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.