Cross-posted from Campaign For America's Future
Writing on our blog and in Real Clear Politics, my Campaign for America's Future colleague Bill Scher dismisses Zephyr Teachout's call for progressive primary challenges against conservative Democrats. Scher argues the left should focus instead on "gaining influence without launching a civil war," arguing that "unlike the dynamic in the Republican Party, disagreements within the Democratic family are not debilitating."
This idea has been raised before: that infighting between the party's left and right wings are nothing more than a set of relatively minor policy differences within the "Democratic family" (to use Scher's words), and that they're best solved with genteel discussion and issue-oriented campaigns rather than "war-like" primary challenges.
It's an attractive vision. Unfortunately, it's also wrong.
To be fair, Scher doesn't question the right of progressives to mount primary challenges. But he argues that is not "strategically correct" to do so. Is he right? Let's look at the arguments one by one.
My Purist Can Beat Your Purist
Scher points to the GOP's "low-grade civil war between purists and pragmatists" and suggests that this has "severely hampered the party's effort to rehabilitate its brand." Primary challenges, he argues, would similarly harm Democrats.
But Republican and Democratic Party "purists" are not the same. Tea Party extremists are peddling an unpopular ideology that voters have rejected again and again. The GOP can't "rehabilitate its brand" because its internal challengers forced it to offer a stronger dose of the same foul medicine.
Unlike Tea Partiers, polls show that Democratic/left "purists" hold views that are extremely popular with voters. For example: Likely voters want to expand Social Security, and they want to raise taxes on millionaires to pay for it. What's more, they hold that position in overwhelming numbers -- numbers that include 90 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans.
As a quick review of PopulistMajority.org shows, voters also strongly prefer the "progressive" position on a wide range of economic issues that includes job creation, infrastructure repair, the minimum wage, corporate taxation, student debt, bank regulation (and banker prosecution), raising taxes on the wealthy, and reducing the role of money in government itself.
Comparisons between the Tea Party and progressives are therefore misguided. The GOP's challengers have moved their party away from the majority, while progressive Democratic challengers would move their party toward it. That would help, not hurt, its electoral prospects.
(And about that word, "purists": it's rather pejorative. And yet we find that it's used quite often in Democratic Party circles, especially under circumstances where the word "base" might be more appropriate.)
Primary challenges are likely to result in candidates who are more progressive -- either because the challenger unseated the incumbent or because the incumbent was moved to the left, as was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. That's a good thing, because it will lead the Democratic Party away from the unpopular "centrist" positions of the Clinton/Obama wing. (That's the well-heeled faction that has offered to cut Social Security and has treated Wall Street with kid gloves.) And it will force the party to adopt positions that are strategically smarter.
Two tactics, more than any others, win elections. Parties must first increase turnout among their base voters. Progressive positions on issues like Social Security and student debt would accomplish that. Secondly, parties must appeal to undecided voters. The importance of this is often exaggerated by corporation-friendly Democrats, especially when they they want to claim that they must tack right to appeal to undecideds, but it's still important.
We know that in many cases the "progressive" economic position is preferred by voters across the political spectrum. (Again, see Populist Majority for more.) Challenges that move the party in a progressive direction will therefore help it with both of these key objectives, by exciting the base while at the same time making it more attractive to Republicans and independents.