Democrats Must Stop Promoting Far Right Candidates, Even If They May Be Easier to Beat

You see this happening occasionally up and down the ballot: the Democratic party or its candidates, operatives, donors, etc. will support the furthest right nutbag in a Republican primary through direct messaging to the Republican base, or donations, etc. in the hopes that it will be easier to beat the wackiest, most extreme candidate in the general election. I’ll call it ‘picking the nuts’ for shorthand in this post. Picking the nuts makes perfect tactical sense, but it is utterly corrosive to our political culture, strategically stupid, and may have a seriously deleterious effect on the Republican Party and America. It’s got to stop.

I’m going to make the case that we Democrats are harming America – and harming ourselves – by picking the nuts, even though it may be tactically sound and rational behavior in any given election.

I have long felt that picking the nuts is wrong – even if tactically sound – but couldn’t really express clearly why I felt that it was ultimately against our own interests as Americans do so. If it makes sound tactical sense in the context of a particular election to try to put a thumb on the scale to favor a nut making it to the general election, why not do it? And we have had some notable successes by doing so.

But now I have an articulable basis for why this practice is wrong and harmful, even if it is tactically sound – even successful – in particular races.

First, you have to clearly understand the difference between tactics and strategy. In brief, tactics are the local maneuvers and methods by which one overcomes an enemy in a particular battle, whereas strategy is the means and methods by which one overcomes an enemy in the entire struggle, possibly across many battles or engagements. They are related but frequently quite distinct sets of doctrines, and you can get one wrong even while getting the other right.

One can win every battle with excellent tactical superiority in every engagement, but still lose a war due to a lack of an appropriate strategy to win the whole struggle. Just think Vietnam… or Iraq… or Afghanistan… Failing to formulate and execute a winning strategy can lead to disaster, even if your superior tactical doctrine means you win every single engagement on the field.

So why is picking the nuts a strategic error – even a disaster? Follow the leader.

It is that simple, really. Parties are just big groups of people and their behavior and beliefs over time – cultures one might say. The leaders chosen to lead a group set the tone, agenda, and norms for the group which in turn shapes that group’s behavior and culture. There is a good deal of research into group psychology, and social dynamics – not to mention lots of anecdotal evidence – that demonstrates that picking the wrong leaders can have very harmful impacts on the long-term health and success of a group.

Picking the nuts is, therefore, a terrible strategic error for Democrats, even if tactically sound in a particular election, because the tactic is helping shape the behavior and culture of the Republican Party in a way very harmful to America’s politics, even if those candidate ultimately don’t win election. And it’s just that much worse when they do. We have an electoral system that practically guarantees that our politics will operate through two major coalitional parties. If one of those parties goes off the rails, so does our politics.

Now, I’m NOT saying that the GOP has gone nuts BECAUSE of our tactic of picking the nuts – I think it is likely that they would be in much the same place regardless of what Democrats might do. I am saying we shouldn’t actively work to make it worse. We should – to the extent that our actions can influence events – help make the GOP better.

I might not convince you in these few paragraphs that Democrats are making a grave strategic error by choosing to pick the nuts, but I can provide you with links to folks who discuss and think about this subject in much greater depth.

One such person is a former Republican – now independent – David French. He’s written a very good book that contains this very point: “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation” He makes the point that the leadership of parties matters for how they evolve and how they behave in the public square.

The more we Democrats encourage the Republican party to select radicalized leadership, the more of it we will get, and that’s a poor strategy. We should be encouraging moderation and compromise in their party, not the opposite.

French’s recent interviews and articles (especially this one entitled ‘Make Character Great Again’ in the Atlantic) emphasize the point that leadership helps shape group expectations and culture and that Trump and his ilk have had an extremely negative effect on what Republicans believe and how they behave in politics. The same can be said of leaders at all levels of the Republican Party to a greater or lesser extent.

French makes this point more explicitly in his recent podcast interview with pollster Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark in her focus-group-themed podcast, ‘The Focus Group’.

We ignore this wisdom at our own peril. We may win some important battles by picking the nuts tactically, but its the wrong strategy to win the war to protect our democracy.

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7 thoughts on “Democrats Must Stop Promoting Far Right Candidates, Even If They May Be Easier to Beat”

  1. Never forget…

    How the Hillary Clinton campaign deliberately “elevated” Donald Trump with its “pied piper” strategy

    An email released by WikiLeaks shows how the Democratic Party purposefully “elevated” Trump to “leader of the pack”


    In its self-described “pied piper” strategy, the Clinton campaign proposed intentionally cultivating extreme right-wing presidential candidates, hoping to turn them into the new “mainstream of the Republican Party” in order to try to increase Clinton’s chances of winning.

    The Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee called for using far-right candidates “as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right.” Clinton’s camp insisted that Trump and other extremists should be “elevated” to “leaders of the pack” and media outlets should be told to “take them seriously.”

    The strategy backfired — royally.

    • And at the risk of spiking my blood pressure to stroke level, there is also this issue, same article:

      “Leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee show that the organization, which is supposed to be bound to impartiality, sabotaged Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign, which had mobilized millions of people and inspired a massive grassroots movement.”

      “Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, repeatedly warned in the primary that he would have a greater chance of defeating Trump. Poll after poll showed that he would have beaten Trump in the general election by wide margins. Instead, his candidacy was repressed — and now Clinton has lost to Trump.”

    • Don’t believe that strategy is what caused Clinton’s loss. She was polling well ahead of the Vulgar Talking Yam when James Comey bowed to pressure from the New York FBI office & announced he was reopening the investigation into her private email server. Being eleven days before the election he was way out of line. Despite him then announcing the investigation was closed as there was nothing new, her poll numbers tanked.

      Despite this she still got over three million votes more than the VTY.

      • “Don’t believe that strategy is what caused Clinton’s loss.”

        Clinton lost the electoral vote in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

        No one in Clinton’s campaign seemed to pay much attention to the Rust Belt despite having no path to victory without some of those states.

        I think way too much blame has been placed on James Comey and the investigation into HRC’s private server. Anyhow, there’s no way to know how many voters in MI, WI, and PA switched from HRC to DJT because of Comey.

        I don’t like what Comey did, but I don’t think it’s why HRC lost the electoral vote. If we’re making stuff up then I choose misogyny. That plus a lot of people just didn’t like her.

        • Her loss was due to a number of factors including Comey & not giving proper attention to those rust belt states. But no one around here is making stuff up.

  2. To say nothing of the very idea—almost a heresy now— of actually winning on ones merits or the merits of a platform, …picking the nuts just reinforces suspicious young people and others who dont really trust the whole game to say “ forget it” because its all sleazy wheeling and dealing.

  3. Definitely agree. On top of your excellent points, in 2012 Claire McCaskill was able to run ads in the Repug primary supporting Todd Akin and prevailed over him in the general. Tactic may have worked this past cycle in an election or two but no way should this become the campaigning norm. No point in beating a one (or two) trick pony to death, the backfire potential is too great. Wasn’t St. Ronnie the Reagan the Democrat’s preferred opposition in 1980? How’d that work out?

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