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What It Will Take to Make America Great
A response to Michael Kazin's review of Where Have All the Democrats Gone?
We should only be so lucky that our other reviewers represent our arguments as clearly and accurately as Michael Kazin does. As Kazin notes, we share with his excellent book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, a similar view of when and why the Democratic Party has succeeded. Kazin cites two failures in our book: our not having devoted sufficient attention to how "progressives and moderates can find common ground," and our failure to appreciate that to achieve significant reforms, "liberals and radicals need one another."
We want to respond to these two related criticisms.
In Where Have All the Democrats Gone? we did suggest how some progressives and moderates could find "common ground," but we did not advocate including the views of today's "cultural radicals" in that synthesis. There are good kinds of radicalism and bad kinds. As Kazin notes, there were periods when what were seen as radical movements and proposals later became the basis for liberal reforms that benefitted many Americans. Franklin Roosevelt might not have championed the Second New Deal without pressure from labor radicals and from Huey Long's Share the Wealth Clubs, which advocated a cap on a family's wealth. In years to come, Americans may look back on radical proposals like Medicare for All or public campaign financing as the harbingers for important reforms.
But radicals on the left as well as the right have proposed changes that were not only deeply unpopular at the time, but also detrimental. Black Panther Party chairman Huey Newton called on blacks to "take up the gun" to win their liberation; some radicals in the women's and gay liberation movements advocated abolishing the nuclear family. Some ecologists advocated population control. When we discussed cultural radicalism, we were describing a politics that was extreme, unpopular, and deleterious and should be rejected rather than accommodated.
Here were some of the examples:
Immigration. Many left-wing Democrats have advocated radical policies that would increase illegal immigration or even erase the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. These include opening America's borders, decriminalizing illegal immigration, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and opposing employer verification of hires' legal status. But besides the emigres themselves, the main beneficiaries of these policies are employers who seek cheap, docile workers. In the last half century, the huge influx of legal and illegal unskilled and low-skilled immigrants has held down the wages and thwarted unionization among native workers. This influx has had a particularly harmful effect on first generation legal migrants and African Americans with only a high school education—precisely the people that the radical left claims to champion.
Crime. In the name of racial justice, radicals have proposed defunding the police, reducing or even eliminating penalties for crimes for which African Americans are disproportionately arrested, and even abolishing prisons. The principal beneficiaries of these proposals are the criminals themselves. Those who suffer most from them are the residents of poorer neighborhoods who in the last three years have endured gang violence and a wave of homicides and carjackings, and who also suffer when drugstores and convenience stores close down because the police, hobbled by rules set by radical district attorneys and by a lack of personnel, cannot stem shoplifting. Again, those who suffer most are precisely the people the radicals claim to champion.
Gender and sex. Radicals have insisted that a man who identifies as a woman is a woman and is entitled to the same rights that the women's movement won for women over the last half-century. These include being able to compete as a woman in highly competitive college sports, to which young women thronged after the passage of Title IX. The same radicals talk of "pregnant people" rather than pregnant women. And they reject the right of the state and federal government to regulate the use of experimental drugs and surgery on minors, even while calling for state governments to ban any approach other than "gender-affirming" therapy. The beneficiaries of this new politics of gender are a tiny minority of activists who, like those in the anti-vaccine movement, want to subject biological science to a political ideology.
Race and reparations. Radicals have argued that "structural racism" pervades American institutions and needs to be addressed by taxpayer-funded reparations to black Americans. But reparations are generally justified in situations where the victimizers (or their immediate descendants) reimburse the victims (or their immediate descendants) for the ills they have inflicted on them. The radical demand for reparations fails on both counts. About 70 percent of Americans cannot trace their ancestry back to the period when blacks were enslaved, and 22 percent of Americans today even can't trace their ancestry back to the Jim Crow South, which was dealt a fatal blow by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts. First generation immigrants, barely able to support their families in low-wage service jobs, would have to fund payments to middle- and upper middle-class blacks. That would be unfair and very unpopular.
