Democrats Must Emphasize Boldness, Not Moderation | Opinion

In early 2014, I almost died. Weeks earlier, I had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, CIDP. My white blood cells, for reasons that remain a mystery, began attacking the linings of my nerves. Over the course of months, my large muscle groups had been eaten away. I got so weak that I had trouble folding large towels. The worst days were when my wife had to push me around in a wheelchair as my nine-year-old daughter cried because "daddy can't even walk."

It wasn't CIDP that nearly killed me. It was the initial treatment. It was aggressive. Day after day, I would visit a hospital, where medical officials would pump something called IVIG into my veins in a room where cancer patients were also being treated. The result: A 104-degree fever that wouldn't break, multiple blood clots and a suspicion that my heart would be forever damaged even if I survived. Fortunately, we found a different aggressive treatment—steroids through an IV—that worked.

I'd do it again if I had to. When you are deathly ill, you know moderate measures can't make you healthy. That's why cancer patients consent to having poison and radiation pumped into their bodies. That's why spouses agree to let doctors conduct risky emergency surgeries on their partners. That's why those suffering from the worst effects of diabetes or flesh-eating bacteria willingly allow a doctor to cut off a limb, knowing it could be the only way to save their lives.

In times of extreme distress, half-measures won't do.

Fortunately, I got aggressive treatment when I needed it; over the past few years, I have gotten healthier and gone into CIDP remission. Unfortunately, during that same period, our democracy has gotten sicker and sicker, in large part because one of our two major political parties has gone crazy. Half-measures now will not return our democracy to a healthy state. Moderation in the face of extremism means extremism wins. It's akin to trying to reason with a toddler in the middle of a tantrum. It's impossible; order has been restored. And even if you believe the election of moderate Joe Biden is a return to order, if you do not undo the damage caused by the tantrum, the extremism that resulted from the tantrum becomes the new norm.

In 2016, we elected a narcissistic conspiracy theorist who had spent the previous five years spreading the bigoted lie that the nation's first Black president wasn't really American. Tens of millions of Americans looked at that and said he should lead us. During his term in office, he revealed himself to be even more bigoted and incompetent, and only concerned about himself—and even more Americans voted for him to have a second term in office than had voted for him the first time.

Those kinds of things don't happen in a healthy country.

Armed men and women temporarily shut down the Michigan legislature because of COVID restrictions. Others allegedly planned to kidnap Michigan's governor. And still other armed men and women went to the house of the secretary of state to demand that the election results be overturned.

A dozen and a half Republican-led states, led by Texas, tried to nullify the votes of millions of Americans in four states that President Donald Trump lost in November. The Republican president has literally been calling on officials in various states to overturn the election results—even summoning a few of them to the White House to chat about it. The two Republican senators facing runoff elections in Georgia are supporting the president and those Republican attorneys general—and might be elected to the Senate anyway.

Kyle Rittenhouse has become a hero on the Right during an era in which white domestic terrorism is considered by some to be a bigger threat than ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Republican Party broke every political tradition to steal a Supreme Court seat from a Democratic president in 2016, and four years later virtually locked in a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation.

A significant chunk of the American public shrugs as upwards of 3,000 of our fellow citizens are killed a day by a virus Donald Trump once suggested could be cured by injecting Lysol inside people's bodies.

President-elect Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

We are sick. If a country could be diagnosed with cancer, we'd likely be in Stage 3 or Stage 4. Moderation is the wrong move by the Democratic Party during the Biden era that is soon to commence.

The Republican Party wasn't always this sick. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was an ugly politician who was the spark for much of the ugliness we see in Washington today. But in the 1990s, when the GOP took control of the House, they had a plan to accomplish big things—welfare reform and balancing the budget chief among them. Of course they wanted to beat Bill Clinton, and eventually impeached him because Clinton couldn't keep his genitalia in his pants and lied about it under oath. But Republicans most strongly desired to reshape the country in their conservative image, and they never lost sight of that. They may have angered liberals, but their presence meant our two major political parties would be fighting over ideas and the direction of the country—which is healthy in a democracy. It meant we could stumble and bumble our way to compromise after bloody political fights.

The GOP today has no priority other than holding onto and wielding power for power's sake. The party didn't even bother putting together a platform during the 2020 Republican National Convention because they all knew, like everyone else paying attention, that it would have rung hollow. Even in 2009, when we were dealing with what was then the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the GOP prioritized regaining power over helping struggling Americans. Only three Republicans in the Senate voted for a desperately needed economic stimulus package, and only after ensuring it wouldn't be as large as it needed to be. Republicans cried foul at the suggestion that the Obama administration implement a massive mortgage forgiveness program to bail out everyday homeowners, just as major financial institutions had been bailed out. All the while, the left wing of the Democratic Party was urging President Barack Obama to wake up and recognize that the Republican Party couldn't be negotiated with—because its only real goal was regaining power by opposing every Obama policy and nominee, no matter how moderate or sensible it might be. They didn't give a damn that Merrick Garland had long been seen as a consensus Supreme Court pick because of his impressive legal credentials and moderate profile. They didn't bat an eyelash at public opinion polls showing that 90 percent of Americans wanted comprehensive background checks for all gun sellers.

That was evidence of a deepening political sickness. That sickness has only grown worse. A sane, healthy country would never have elected a man like Donald Trump. A sane, healthy party would not have stuck with him these past four years and tried to give him another term. But the GOP is not a healthy party. And until that's remedied, little else will matter.

I'm not a hard leftist. My voting record, which has included Democrats, Republicans and independents up and down the ticket, would horrify those on the hard Left, just as they use to horrify me. But that was when this country was healthier. As my body grew stronger, doctors pulled back on my treatment. They became less aggressive—more moderate—by the month until I didn't need any treatment at all anymore.

That's how it should be. Moderation is designed to stabilize a thing and uphold the status quo. That's the last thing we need in a country as sick as ours. The hard Left can provide the aggressive treatment we need on issues such as real policing, immigration, and health care reform. The hard Left can help us achieve pay equality and a living wage in a country that is suffering from the longest bread lines and shoplifting for baby food it has seen in decades. The Left provides an urgency we desperately need because it hates the status quo, and is willing to risk making things worse in the short term to produce a better future.

Obama's moderate approach led to significant accomplishments and the most progressive presidency in a generation. But that was when the GOP was semi-sane. He could have gotten even more done had he listened to the Left sooner. Biden better listen to them now.

Issac Bailey is professor of public policy at Davidson College, a 2014 Nieman fellow at Harvard University and author of Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland. Twitter: @ijbailey.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.