You have probably heard some Dems boosted crazy MAGA Trumpists via ad buys in various Rep primaries, obviously angling for victory in November over more extremist, presumptively easier-to-beat opponents. Some of the crazies won!
Here’s a recent WaPo article about it. Quite a bit has been written elsewhere; you can google if curious. Details are colorful. (After the article appeared, Bolduc won!) These R’s who got the boost are all certifiable, whether they are electable or no. And it wasn’t just Dem candidates freelancing this on their own. The DCCC got involved among other leaders. So it wasn’t just some coordination problem where individual candidates acted in selfish, short-sighted ways against the party’s interest, never mind the country’s.
This has outraged people, D’s included. R’s (usually of an anti-anti-Trump bent) have cited it as evidence D’s don’t really believe that MAGA is a threat to democracy. Surely they would not be so cavalier as to play with fire if they thought it would burn the house down!
Maybe I’m getting flaming radical in my old age but, honestly, I just don’t see what the fuss is about. Actually, I thought I did at first. I said that I disapproved. Then I thought again and I just couldn’t see it. You tell me.
Let me sketch it abstractly. The season’s over but the issue remains and may recur. There is the Realpolitik of it. Then there’s the ‘ideal theory’ of it. Is it winning? Is it normatively justifiable, relative to a moderately aspirational benchmark of how democratic, adversarial party contests should be conducted?
I think it’s fine as Realpolitik, all things considered. Not self-evidently the smartest but a reasonable strategy. Not wildly risky. I think it’s likewise fine ethically. It isn’t really dishonest. A ton of stuff that people are regularly fine with, in campaigns, is much worse.
It’s just weird, I think. It isn’t normal a strategy like this seems likely. But – strange times.
Let’s do Realpolitik first without worrying about any nicey-nicey.
1st best: the Democrat wins. 2nd best: the moderate Republican wins. 3rd best: a crazy MAGA election-denier wins.
By boosting the crazies over the moderates, Dems are increasing the chances of 1 but also 3.
Is that obviously a stupid mistake? That is, is it obvious either that 1 isn’t much better than 2, or that 3 is much, much much worse than 2? (Or that otherwise the numbers just don’t work out.)
This is very far from clear to me. From a Dem perspective, a Dem is way better than a moderate Republican, who is likely to vote with R’s on almost everything except (by hypothesis) crazy overthrow-the-government-type insurrection and election denial stuff. Worse, I think there is a distinct risk that seeming-moderates would turn out to be squishes who break MAGA under pressure. That is, if you fail to boost an actual MAGA loon, against a moderate, you will only be accidentally boosting a MAGA-loon in moderate’s clothing. Better to fight against a clear crazy in the general than a crypto-crazy.
On the other hand, there is the counter-thought that you simply have to try to build a bulwark in the form of moderate R’s, against the day. But there is also this counter-counter-thought. A lot of establishment R’s clearly hate Trump and have contempt for MAGA but are just riding the crazy train, keeping quiet, hoping it will all burn out not too catastrophically, and the establishment can pick up the pieces again. Electing moderate R’s actually encourages these squishy anti-antis to fence-sit like that. Whereas, if MAGA crazies keep getting nominated and losing, so the R party itself loses, maybe only such real pain could make for civil war in the GOP, to get rid of Trump finally. So, by boosting crazy MAGA-types, to send down to flaming defeat, D’s are doing the healthy necessary heightening of contradictions to encourage the emergence of a moderate anti-Trump force in the GOP. Life is crazy. Who is to say? So you might as well just try to win, as a Dem.
It’s weird that campaigning for crazies on the other side would work. Normally this would probably be too-clever-by-half and just not work. But the R party has a problem. It has not a big enough base of moderate, center-right voters for candidates to win on that base. It has a fired-up radical, more or less far-right base. (But, fair is fair, far-right can get kind of confusing to calibrate. MAGA can cross-cut some traditional senses of left-right. But mostly it’s far-right.) But a healthy major party needs to have some moderates or it will be too small. So this just makes sense: if you know the other guy has broken ribs, hit him in the ribs. The fish will rot from the head down, eventually – if you hit the fish again and again in the broken ribs.
This goes against the idea that really what we want are two healthy major parties, so we should aim to get that. So, if the moderate ribs of the GOP are broken, the D’s should maybe bandage them, or at least not punish them! Maybe D’s should even campaign for some moderate R’s!
Yeah, but the whole point of two major parties is that they fight. When the ref says ‘fight!’ you can’t be trying to bandage the other guy, so he can fight you better, while he’s fighting you.
You can make deals, of course. You can have bi-partisan efforts. If moderate R’s get elected, of course D’s should be very happy to work with them. But, electorally, you would need a more wildly out-of-kilter set of upsides vs downsides s to be able to say that just plain boosting the D isn’t the straight best partisan play.
Now, let’s consider whether this is all just too sneaky and dishonest and lying, boosting a lunatic against a moderate, in hopes of going against a lunatic and winning because he’s crazy. (We’ve just ruled out that it’s more dangerous. But maybe it’s too dishonest.)
The thing is: it isn’t dishonest at all. The strategy is completely open. The D’s haven’t just come out and said it, but there would be no shame in it. I prefer 1st best to 2nd best and am willing to go for 1st best, although there is some risk. Honest, reasonable.
How about just saying this: we are cutting ads to boost crazies so we can beat them in the general. If knowing that D’s plan to beat them this way pisses off R’s, they can punish D’s by nominating tons of moderates, and not a MAGA clown in sight, to spite them. That’s fine. If the effect of this sinister D ad strategy is we get two competitive major parties, neither of which regularly nominates lunatics, D’s can live with that level of ‘backfire’.
When a strategy is perfectly open like that – or at least it can be open, without impairing it – that’s a sign that it isn’t dishonest.
But what about the content of the ads? Well, so far as I can see, the ads have all been perfectly honest and informational.
The ads are intended to inform R primary voters of who the most deplorable R is, so they can go out and vote for them. The theory is: the R voters will.
Often times the moderate R’s in the race want to create some uncertainty on this score, in the hopes that some Rs will vote for them, thinking they are more deplorable when secretly they are not so bad as all that. This is all sort of odd. But a perfectly good democratic principle is that ads that increase the ability of voters to find the candidate who best suits their preference in candidates are good ads. The Dem ads, boosting the crazies, effectively, are ads that accurately characterize where the R’s stand. The proof of this is that the Dems have been careful to cut ads that either are, or can double as, attack ads on the candidate in the general, whichever it turns out to be. That is to say, it will not be the case that these Dems are saying one thing in the primary period, and something else in the general – which is a quite common phenomenon, after all.
it’s far sketchier that it is so common to run to your base in the primary, then run to the center in the general. That’s dishonest. But normal. Understandable. These ads don’t do anything half so underhanded as that.
Some of these ads are kind of ironic. Again, some of them actually just say ‘this candidate is terrible, he stands with Trump 100%!’ That is, they are attack ads but they obviously anticipate that the attacks will ‘backfire’, causing the attacked MAGA candidate to win, due to standing with Trump 100%. But why is that dishonest? What the ad says is exactly what those paying for the ad think. It tells the voters a true fact that the person buying the ad wants the voters to know.
The ads that are attack ads on the moderate R’s are likewise, honest, as far as they go – so far as I have seen. A lot of moderate R’s are sleazy and corporate-establishment. Easy to make them look bad to the MAGA base by saying things about them that also make them look bad to the Dem base.
I’ll round off with the following: it seems bad to ratf*ck the other side’s primary, or bum-rush the other guy’s stage. Ideally, elections are battles of ideas and ideals that go in two stages. First, the R’s and D’s fight among themselves, in their primaries, to pick the best R and D, respectively. Then they fight in the general to determine whether the best R is better or the best D is, in the eyes of the voters generally. Deliberately degrading the other side’s candidate quality, rather than just minding your own knitting, working to see that your own candidate quality is high, seems counter-productive for good government.
But another thing you want is for elections to make the stakes clear. We want the voters to have choices and be informed. If you think that it’s basically a crazy MAGA party against a sane Dem party, making clear that it’s a crazy MAGA party, by ensuring that the R candidate is unmistakably crazy from 50 yards away, is offering voters a clear and honest choice.
Now, the objection to this would be: it’s not for Dems to say whether the GOP is crazy or moderate! It’s not for Dems to nudge the GOP towards the crazy, just because the Dems think that’s where it’s actually going. (Self-fulfilling prophecy.) But the Dems can say: we are only conducting an honest experiment in democracy to see whether we are right. We predict that, given a clear choice, GOP voters themselves will freely choose the worse and refuse the better. So we are running informative ads to help them make sure not to accidentally pick the better choice, thereby obscuring the expression of their preference for the bad. Then, we predict that in the general the general public, seeing that the GOP is the party of picking the worse over the better, the general electorate will not follow suit, also picking the worse. They will vote Dem instead.
There is no other way to play this game that is half so honest and open. It’s actually more dishonest to play it the other way, trying to engineer it so that somehow MAGA voices aren’t heard, proportionate to their number.
And, wrapping back to Realpolitik: not only is that sort of approach, trying to muffle MAGA, more dishonest, less open, it’s also what got us Trump in the first place. He benefited from the fact that there was an informal – not an alliance, but a harmony of elite positionings – between D’s and R’s that artificially constrained the issue space in some ways. That didn’t work out because it proved unstable. So maybe the smart play is to play it the opposite way. Give MAGA enough rope to hang itself. It’s not obviously impractical, it’s certainly not dishonest, therefore it certainly implies no failure to take the risks to democracy seriously. it takes them extremely seriously. So far as I can see.