Democrats have long dreamed of swaying centrists from the Republican Party by dazzling them with progressive economic policies and soft-pedaling cultural issues like anti-racism or abortion rights. Every campaign, it seems the Democrats try the same approach — and that culminated, in 2016, with the election of billionaire grifter and open racist Donald Trump. Nonetheless, they’ve doubled down for 2020, convinced that somehow, someday, the right economic appeals, combined with throwing the right marginalized group under a convenient bus, will lead to a final electoral triumph. But it will not. And it's time to stop pretending it will.
The latest example of the old Democratic playbook was provided by Bernie Sanders this week, whose campaign enthusiastically touted an endorsement from podcaster Joe Rogan. Rogan has the second-most downloaded podcast on iTunes and his YouTube channel has 6 million subscribers. Unfortunately, he's also made gross transphobic comments and misgendered trans athletes. He's also conducted friendly interviews with far-right figures like Milo Yiannopolous and Gavin McInnes, giving them an opportunity to spew Islamophobia to Rogan's enormous audience with virtually no pushback.
Sanders' defenders on this issue, like Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, argue that "One premise of [Sanders'] campaign is that he can win some number of alienated men with reactionary social views to the left, and this is proof of concept.” Rogan's endorsement, Goldberg believes, can only be a good thing for the Senator from Vermont.
What goes unsaid is that this is not some new and innovative approach to campaigning. Sanders supporters see him as a strong critic of the Democratic establishment, since he usually ran as an Independent in Vermont before joining the party in pursuit of its 2020 presidential nomination. And it's also true that his policies — Medicare for All, for example, and free college — put him to the left of many of his rivals in the primary.
But Sanders' focus on swaying white reactionaries is perfectly in line with Democratic triangulation of the last 30 years and more. Bill Clinton insisted "it's the economy, stupid", and then rushed back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign for president in order to preside over the execution of a black man to demonstrate he was "tough on crime” (read: racist) so that he could win over centrist white conservatives. Barack Obama ran on rescuing the United States from the Great Recession in 2008, while at the same time carefully avoiding supporting marriage equality.
You could say that this has been a winning formula: both Clinton and Obama won their elections, after all. But Trump's victory in 2016 should at least raise some questions about the efficacy of triangulation for Democrats.
In the first place, when Democrats tailor their message to win over reactionaries, they inevitably alienate many progressives. Whether you win over more than you lose is difficult to say — we can't rerun 2008 and see how Obama would have done if he'd embraced marriage equality, for example. But the assumption that you can only gain and never lose voters when you cater to reactionaries is unproven — and, more worryingly, has dire implications for progressive politics. After all, if turning a blind eye to bigotry works politically, then the current incarnation of the Republican Party is in great shape to win. Republican-lite is unlikely to beat Republican-unfiltered over the long term.
This points to the second serious problem with trying to advance economic progressivism to an audience which is racist, or homophobic, or transphobic. In the United States, bigotry has long been used to sway voters to accept inequality and the agenda of the wealthy. President Ronald Reagan targeted the social safety net by putting forward a racist vision of black "welfare queens" stealing public funds from good upstanding white people. Trump was able to appoint rabid pro-corporate judge Brett Kavanaugh in part because Republicans flocked to his misogynist anti-abortion stance and were energized especially when he was credibly accused of attempted rape.
Economic progressives think they can win votes for their cause by appealing to bigots. But there's a lot of evidence that bigotry, if left to fester, undermines efforts to attain economic justice. When you throw marginalized people under the bus, you throw the poor under there with them (unsurprisingly, since marginalized people are disproportionately poor.)
Rather than triangulating to win over reactionaries, then, Democrats would be better to concentrate on making their opposition to bigotry as consistent, as principled, and as clear as possible. Sanders' own statements on LGBT rights are a good start; he is strongly in favor of gender-affirming healthcare, wants to repeal the trans military ban, and condemns discrimination and violence against trans people by police. Hopefully, the pushback against the Rogan endorsement by trans people will lead Sanders to affirm these admirable commitments by publicly and strongly repudiating Rogan's transphobia, as well as his racism, and his other bigoted statements.
Beyond that, though, it's long past time for Democrats and progressives to stop mooning after cultural reactionaries. Trump has shown us clearly enough that when bigotry is acceptable, plutocrats benefit. If we want a better, more equitable world, we need to condemn hatred. Triangulation on trans rights, or Muslim rights, or black rights, or women’s rights, is just a longer, twistier route to the same politics of inequality, injustice, and oppression. We need to pick a different path.