Against Yglesias’s Against Murder-Suicide Politics

Michael Ettlinger
7 min readNov 6, 2023

This response to an October 26 substack post by Matt Yglesias is probably overkill given that I generally agree with Matt that (a) Democrats should be smarter about politics and do more of what voters want and less of what they don’t want — and to talk more about what they want and less about what they don’t want, and (b) progressive activists attacking Democrats is usually an own goal. Nevertheless, I think he missed the mark in “Against Murder-Suicide Politics,” it’s related to something I’ve been thinking about, I got writing, and ended up with this.

In the post, Matt chastises progressive activists for warning, which he equates with a threat, of the tanking of progressive turnout when Democratic politicians don’t do what the activists want. The warnings/threats themselves, he believes, can be the cause of what they warn of: lower Democratic turnout among important constituencies. This, in turn, is self-defeating for progressives. If a Democrat loses, the Republican who wins is almost certainly going to be worse on the issues that progressives care about — even if the Democratic candidate isn’t perfect. The “murder” of the Democrat is “suicide” for the cause of progressives. Matt sees conservatives on the Republican side as being smarter for not using this tactic. He would like to see progressive funders and media outlets not giving support and platforms to those guilty of this practice.

Where I differ from Matt (who I worked with for a short while and have stayed occasional-email-friendly with) is that (a) I have a hard time coming up with examples where progressive warnings of bad political outcomes have caused any harm, (b) sometimes the warnings are warranted and good for politicians to hear, (c) if a threat works to cause a Democratic politician to do the right thing, especially in a world where there is outsized corporate influence including of Democrats, I’m cool with it, (d) I don’t think conservatives are smarter about not misusing such threats, (e) to the extent that progressive activists are politically clueless or otherwise misguided and have been overly empowered, that’s a problem that should be addressed but is separate from the validity of the tactic Matt is concerned about.

I might be more convinced of Matt’s arguments if his examples were better chosen. I’ll start where he starts: with conservatives being smarter. He uses abortion as his primary example. Abortion is a bad election issue for Republicans right now. Matt points out that national Republican leaders are avoiding the issue as much as they possibly can and that anti-abortion activists are not demanding that Republican politicians take a stand for a national ban and threatening them with holding down turnout if they don’t.

Maybe. And we’ll see. There are a number of explanations for anti-abortion champions not going after Republicans other than them being more politically astute than their progressive counterparts on other issues. For one thing, it’s pretty baked into conservative politics that states should have primacy in policymaking, and states are more fertile ground for them to have success anyway. So not going for a national ban isn’t hugely surprising. It is also still early days in post-Dobbs abortion politics. The consequences of what states have done are not yet fully evident. I would be shocked if we don’t start seeing abortion issues intensely contested among Republicans in coming years. I can’t help wondering what anti-abortion Virginians, who have been fighting the issue for decades, think about Republican Governor Youngkin aiming to allow abortions in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy — when over 90% of abortions occur. It’s hard to believe there won’t be betrayed anti-abortion conservatives who will find it hard to stomach voting for supporters of what they must see as a capitulation.

Recall that when Republican politicians were last divided on abortion a Right to Life political party was formed in New York. There’s not much more of a direct threat to election outcomes than to form a competing political party. The issue will almost certainly start finding its way into Republican primaries and, if anti-abortion activists aren’t winning those fights, there will be implicit or explicit threats about whether voters will turn out. I suspect that if the Republican presidential primary wasn’t so weird this year we’d be seeing it more hotly contested in that context.

The other thing is that, as Matt points out, many Republicans took a pasting in the mid-terms because of their abortion positions. Everyone knows it. The closest equivalent on the Democratic side is “defund the police.” Democratic politicians got damaged by being associated with that phrase. When I was doing my volunteer calls to undecided voters in Pennsylvania on behalf of Joe Biden, the single issue that they were most concerned about was whether Biden supported the police. That’s despite Biden being pretty careful on the issue. There are vocal progressive activists for police reform, but current Democratic candidates aren’t highlighting the issue out of fear that activists will suppress progressive turnout if they don’t. Republicans aren’t being any smarter on abortion than Democrats are on police reform — they and their allies are both avoiding tough issues.

