Opinion

How to save the Democratic Party from milquetoast sellouts

The purveyors of conventional Beltway wisdom never tire of urging Democrats to move to the right. It continues to make no sense.

The founding myth of D.C. punditry goes something like this: In the beginning, there were the Founding Fathers, and they in their wisdom handed down a Constitution containing all that is politically virtuous: Compromise, Bipartisanship, and #NoLabels. As long as our democratically elected leaders hewed to these principles, no matter what issues they were compromising and no-labeling on, it would set our nation on the best course.

That's the spirit that Will Marshall invokes in a piece for Politico about how to "save the Democratic Party from itself," arguing that Democrats must purge leftists and move to the right:

Democrats have been moving steadily to the left, about as fast but not nearly as far as Republicans have shifted rightwards. The share of Democrats holding consistently liberal views, for example, has quadrupled from 5 percent in 1994 to 23 percent today. This leftward movement is a big problem for the party. If Democrats follow the GOP into the fever swamps of ideological purity, the nation’s political crisis will only grow deeper. Absent a fundamental and highly improbable revamping of our constitutional system, America can’t be governed from either ideological pole. Only by leading from the pragmatic center can Democrats capitalize on GOP extremism and rally broad public support behind new ideas for breaking the partisan log jam in Washington. [Politico]

The most remarkable aspect of this essay is that it has the facts largely correct, but a completely bananas interpretation of them. For example, Marshall correctly describes the U.S. system of government as almost always requiring compromise to work. He also concedes that Republicans are responsible for virtually all of the polarization and gridlock that has bedeviled Washington of late, erecting a hermetically sealed ideological bunker that nothing can penetrate, while repeatedly demanding that their whole agenda be enacted or the country gets it.

But Marshall insists that Democrats are also responsible, because they've been moving left themselves. In other words, because Republicans have moved right, Democrats must follow them for the good of the country.

The beginning of wisdom here is to recognize the first rule of playgrounds: it only takes one person to start a fight. You can't force Republicans to compromise, especially when their top priority is not compromising. Movement conservatives largely define themselves in ressentiment-fueled opposition to Democrats (particularly President Obama), making even the smallest compromise a huge reach. Republicans now consider the health care plan of the conservative Heritage Foundation, first implemented at the state level by their own 2012 presidential candidate, as the death knell of freedom in America. How do you reason with that?

Marshall argues that polarization means that compromise is impossible, but there's no a priori reason that ideologically polarized parties can't do simple negotiation. The problem is that Republicans only care about their brand of nutty ideological purity, as opposed to actual political ends, which means repeatedly rejecting second-best options and thus guaranteeing policies they hate. The reason America has become nearly ungovernable is the GOP's galloping bug-eyed extremism, and the only people who can solve that are Republicans themselves.

Therefore, the Democrats' current strategy — hunkering down, trying to assemble a working majority in Congress, keeping their eyes peeled for genuinely reasonable compromises, and hoping that Republicans sort themselves out — is perfectly fine. Moving right won't accomplish anything.

That brings us to policy, which is where Marshall really goes off the rails. Again he admits that Republicans have the worst of it, with their vicious austerity budgets and their magic asterisks. But he insists that Democrats are just as bad because they have built up progressive advocacy groups, think tanks, and so forth. Lefty organizations both new and old, he moans, are mobilizing against self-evidently wonderful things like "modernizing entitlements" (read: cutting Social Security and Medicare), free trade agreements, and fracking! We should be focusing instead on getting some high growth, the "best antidote to inequality" since it ensures "shared prosperity."

Marshall barely even attempts to defend this stuff on the merits, let alone respond to arguments that cutting social insurance is utterly unnecessary or that fracked natural gas is almost as bad as coal for the climate. And while growth is a more defensible priority, Marshall has no real plan to achieve it, and doesn't touch any of the serious objections that have been raised on the subject. For decades now, growth has totally failed to create shared benefits. Between 1979 and 2008, for instance, all economic growth went to the top 10 percent. Median income fell 8 percent from 2007 to 2013.

The slogan of "a rising tide lifts all boats" is the bedrock legitimation of American capitalism. But it just isn't happening, and hasn't been for years. On the contrary, a study by the IMF — the IMFconcluded that more transfers of wealth can help growth. Traditional, old-time lefty priorities haven't looked so relevant since the 1930s.

Republicans do have a tightly sealed ideological bubble. The only other bubble of comparable rigidity is that of self-styled centrists and moderates, who are fanatically dedicated to crappy, out-of-date policies whose real-world underpinnings have long since rotted away.

Marshall himself was an important member of the "New Democrat" pivot to the right during the Clinton years. However necessary that was politically, more of the same is simply not a credible platform today — on either the politics or the merits.

More From...

Picture of Ryan CooperRyan Cooper
Read All
2 million words at The Week
Ryan behind stacks of paper.
Opinion

2 million words at The Week

The promise and peril of electric cars
An electric car.
Opinion

The promise and peril of electric cars

The growth backlash
A garbage can.
Opinion

The growth backlash

The Supreme Court is a bastion of unearned privilege
The Supreme Court.
Opinion

The Supreme Court is a bastion of unearned privilege

Recommended

Trump to spearhead 2024 campaign with stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina
Former President Donald Trump.
Back on the Stage

Trump to spearhead 2024 campaign with stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wins 4th term
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel
Congrats

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wins 4th term

Is Meta's decision to bring back Trump dangerous or overdue?
Donald Trump's Facebook page.
Picture of Harold MaassHarold Maass

Is Meta's decision to bring back Trump dangerous or overdue?

8 modest proposals to prevent gun violence
The White House.
Briefing

8 modest proposals to prevent gun violence

Most Popular

The big debate about alcohol
Alcohol.
In depth

The big debate about alcohol

Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nomination sparks Academy scrutiny
Andrea Riseborough
andrea fallborough?

Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nomination sparks Academy scrutiny

Former U.S. generals explain how U.S. and German tanks can help Ukraine
Leopard 2 battle tanks
Many tanks

Former U.S. generals explain how U.S. and German tanks can help Ukraine