How to Build a Winning Coalition, with E.J. Dionne

How to Build a Winning Coalition, with E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne on his new book Code Red and the power of “visionary gradualism.”

Democratic presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders on the debate stage, November 2019 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, co-editor Timothy Shenk spoke with E.J. Dionne, author of Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country (St. Martin’s Press).

Do Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg belong in the same party? It’s a question at the heart of the 2020 presidential campaign—and at the future of American politics. Code Red, the latest book from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, tackles this issue head on. Coming in the middle of a ferocious primary contest, it’s an impassioned argument for building the broadest possible coalition against Donald Trump. But it’s also a reflection on the relationship between liberals and the left, the decades-long attempt to build a Democratic majority after the breakdown of the New Deal order, and the power of what Michael Harrington called “visionary gradualism.”

Timothy Shenk: The book starts with a deep dive into the 2018 elections. Why begin a book about the future of the Democratic Party here?

E.J. Dionne: One of my main purposes in writing this book is a fear that progressives and moderates will be at each other’s throats in a period when we can’t afford to be—not just because of Trump, but also because of the radicalization of the Republican Party. Perhaps instinctively, or perhaps just because of the trajectory of my own thinking after many years, I have a moderate disposition but a gut sympathy for the left’s analysis of what’s wrong. And I have been troubled for a long time by the inability of these two sides to communicate in ways that are constructive. I thought that 2018 was so important because people who were opposed to Trump understood, at least for one election, how much they had in common, and how urgent it was to engage in common action.

Shenk: But if you have a coalition that’s dependent on winning over affluent professionals, as the Democrats were in 2018, is it plausible to imagine a substantive left-wing agenda ever getting on the table?

Dionne: It’s important to see that Trump didn’t invent a white working class that voted Republican. Deep Southern politics is polarized around race, not class, period. So Democrats aren’t going to win back the entire white working class anytime soon. What we’re talking about is regaining ground that was lost, that can be gained back, especially in the Midwest.

Now, whenever we get into this conversation about the importance of the white working class, there’s always the question of whether that means diminishing the importance of African Americans and Latinos. That’s not what I’m arguing. African Americans and Latinos are a part of the same working class, and one of the things that has been on my mind a lot since 2016 is William Julius Wilson’s great book, When Work Disappears. He was talking in the 1990s about what deindustrialization did to the inner city. That same process is now affecting many of the old, predominantly white factory towns where Trump made large gains.

We desperately need an interracial politics that speaks to the problems that both Reading, Pennsylvania, and inner-city Baltimore face. They are parts of the same problem. Now, if you make that argument, you have to acknowledge immediately that African Americans in Baltimore face particular problems that white people in Reading do not. And we just have to be honest about that. But that shouldn’t mean that coalition building has become impossible.

Shenk: Is it fair to say that this question of how to make a progressive majority has been at the center of your work for decades now? It’s not framed in this way, exactly, but it seems like the driving concern in your first book, Why Americans Hate Politics (1991).

Dionne: I actually wrote a piece  with my friend Gary Orren in 1980 for a great old magazine that Robert Kuttner edited called Working Papers for a New Society after the 1980 election. It was also about how to build a broad progressive majority. So yes, I’ve been obsessed with coalition building all my life, because in democratic politics you have to think about it. The biggest change in my view from the time I was writing Why Americans Hate Politics is that back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right had not fully radicalized. I wrote with a lot of respect for the right because I grew up in a conservative family, so I don’t think all right wingers are crazy or evil. There are conservative positions that I think deserve respect: belief in original sin, for instance, a Niebuhrian belief in limits to human nature.

The radicalizing point for me, if it can be called that, was the Florida debacle in 2000. I found in that fight and in the Supreme Court’s decision just a fundamental disrespect for norms, both constitutional and political. Then came the way we got into the Iraq War. Meanwhile, I became increasingly angry over conservative judicial activism. Citizens United, on campaign finance, and Shelby County, on voting rights—those are oligarchic decisions. One shifts more power to the very wealthy, the other further disempowers the already disempowered. All of that made Trumpism possible. And, of course, the Trump coalition today is built on overwhelming support from conservative Republicans, as the Senate vote during the impeachment battle showed.

Shenk: Do you think there are lessons for the left in Trump’s rise? Or is wholesale repudiation the only appropriate response?

Dionne: No one is more anti-Trump than I am, but progressives still have a job to do. Liberals and the left and the center made fun of Trump when he told working-class people he would bring their jobs back. But when progressives and moderates tell these same people that your jobs are gone but we’ll retrain you, what they hear is, “I need to be just like you. I need to be college-educated.” When Trump says he’s going to bring back jobs, I think a lot of people knew that that was not going to happen, but they felt respected.

Shenk: This is where the suburbanized Democratic coalition, could be a real cause for concern, right? Could a party of Mike Bloombergs honestly say, “we respect you”?

