The Audacity of Desperation

For a generation, Democrats equated boldness with defeat. In launching an impeachment inquiry, Nancy Pelosi signaled a new direction.

Nancy Pelosi stands in front of American flags and a lectern at the Capitol.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

About the author: Peter Beinart is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

Nancy Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump is not just a hinge moment in his presidency, and in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. It is a hinge moment in the history of the Democratic Party. The era of Democratic caution—which lasted for at least a quarter century—is over.

In 2006, the journalist Thomas Edsall, after decades of playing poker in Washington, explained why Republicans generally won. “Republicans,” he wrote, “are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker.”

You didn’t need to be an aficionado of seven-card stud to grasp his point. The Democrats with whom Edsall played poker were politically cautious because they associated risk taking with defeat. In the 1972 election, which Hillary Clinton called her and Bill’s “first rite of passage,” George McGovern—the most audaciously progressive nominee of the late 20th century—lost 49 states. Eight years later, Ronald Reagan—the most audaciously conservative nominee of the late 20th century—won.

By the late 1980s, after Reagan had secured reelection with 49 states, Democratic leaders had settled on an explanation. As the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote in their 1989 essay “The Politics of Evasion”: “During the last two decades, most Democratic nominees have come to be seen as unacceptably liberal.”

That essay became the intellectual cornerstone of the New Democratic movement that Bill Clinton rode to power three years later. Once in office, Clinton raged against his own lack of ideological ambition. He derided his administration as “Eisenhower Republicans.” But the activist left was flat on its back, so he faced little pressure to be bolder. In 1996, a year in which Clinton signed a welfare bill that stripped millions of legal immigrants of food stamps, and ran ads boasting about banning gay marriage, he still faced no significant progressive primary challenge.

For much of Barack Obama’s presidency, the political dynamic was largely the same. Republican landslides in the midterm congressional elections highlighted the dangers of liberal ambition. And progressives could exact no price for liberal caution. The American left, wrote one academic in 2012, was “marginalized, confused and intimidated.” When a Republican congressman attacked “socialist members of this body” on the House floor in 2011, Democrats demanded that the calumny be struck from the Congressional Record.

Were this still the climate inside the Democratic Party, Pelosi would not have embraced impeachment in the face of adamant Republican opposition and, at least so far, substantial public disapproval. Her decision is not only the result of Trump’s increasingly shameless misdeeds. It’s also the product of a new Democratic fearlessness, a growing imperviousness to Republican opposition and public disapproval. Two-thirds of Americans oppose decriminalizing illegal border crossings, according to a July 2019 NPR/Marist poll, yet, as David Leonhardt has pointed out, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro support it. Most Americans oppose eliminating private health insurance, but poll numbers haven’t stopped Warren and Sanders from pledging to do just that. Most Americans also oppose reparations for African Americans, yet Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Castro have signaled their openness to the idea nonetheless.

Democrats have become risk takers because they no longer believe America is a center-right nation. From 1968 to 1988, Republicans won the popular vote five out of six times. In the seven elections since, Republicans have won the popular vote once. Democrats have become risk takers because they feel pressure from a revitalized left. By some estimates, the percentage of Americans who have taken to the streets since Trump’s election exceeds the share that did so at the height of protests against the Vietnam War. And this activist surge has given the left power in Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has almost twice as many followers on Twitter, and almost six times as many on Instagram, as Pelosi does.

Finally, Democrats have become risk takers because Trump has shattered the norms that once constrained political action. He’s shown that brazenness works. In so doing, he’s encouraged Democrats to be as brazen in expanding democracy—by eliminating the electoral college and letting prisoners vote—as Trump and his allies have been in restricting and undermining it. He’s encouraged Democrats to be as brazen in defending the rule of law as he has been in defying it.

It is telling that Pelosi has embraced impeachment at the very moment that Warren—who tells her audiences, “You can’t be afraid”—surges in front of Joe Biden in early-state polls. Democrats have become, for the first time in a generation, a daring party. This is more than the audacity of hope. It’s the audacity of desperation, too.