilemma for liberals and Democrats and Never Trump conservatives.

Are there any Democrats you see on the horizon who you think would do a good job talking about all these issue?

I would like to see more of Sherrod Brown. I would like to see more of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Both white men, I noticed.

That’s true. That doesn’t mean I would preclude—

Oh, I didn’t mean it meant you would. But it may say something about the way average Americans perceive certain messages.

That’s a good question. Pew had a whole survey on the strengths people see in men and women. And the strengths overlap some but are quite different, and how they play out for an executive. It is very clear that women can run for Senate and Congress and even governor. But the chief executive—that’s still unknown.