Dionne: To build a majority coalition at this moment, you need a large share of the middle class. And guess what? A lot of left candidates have relied on the votes of the so-called knowledge class. If you look at Ayanna Pressley’s coalition, in Boston, it was a combination of African Americans and Latinos with young people in upscale professions. I have always loved Mark Shields’s great line, that there are two kinds of people in politics: people who search for heretics, and people who search for converts. And I think you have to seek converts. Just because someone is a suburban liberal doesn’t mean they can’t be an ally.

I was an alternate delegate for George McGovern in 1972, and I was campaigning in Fall River, Massachusetts, my working-class hometown. The campaign sent us leaflets that carried a version of McGovern’s rather famous quotation, “I’m fed up with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” It’s a great line, but guess what? We were campaigning in a working-class town with a relatively old population. I wanted people to know about McGovern’s progressive positions on economics. So we just cut the cover off the leaflets, which left a lot of material about McGovern’s positions on economics, tax reform, wages, and the like. And we gave those out.

I’ve been struggling with this working-class/suburban liberal dilemma all my life. We need to figure out how to make this alliance work, and we can’t succeed without a substantial vote from broadly progressive middle-class voters.

Shenk: Does the difficulty that Elizabeth Warren has encountered trying to straddle this divide give you any pause?

Dionne: This is a divide that goes back to the New Deal. The paradox today is that the reforms that a lot of the middle-class wing want are, in fact, reforms that benefit working people, particularly in the areas of political reform, including campaign finance reform. We should celebrate that. In many areas, they’re supporting a politics that is designed to empower working people and to limit the power of the wealthy.

One of my favorite concepts is social learning, which just means that we learn collectively that we shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. Since 1980, there has been a significant amount of social learning on the broad center-left. And I desperately want these two sides on the left to realize that under these circumstances, with a terribly radicalized right, and a terribly radicalized Republican Party, we can’t move forward without defeating this force in our politics. Once the radical right is defeated, we will have plenty of time and room to have arguments.

The other thing that I want put on the table is a lesson that I drew from the 1960s about the relationship between the left and the liberal establishment. The irony of the sixties is that the left waged war on “establishment liberals,” and the right waged war on “the liberal establishment.” The left hated liberals because they were the establishment. The right hated the establishment because it was liberal. Guess what? We need a healthy liberal establishment for the left to succeed. Somebody who understood that was Sidney Hillman. The CIO did two things simultaneously: it gave critical support to Roosevelt when he needed it against the right, and but also pressured Roosevelt in a more progressive direction. We desperately need to rediscover that kind of functional relationship between a liberal establishment and the left.

Shenk: But this is what makes Bernie Sanders so exciting to his supporters (like, full disclosure, me). Because he’s not saying the job of the left is to put pressure on a liberal establishment. What a lot of people see in the campaign—what makes it a movement—is the promise that the left can get into the driver’s seat. And I acknowledge that if your overriding goal is defeating Trump in 2020, then there’s a really strong case to be made for downplaying conflicts, rallying the team, and using the existing coalition that we have. But if you’re more concerned with solving the problems that led to Trump in the first place, then now is the time to start building that counter-establishment. And that means leftists need to be willing to fight for themselves, because they have a different plan for how to build a majority.

Dionne: Here we might have a difference of view. I think it’s very important for us to recognize that socialism has a deep tradition in the United States. One of the people this book is dedicated to is Michael Harrington. But it is worth recalling that Eugene Debs got 6 percent of the vote in 1912. Fundamentally, my politics are social democratic. I see the nature of public opinion in America as requiring a broad center-left coalition because I simply don’t see a durable majority on the left alone. And so I honor Sanders for the pressure he’s brought on the system. I honor him for the way in which he broadened a debate that had shifted so far to the right. But this is why I love Harrington’s idea of “visionary gradualism.” You need the visionary part that involves proposing real change—what Elizabeth Warren calls “deep structural change.” But history teaches that we only rarely achieve reform in one big leap. We usually achieve it in steps.

I’ve always been fascinated by a line that was popular in the British Labour party back in the 1970s: “fundamental and irreversible reform.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that you impose a Leninist state that makes argument against reform impossible. It means that a reform answers such deep social needs that the people won’t let anybody reverse it. Social Security is an obvious example of that in the United States. Socialist parties around the world have always discovered that, in the end, the incremental steps of social democracy are essential.

Shenk: Debs got 6 percent of the vote because he was a third-party candidate (or fourth-party, I guess, since Teddy Roosevelt was running as a Progressive that year, too). It seems to me that what many leftists are proposing now is essentially doing to the Democrats what conservatives have already done to the Republicans: turn a political party into the vehicle for a political movement. In this case, it would be a movement that speaks for the multiracial working class and doesn’t rely on the existing Democratic donor class to stay afloat. This doesn’t mean that all of a sudden Democrats will win every election. But it does mean that when Democrats win, they would do it with the coalition, infrastructure, and personnel that would allow them to govern from the left. And it’s striking to me that the warnings we hear from the Democratic establishment now are almost perfect echoes of the language moderate Republicans used in the 1960s, or even in 1980, before Reagan won the nomination.

