As we face the near daily crises of 2018 ― worsening climate change, stagnating wages and rising autocracy, one of the rare points of agreement across the political spectrum is that Democrats should be less extreme. It’s unseemly to challenge Trump administration officials through acts of civil disobedience, we’re told. It’s ungracious to stall or stymie President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with parliamentary tricks. It’s unjust to consider the impeachment of a president who aligned himself with a hostile attacker over our own intelligence services.
But it is unacceptable to maintain the status quo.
We face extraordinary challenges. We have a health care system that requires the victims of mass shootings to crowdfund their recoveries, inflates the cost of lifesaving drugs at a whim and grotesquely penalizes chronically ill and disabled people. Our economy compensates workers with meager wages despite record corporate profits, demands debt to make basic investments in our education at every level and creates a cultural atmosphere that routinely criticizes us for the tiniest indulgences. A paramilitary operation that willfully perpetrates an inhumane and illegal family separation policy and is overseen by inveterate liars has free rein under the auspices of this administration.
These conditions call for dramatic solutions. Overhauling the layered complexities of our health care system or abolishing a federal agency may seem radical on its face, but that perception rests on divorcing the substance of the policies from the reasons they are necessary. Liberals do not seek to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement because they want to destroy agencies, but because they seek to end the harms perpetrated by this particular office.
Americans are not seeking to overthrow the world, but to build a system that values and invests in our success and has mercy for our failures. In search of this, we have marched and organized and engaged in civil disobedience and protest. We handed a three-million-vote margin to the most progressive platform in decades in the previous election.
Liberals do not seek to abolish ICE because they want to destroy agencies, but because they seek to end the harms perpetrated by this particular agency.
Yet, despite the energy and enthusiasm for this vision of the country, elected Democrats have remained defensive. They chide their own constituencies for pursuing remedies to our suffering. Rather than celebrating and encouraging their base, the party seems alternately embarrassed and resentful to have it at the center of their coalition. Further, the Democratic leadership’s reluctance to appreciate and endorse the very core of its support and appeal has attracted attacks and made the party too weak to endure them.
This cowardice has enabled the Republican Party to set the agenda and define the parameters of discussion. The very same party that had a presidential candidate call for the outright eradication of three Cabinet-level agencies during a debate (though only remembering two) is somehow able to paint abolishing ICE as extreme.
During that same campaign, every GOP candidate rejected a theoretical agreement in which they would receive a ten-to-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, in one of the most outrageous and public displays of fiscal innumeracy in American politics. The issues that animate their base — from guns and taxes to immigration and diversity — dominate our national dialogue even as majorities disagree with them, giving them outsized influence in what is meant to be a representative polity. Republicans do not even pretend to consider the lives and well-being of American citizens beyond their voters and donors, and, facing no rebuke and no consequence, they have internalized the idea that they never need to do so.
The problems that surround us are the result of an insufficiently aggressive Democratic Party conceding to right-wing radicalism. This vision for the country has eroded democracy, diminished economic mobility, degraded our environment, worsened our health, squandered the potential of an entire generation and endangered the retirement of another.
Remedying this will require a radicalism heretofore unseen from Democratic leadership. It must be a radicalism of approach, investment and policy that centers the values, stories and lives of Democratic voters and their allies. They must, as Mario Cuomo once said, campaign in poetry and govern in prose. It is a radicalism that mentions the global ubiquity of paid maternity leave in the same breath as the global prevalence of universal healthcare systems. It is a radicalism that defends, not castigates, the righteous anger of Democratic representatives, like Maxine Waters of California and Frederica Wilson of Florida, when they are under attack. It is a radicalism that does not concede to the limited Republican notion of what the country has been, and instead challenges us to embrace what the country could be.
It may seem easier to meekly preserve the Democratic legacy of the 20th century than it is to set the foundations for a new one in the 21st, but that is a false choice. Victory rests upon pushing forward an agenda designed for the problems of today while recognizing how we solved the ones of yesterday. It was not the moderation of the Democratic Party that salvaged the country from the Great Depression. It was not kindness that challenged fascism at home and abroad. It was not deference that ended de jure segregation and recognized black citizenship as American citizenship. It was radicalism.
That same spirit is necessary to protect and expand our election systems, devastate white supremacy legislatively, reduce gun violence, set a floor for American poverty, develop the energy infrastructure of the future, equalize education, encompass all American citizens within the safety and power of representation and meet the challenges that have and will come with climate change.
For the Democratic Party to survive and thrive, the days of campaigning in prose and governing in silence must end.
Kaitlin Byrd is a writer and political activist based in her hometown of Brooklyn. She tweets at @GothamGirlBlue.