Climate change. Radicals advocate ending fossil fuel use in the United States by 2030 and soon afterwards internationally. They reject new investments in fossil fuels, including natural gas, and they exclude nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. They want Biden to "declare a climate emergency." Their rhetoric is apocalyptic and invites its opposite—the denial of any danger from global warming. And their objectives cannot be realized without utterly transforming everyday life and shutting down vast swathes of industrial production. Contrary to the claims of the Green New Deal, many jobs would disappear, and Americans' standard of living would sharply decline. In fact, the radicals' projections are based on fantasy not fact. As Vaclav Smil puts it: “What’s the point of setting goals that cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.” Most Americans sense that and oppose the radical climate agenda. Globally, nations still bent on industrializing are even more likely to resist the agenda.
In each of these cases, radicals are responding to real problems. There are as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States who constitute an exploitable underclass. There have been egregious examples in the last decade of police brutality against blacks, highlighted by George Floyd's murder in 2020. Many black Americans remained mired in multi-generational poverty. There has been a rash of mental illness among young people, including teenage girls who have suddenly decided that they want to change their sex. And the danger posed by climate change is quite real. But radicals' response to these problems either makes them worse (in the cases of immigration and crime) or discredits any constructive attempt to address them (in the cases of reparations, climate change or gender dysphoria.) In each of these cases, the radical approach can't be accommodated and should be rejected.
In our book, we do suggest reforms that would address these problems constructively. These kinds of reforms could win public support for Democrats and actually help solve the problems in question.
Crime. Instead of defunding the police, lavishly fund the police—to attract new hires to staff under-policed areas, and to train new hires to weed out the Derek Chauvins and to prevent the unjustifiable use of force. The attempt to shut down the new police training center outside Atlanta, a cause célèbre among radicals, runs precisely against these kinds of reforms.
Immigration. Provide a path to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who have come to America to find work, but at the same time take draconian measures to discourage new waves of illegal immigration. These include requiring employers to verify that new hires are in the country legally (which can be done through a national computer network), strengthening border security, eliminating asylum application as a means of evading legal immigration, and working with Mexico and Central American countries to crack down on smugglers.
Race and reparations. Pay less attention to the growing black middle class and more attention to pockets of multi-generational poverty and hopelessness that endure in big cities and also in small towns. As William Julius Wilson contended four decades ago, these areas have often been stripped of jobs and middle-class residents by industry and high-level services moving out. In the last three decades many working-class whites in middle America have suffered a similar fate when factories have moved out or mines have closed. Politically and substantively, the best approach is to fund jobs and social services in all the communities that have suffered from deindustrialization.
Sex and gender. Aggressively enforce the court's Bostock decision that bans employers from discriminating against transgender individuals. Add a ban on housing discrimination. But don't undermine rights that were specifically designed to help women or to protect people's privacy. Follow the lead of Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France—countries that have had more experience in this regard—and encourage the use of therapy and regulate as an experimental treatment the use of medical intervention for minors who are uncomfortable with their biological sex.
Climate change. Take a long view of the transition away from fossil fuels. Use natural gas, with its lower carbon emissions, as a transition fuel. Shift the funding focus to nuclear technology, while deregulating its use, and fund research into new mini-reactors and into technologies that capture carbon. Where necessary, adapt to rising seas levels and temperatures with the understanding that it may take the rest of the century for the globe to complete the transition away from fossil fuels.
In our book, we were not predicting the future of America nor offering a guidebook by which parties could win elections, but based on polling that was conducted using these approaches in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, as well as nationally, we think a majority of Americans who currently oppose radical measures would support these kinds of reforms.
Kazin worries that if the Democrats were to adopt these approaches, and eschew radical appeals on race, gender, immigration and climate, Democrats would lose many young voters. But voters make choices based on the alternatives they are offered, and if the choice, for instance, is between an incremental approach to climate change and the denial that human-induced climate change exists, they will go with the former.
As things stand, the two parties are on a political teeter-totter. Elections have frequently been decided based on which party's radical extremes are more salient. In 2022, Democrats won seats when voters were focused on Republican denial of abortion rights and denial of the results of the 2020 presidential election; Republicans won when voters turned their attention to Democratic groups’ support for open borders or defund the police.
We are not proposing a middle-ground between these radical extremes, but a politics that leaves them entirely aside and focuses on what most Americans really care about.