Dionne: Reaganism was not a pure coalition of the right, though. If it had been, he would have gotten the same number of votes as Barry Goldwater got in 1964.

On the broader point, I think Gramsci was right that the true power of a ruling group comes not simply from ownership of the means of production, but also from control over a society’s ideas and moral values. In the 1980s, the right seemed to be paying far more attention to Gramsci than the liberal left. So it’s great that people on the left are not simply reacting to the right, and trimming their sails. But it still doesn’t, to me anyway, mean that it is possible to build a purely left coalition, or that it’s possible to achieve change other than in an incremental way. There’s a dialectic about gradualism that we have to grapple with.

Shenk: And yet Bernie Sanders polled well against Trump in 2016, and he’s polled well in this cycle so far. We know that being able to draw on populist discontent with the status quo is a powerful weapon these days, and because of negative polarization any Democrat can count on a base line of voters who will settle for the lesser of two evils. Winning an election, even a presidential election, would just be the beginning of a much longer battle. But isn’t a coalition that could put a socialist president in the office by definition a socialist coalition?

Dionne: I’m not a basher of Bernie nor of the Bernie coalition, but we have to be realistic about what is possible and about the limits of Bernie’s appeal. Bernie lost the popular vote to Hillary by nearly 4 million in 2016. We don’t know what an extended argument over everything Bernie is for would look like. The Sanders intervention is important, the Sanders constituency is vitally important, but my read is that pure Sandersism is unlikely to carry the country whereas the alliance that did win in 2018, between the AOCs of the world and the Abigail Spanbergers of the world, created a big majority coalition that has real potential to achieve very substantial change.

Shenk: Isn’t it always easier to form a coalition out of opposition? Even though you could get a strong majority against Donald Trump in 2018, I’d bet that things would have played out very differently if it had come down to a direct choice between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. But I’ve always found it odd that the same people who are worried about AOC dragging down the party with swing voters have no problem with keeping Pelosi—a literal San Francisco millionaire with her own vineyard—as the Democratic standard-bearer in Congress.

Dionne: Except Pelosi is a down-the-line labor Democrat, and the fact is that the left is, in the broadest and best sense of the term, liberal on a bunch of things. The left is liberal about civil rights, the left is liberal about immigrants, and it’s liberal about gun control, just to name a few issues. That coalition is never going to win over the entirety of the socially conservative working class. What you can do is speak to the working class as a whole in a way that respects the battle for dignity. It’s why I think that it’s a mistake to look at the working-class vote for Trump and say, that whole vote was a vote for racism. There was a lot of racism in the Trump vote, and sexism too. But it wasn’t just that.

Shenk: You could say that the proposition Bernie’s side is making is that now we want to talk about Medicare for All with the same intensity that liberals already talk about gun control. Even if it’s hard to imagine something passing today, even if it costs you votes with some constituencies, you should be willing to take the hit, because this is something you really support.

Dionne: But in both cases I am perfectly willing to accept part of a loaf. None of the realistic proposals to control guns are gun confiscation. And so I think we can look at those two issues in roughly the same way, which is achieving 70 percent of what we need. I’m for universal coverage, I think that’s a legitimate litmus test. But I don’t think the litmus test should be single-payer. Similarly, I’m for strong action on guns, but it doesn’t mean I would propose gun confiscation.

Shenk: This gets back to the questions about what replaces the New Deal coalition that you were talking about in Why Americans Hate Politics. This might be too crude a way to put it, but I’ll try anyway: doesn’t the problem boil down to whether you can ever get back to a working-class majority if the right can always pull out the culture war?

Dionne: The working class has never been entirely united, even when we think about the heyday of the New Deal. We act as if we had a monolithic working class in America. Where I grew up, the ethnic divisions between French-Canadians, the Irish, and Italians were always coalitional problems within a broad, class-based New Deal coalition. These aren’t novel problems that we confront now.

Shenk: You’ve spent decades now reaching out to people who disagree with you, on both the right and the left. It’s something I’ve always admired about your work. In a political system that’s filled with cynics, you’re so clearly operating in good faith. But do you ever worry that no amount of bridge-building will ever be enough, because the underlying disputes are just too vast?

Dionne: I guess I don’t like to hate people. And I don’t like to hate people I disagree with. I have grown steadily more frustrated and impatient with conservatives, but I am old enough that I can go back to a time when it was possible to have conversations with people on the right that had at least a chance of getting us somewhere. You know, I have strong political views, but I would not want to live in a country where everyone agreed with me. I doubt you would either. And that’s why I think we have to rediscover the first word of our Constitution. We must learn to say “We” about all our fellow citizens, and mean it.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a university professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a columnist for the Washington Post.

Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: