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Columnist E.J. Dionne On How To Unite The Democratic Party

Former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, center, and others, speak during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)
Former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, center, and others, speak during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

Columnist E.J. Dionne has called on progressives and moderates in the Democratic party to unite under what he calls a banner of decency, dignity and democracy. Does he think that’s happened?


E.J. Dionne, columnist covering national politics for the Washington Post. Government professor at Georgetown University. Visiting professor at Harvard University. Senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Author of “Code Red: How Progressives And Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country.” (@EJDionne)

Charlene Carruthers, political strategist, author and community organizer. Founder of the Chicago Center for Leadership and Transformation. Steering committee member of the organization Black Womxn For. Author of “Unapologetic.” (@CharleneCac)

Interview Highlights

On the unity moderates and progressives displayed at the Democratic convention

E.J. Dionne: “It was unmistakable. As you know, the first two sentences in my book are, ‘will progressives and moderates feud while America burns, or will these natural allies take advantage of a historic opportunity to strengthen American democracy and defeat an increasingly radical form of conservatism?’ And I think that’s exactly what you saw this week. You saw it in the way Bernie Sanders gave a really passionate speech about the importance of electing Joe Biden. You heard it in what Elizabeth Warren said in a very forceful way about Biden. But you also saw it in the way in which these two sides, whether you call them moderate or a center left and the more progressive end of the party came together around a series of issues that they had been arguing about for the previous year … So, yeah, I felt very heartened this week as a citizen, but also in terms of the book I wrote, because I think this is the direction that both progressives and more moderate people in the country need to take.”

On whether the Democrats can maintain that unity if Biden wins

E.J. Dionne: “I am not unrealistic about the differences and people ought to fight their corners in internal policy debates. But I’m really not as pessimistic as others are that somehow Biden wins and all of a sudden everything falls apart and everyone is at each other’s throats. Why do I think that? Because the problems the country faces right now are so profound, both in terms of the virus and in terms of the economic mess, and the ways in which the pandemic has underscored some of the deep inequalities in the country — Biden has made a point of saying over and over again, we shouldn’t just honor essential workers, we should actually pay them. And so I think that in the need to solve a large series of problems, the different wings of the Democratic Party, yeah, they will argue about the architecture of some of the solutions. They will argue about how far can the party go in reforming and fundamentally changing the country and what will get through Congress, assuming the Democrats take control of the Senate. But the fact is that the size of the problems, I think, is going to force people on the various sides of the argument to say, all right, we want this, but we’ll settle for that, because the compromise is way better than what we have now. And then we’ll fight another day for the rest of it.”

On the generational differences in how Americans understand socialism

E.J. Dionne: “The book really talks a lot about how democratic socialism in the minds of young people is what democratic socialism was supposed to be in the first place, which is democratic. They did not live through the Cold War, young people; they did not live through the era of the Soviet Union, of Stalinism, of the kind of repression they became to be associated with communism and then, by extension, with socialism. That’s how many older Americans look at socialism. But moreover, young people have lived through a time when capitalism itself has not worked as the wonderful job-producing, income producing — broad income-producing — mechanism that lovers of capitalism claim for it. It ran into severe problems. It has created some really broad inequalities going back really to the ‘90s, early 1980s, some might measure it even into the 1970s.”

On whether the convention assuaged young progressives

Charlene Carruthers: “In this particular moment where people are calling for unity, I think it’s especially important to — as someone who did support Senator Elizabeth Warren, as someone who has politics that are frankly, farther left than the majority or the mainstream, of the Democratic Party — to really dig into the fact that unity doesn’t mean that we all of a sudden become homogeneous… And so I don’t look to the conventions and meet all of my needs. The convention is to solidify the Democratic presidential candidate, and to solidify the vice presidential candidate, and to solidify the party platform. It is the floor, not the ceiling.”

On whether the Democratic Party platform meets the expectations of progressives

Charlene Carruthers: “I don’t believe that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s platform has gone far enough. Again, it’s the floor, not the ceiling. What we are calling for is — as E.J. Dionne mentioned earlier in the conversation, we want big, bold changes. We actually want nothing short of transformation. What you’re seeing and hearing on the streets, and maybe not as much as the cameras have gone away, are people calling for a transformation. They’re calling for a country that actually prioritizes people over property. They’re calling for things like the defunding of law enforcement and the funding of public schools and anti-violence programs that create real public safety. And while the Democratic Party and particularly the convention this week gave lip service to and gave space to racial justice and is centering racial justice more squarely than folks may say they have in the past, we want that to actually show up in policy. Health care for all is a racial justice issue. Climate justice is a racial justice issue. All of those things to us are connected to transforming how the criminal-legal system functions in this country.”

On what is needed to form a winning coalition in November

Charlene Carruthers: “In my understanding of history, a winning coalition comes as a result of people pushing transformative ideas. Someone has to put it out there. Someone had to say that chattel slavery had to end. Someone had to say that the economic and racial segregation of Jim Crow had to end, and that people deserve their full dignity. And frankly, when I hear people say, you know, not right now, that you need to wait longer; if we only took that position, we wouldn’t even be at this point to have this conversation right now. There always has to be a flank of people, everyday people, who are saying that we want more. Because there’s also always a flank of people saying we want you to have less. And so those two poles together shouldn’t always come in that — the middle shouldn’t be that the folks who have always been on the margins have to sacrifice, have to compromise. We have to move what we believe is a compromise farther and farther — not just farther left, but to be much more expansive and much bigger and have much more room for people to live within their full dignity.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Code Red,” by E.J. Dionne.

Copyright © 2020 by E.J. Dionne. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Washington Post: “Trump has worked a miracle for Democrats” — “Michelle Obama may hate politics, but she is a heck of a politician. In an extraordinary speech to the online Democratic National Convention on Monday night, she quietly but passionately dissected the ways in which President Trump ‘cannot meet this moment.'”

Wall Street Journal: “Joe Biden United the Democrats—It’s Not Likely to Last” — “Former Vice President Joe Biden has united disparate factions of the Democratic Party behind a message of defeating President Trump and rebuilding from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The Atlantic: “Sanders Supporters Realize Their Party Is Bigger Than They Are” — “The messages in the Zoom chat were snide at first, but not despondent. One person observed that the Democrats would rather listen to young people singing the national anthem than to their political opinions. Another noted that the event felt like a highly produced infomercial.”

Vox: “Progressives don’t love Joe Biden, but they’re learning to love his agenda” — “Progressive groups overwhelmingly favored confrontational leftists like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 primary campaign.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: Kamala Harris exposes the GOP’s radicalism” — “It has been quite a show as President Trump and the Republicans moved feverishly — and at times hysterically — from one attack line against Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to another.”

New York Times: “E.J. Dionne Jr.’s Lost Hope for the Republican Party” — “E. J. Dionne Jr. has spent a career searching for common ground among opposing groups, in the hope that it can become the foundation of a politics of consensus.”

KALW: “City Visions: E.J. Dionne: How progressives and moderates can unite America” — “Will progressives and moderates feud as the country burns? Or will they unite to defeat President Trump and usher in a new era of reform?”

WGBH: “E.J. Dionne Talks ‘Code Red,’ And The Divide Within America’s Left” — “On Monday, journalist and author E.J. Dionne joined Boston Public Radio to discuss his latest book, ‘Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.’ The book centers around divisions within America’s political left, and how inner-party conflicts threaten Democrats’ ability to defeat Donald Trump in November.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.