The Democratic example Matt chooses is even more off base than abortion. It’s the warnings that the Biden Administration support of Israel will cause an electoral backlash among voters who are anguished about what is happening in Gaza. I’m not sure why Matt doesn’t see this as just clear-eyed analysis. For decades it has been taken as a political given, and widely reported, that support of Israel is important to attracting Jewish voters. How can one not point out the flip side? Muslims are now, in some places, a part of the Democratic base. Israeli governments have, over recent years, turned more-and-more to the right, become more-and-more intolerant, and done less-and-less to find a just solution for Palestinians. Muslim-Americans, and the young left for whom this is the only Israel they know, are angry at Biden’s literal embrace of Netanyahu and the support that has followed. They are deeply upset about what is happening to the residents of Gaza and what they see as Biden’s complicity in it. This may well be reflected in whether and how they vote. The reason the political risk to Biden is being elevated isn’t that there are politically naïve activists taking shots at him — it’s that there is a political risk to Biden.

Also, if you’re a voter angry about Gaza, it isn’t as clear as with abortion that a Republican would be meaningfully different from a Democrat. If this is an issue of primary importance to you, the downside of “murdering” the Democrat isn’t necessarily high in this case and there’s the upside that the threat will affect what Biden does.

Which brings me to another point — the threats can work. Matt also discusses the threat of suppressed turnout for Democrats in the Keystone Pipeline debate. In that case, the Obama Administration acceded to the wishes of climate activists. While Matt sees this as an example where a Democrat made a bad decision on the substance, that was also bad with the median voter, from the advocate point of view it proves that it’s a tactic that works. It’s not irrationally self-destructive to make a calculation that using the turnout threat to achieve a policy outcome is worth the political risk. Elected officials often make this calculation: balancing doing what they think is right versus the potential adverse political consequences. One reason activists need to deploy the tactic is because politicians err on the side of safety over principle. It’s also true that activists are more likely to err on the side of principle over risk. Both are capable of getting it wrong, but that doesn’t mean activists should abandon this part of their toolkit.

Matt brings up some other issues in passing where he thinks conservative activists are being smart by not pressing Republicans to take unpopular positions: legal immigration, ACA repeal, marriage equality. I’ll just say that in the case of legal immigration and marriage equality the conservative activist hunger for action in the broader spaces of immigration and homophobia is being well-satiated by Republican candidates in other ways. As for the ACA, I doubt there’s enough of a grassroots opposition to the ACA to make a credible argument that deemphasizing it will suppress Republican turnout

On the Democratic side, defunding the police, and perhaps student debt, could be better examples than Gaza. It’s not clear, however, what could have been done. I am skeptical that in the current communications environment the gatekeepers Matt is counting on, funders and progressive media, could stop the propagation of a message powerful enough to meaningful reduce Democratic turnout. The only strong example of what Matt is describing that I can think of is old: organized labor punishing Democrats who voted for NAFTA. That didn’t change the trade policy outcome and was bad for everything else labor cared about.

So … I agree. Progressives should almost always support their Democratic candidate allies against Republican opponents even if the Democratic candidates don’t do everything that progressives want. It is almost always crazy not to. Over-hyped criticism of Democratic politicians by progressive activists is, unquestionably, counter-productive. They should be discouraged from doing so. To the extent activists are making bad judgements about anything, I agree with Matt that they shouldn’t be empowered. Using this particular tactic isn’t, however, necessarily a sign of bad judgement. If it’s the best way to accomplish a progressive objective, the political consequences are positive, minimal or worth it, I don’t see anything wrong with a judicious threat from time-to-time.



Michael Ettlinger

Views not necessarily those of affiliated orgs. Senior fellow ITEP, fellow @CarseySchool, author. More: