The Far Left Won’t Take Over the Democrats

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The blogger Brad DeLong has kicked up quite a stir by saying in an interview with Vox’s Zack Beauchamp that the days of “largely neoliberal, market-oriented, and market-regulation and tuning aimed at social democratic ends” he espoused have come to an end and that it’s time for his wing of the Democratic Party to “accommodate ourselves to those on our left.” (See also DeLong’s original twitter thread beginning here).

DeLong, an economist and former Clinton administration Treasury official, says that the political failure of a cap-and-trade system for climate change and the mixed success at best of the Affordable Care Act mean it’s time to try solutions that are less market-oriented because the theory that market-oriented solutions could attract some Republican support turned out to be absolutely wrong. Greg Sargent says immigration compromises that include strong enforcement should be added to the list of dead ends (some of those ideas did pick up considerable Republican support at one point, albeit not enough and they seem even less plausible in the Donald Trump era). Ed Kilgore, who has been through Democratic struggles on the centrist side, agrees.

DeLong is correct about the Republican Party – it will almost certainly flat-out oppose anything Democrats would propose if they won in 2020. And he’s correct that Democrats must factor in that rejectionism when considering the political viability of policy proposals. That not only means that hoping to pick up Republican support is futile, but also that anything that passes may be subject to relentless attacks after the fact from Republican judges, state governments, and future Republican congresses and presidents – whether the policy is moderate or ideologically extreme. 

But none of that necessarily means that the “left” should take the lead in the Democratic Party. As Kilgore says, “There remain legitimate questions about how you define ‘the left.’” There are big differences between, say, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – Warren is more in the Franklin Roosevelt tradition of aggressive market intervention to make a market economy work, and Sanders is far less positive about a market economy in the first place. And that’s not the only issue.

Questions of Democratic pragmatism have a relevant history, too, going back to efforts to reform the party’s image after it lost five of six presidential elections through 1988. The Democratic Leadership Council of that era was split, I always thought, between those such as Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt who favored traditional liberal goals but believed market-oriented means were the best way to achieve them, and those such as Georgia Senator Sam Nunn who believed the Democratic Party had become too liberal and who wanted to preserve a large place in the party for conservatives. These days, Nunn-style conservative Democrats are rarities in the party. Most elected Democrats fall somewhere within a broad range of mainstream liberalism, even if some are more moderate than others.

So between shifts within the party as ideological sorting continues, and the realities of congressional politics, it’s no surprise that Democrats are in no mood for compromises or eager for what they see as watered-down proposals.

The question, however, is whether DeLong is correct about where the party is now. It’s true that Sanders just raised a ton of money and that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets all the publicity. And the very liberal, though not socialist, Warren has become a key policy leader. Yet the real energy within the party in the 2018 elections wasn’t ideological liberalism or socialism; it was with Run for Something, locally organized Indivisible and other similar groups, and Moms Demand Action and other anti-gun groups. These organizations largely composed of women who were bringing workplace skills into politics mostly favored a relatively pragmatic form of liberal policy advocacy. That suggests they may be more open to more of a cafeteria selection of policy options – perhaps market-based liberalism on one, socialist on another, regulatory on a third – than interested in refighting old ideological wars over socialism and neoliberalism (whatever that is or was).

It’s also true that relatively few Democratic voters describe themselves as socialists, while most of them are comfortable as Obama Democrats

Sorting all of this out is exactly what party nominations are for. It’s entirely unclear at this point whether one of the contenders will wind up as the candidate of newly involved women, or whether and how the groups involved can assert themselves in the process. But I expect them to do so in ways that may well change the party and perhaps even make some of the older debates irrelevant. We’ll also see whether women’s energy can forge cross-ethnicity alliances as has increasingly been the case for Democrats over the last few cycles, and especially in 2018, with black candidates winning nominations and sometimes elections in majority-Anglo areas. 

To the extent that pragmatism wins out, DeLong-style governing professionals – properly chastened by reality – will certainly be important players in any Democratic administration and congressional majority. As will those who characterize themselves as more progressive and even socialist. 

With Bill Clinton, typically for him, straddling the difference and managing to convince both sides he was with them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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