Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake's speech announcing he'd rather retire than lose a primary challenge had Democrats' hearts aflutter. Finally, they exclaimed, a principled statesman willing to stand up to Mean Donald Trump! Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Flake "one of the finest human beings I've met in politics," and Sen. Tim Kaine said he's "learned from [Flake] every day we've served together." New York Times writer David Leonhardt lamented that the GOP no longer has room for men like Flake.
But, later that evening, Flake walked into the Senate chamber to cast a vote preventing ordinary Americans from banding together to sue big banks. The measure, which the Senate passed late at night and only after Vice President Mike Pence's tie-breaker, is expected to save Wall Street billions of dollars a year. The proud son of Snowflake, Arizona, would sooner melt than reduce Wells Fargo's bottom line.
Fawning over Flake is classic 2017. The Democratic Party has become addicted to politics of the lesser evil, and because Trump is as evil a man as this country has ever produced, mainstream Democrats have developed newfound affection for ghouls, robber barons and war criminals — anyone who shows a modicum of distaste for the president.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi glowingly reminisced about George W. Bush's presidency, which ended hundreds of thousands of lives and wrecked the global economy, and daydreamed about a President Mitt Romney, a vulture capitalist who campaigned on a trillion-dollar wealth transfer to the richest Americans.
Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote several self-important open letters to the "good men" within the Trump administration. These men included Gen. John Kelly, who spearheaded Trump's inhuman anti-immigrant policies and considered separating mothers from children at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who for decades ran ExxonMobil, one of the most malevolent institutions on the planet.
A politics of the lesser evil dominated the 2016 election, too. The Clinton campaign cast Trump as boorish, unkind and uncouth. The second sentence of the argument, they thought, could be left unsaid: Vote for me because I'm not that guy. The same holds true for Democrats of years past. When Bill Clinton defends the war on drugs, deep welfare cuts or the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, he often explains that policy outcomes would have been far worse if Republicans were in power.
Mainstream Democrats, particularly those associated with the Clintons, revert to this stance because they have an undeveloped conception of the good. In their desire to be pragmatic, they default to thoughtless centrism. Instead of persuading citizens to support a vision of how America should be — aka, doing politics — they wield polls to convince activists their ideas are impractical.
When Ezra Klein interviewed Hillary Clinton about her new book, she said, "I think we operate better when we're kind of between center right and center left, because that's where, at least up until recently, most American were." Notice she didn't say our politics should reside in the center because centrist policies are good. Rather, her politics evaluate what Americans already believe, leaving no room for inspiration or persuasion.
In the same vein, former Bill Clinton staffer Douglas Schoen wrote a Times column warning Democrats against abandoning Wall Street. He levied four arguments: Democrats need cash from financial institutions, Americans are generally conservative and pro-capitalist, it's hypocritical for Democrats to woo Silicon Valley but not Wall Street and demonizing Wall Street is divisive. These arguments are weak, but what's particular stunning is Schoen never addresses whether Wall Street is a benevolent or malevolent force in American life. His argument fails to evaluate the good.
To be sure, there's room for pragmatism in politics, but only when it advances long-term goals. Instead, Democratic pragmatism has driven the party into a dumpster fire.
As Democrats prepare for the upcoming elections, they must reject a politics of the lesser evil and propose a moral vision. Stop calling Bush a decent man, stop waiting for Tillerson to grow a moral backbone and stop weaponizing dubious polling against ambitious policy proposals. If the party stays the course, we'll remain in the minority decades from now, under an even more grotesque president, reminiscing about how much better everything was under Trump.
Max Foley-Keene, opinion editor, is a sophomore government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.