Democrats, Liberals, Progressives? Decision Time Approaches

We have not two sides, lined up tidily with parties, but at least four

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Keith Ellison and Tom Perez. It's not like we didn't know this was coming...

Let’s get something straight amid all the hand-wringing and whining by Democrats, liberals and progressives that their Democratic Party is fractured, leaderless, aimless and lacking a coherent, compelling message: it’s true, and it will be true for another couple of years. This is the natural and necessary plight of the party out of power. It sorts itself out by selecting a presidential candidate, and then it is his or her party, his or her message, his or her success or failure.

It is true that both major American political parties are experiencing unusually vigorous and bitter factional quarrels just now. Among Republicans, that is the result of having nominated and elected a vacuous, dangerous caricature of a president. On the Democratic side, the struggle promises to continue for some time between the liberals and the progressives. An awful lot is being said and written to the effect that Democrats are simply replaying their 2016 primary process, in which Hillary Clinton prevailed over the surprisingly strong upstart Bernie Sanders. They are — but the fight is no longer about either Clinton or Sanders. It is about the fundamentally different visions they represent, and which one’s ideology will steer the party. The election of Tom Perez, an establishment figure, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee only strengthened the resolve of the progressives.

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Democrats today live in confusing times, in part because of these fights, and some common terms are thrown about so carelessly that they seem to have lost all meaning. Let’s see if we can sort out just a bit of it.

What does it mean to be a liberal? Why is the term so hateful to the right? Why have those on the economic left abandoned it altogether?

What is a conservative? How is it that radicals can call themselves such a thing? What do these questions have to do with the widening rift within the Republican Party?

What is a modern progressive? Do these people threaten to rend the Democrats the same way Trumpists have opened the chasm among Republican voters?

Let’s start with the first question, and then treat each of them, more or less explicitly.

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Liberalism in the classic sense is an ideology closely tied to liberal capitalism. Extreme liberals are to be found mostly in the Republican Party. They have their own party, the Libertarians, but it doesn’t amount to much, so these people gravitate to the major party that more closely aligns with their ideas about freedom in business and economic affairs.

Like the neoliberals (think the Clintons and Barack Obama), libertarians believe in market solutions (even market failures), deregulation, unfettered trade and laissez-faire capitalism generally. Libertarians are a bit more pure about it. You won’t find neoliberals trying to break up the big banks; you won’t find libertarians even supporting Dodd-Frank.

Libertarians are in the Republican Party and neoliberals are Democrats, in considerable part, because of another set of issues altogether. We’ll call it multiculturalism. The US Constitution was written at a time when its provisions of rights were meant to protect political and religious minorities whose members were, at the time, also predominantly white and male. Throughout our history, liberals have observed and promoted the document’s underlying spirit, trying to extend those rights to women, people of color, the disabled, the LGBT community, immigrants and others. People who have called themselves conservatives have consistently opposed such extensions. They would have conserved slavery, the male-only franchise, and inaccessible buildings. They’re still fighting to deny rights to people whose sexual nature they find objectionable.

People who call themselves liberal, in my own observation, tend to think they are on the “left” side of the political spectrum merely for believing the government has some obligation toward those in most need, that we can be polite and intermarry between ethnicities and so on, and that the tax system should be moderately progressive.

Progressives have a lot of trouble with that view. They tend to take for granted the liberal positions on social issues — abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, and so on — but to concentrate instead on economic issues. They typically do not just think government should help poor people, but that government should eliminate poverty; that labor unions not only have a right to exist, but should be a major political and economic force; that nationalizing industries is a good idea when some industries are necessary, and sometimes when they misbehave; and that rich people and corporations owe the rest of us quite a lot for letting them live as they do.

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Thus, we have not two sides, lined up tidily with parties, but at least four: economic and social rightists; economic rightists on the social left; economic leftists on the social right; and economic and social leftists. So let’s say we make a Venn diagram and aim for that middle chunk: Would that be a suitable policy makeup of a successful national politician? Sorry. If that worked, we’d be reading every day about President O’Malley. It is so, so much more complicated than that. Consider:

  • People may have beliefs on a great many issues, but the ones that move them to vote are usually few, sometimes singular. I am strongly pro-choice, but vote for Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who is not. I would vote for him in a Democratic primary against an opponent who was not so strongly pro-labor as he. When it comes to presidential votes, I’m the next thing to a pacifist, so I wind up wondering which mass murderer I’m going to vote for.
  • People have strong leanings both left and right on issues economic and social. Four of five Americans favor drug testing of applicants for public assistance, while almost three-fourths oppose routine surveillance of American Muslims.
  • Some issues are not clearly economic or social. Take military spending. Despite the fact that Americans already outspend the rest of the world, they favor increased military spending by a whopping 61% to 24%. That suggests a strong “conservative” bias in the electorate, but, at the same time, 70% favor stronger antitrust action by the federal government.
  • Some issues are important and mean much to certain voters, but hardly ever surface because not enough people care enough about them, or because people are split too evenly on the question. Americans are divided almost 50-50 on whether to let National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden come home from Russia with immunity. Nobody’s going to make a big issue of that, yet it could help decide a tight election here or there. One way in Vermont, for example, perhaps another way in Alabama.
  • None of these issues may count as much as a candidate’s believability, their likeable or unlikeable nature, or their personal energy or charisma. This can be true of Democrats and Republicans alike.
  • Millennials promise a sharp left turn in national politics. But no one knows when or if they will start to vote in numbers sufficient to make a difference, or whether Republican gerrymandering and voter-suppression gimmicks — or their own political naivete and confusion — will nullify their influence.
  • Then there’s money. Democrats nominated a good woman but a poor candidate in 2016, largely because Hillary Clinton was able to construct an aura of inevitability and tie up the big money before anyone else could get in. That can happen any time, on either side, thanks in some part to the perverse and infamous Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court.

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The future of American politics, then, is more volatile and less predictable than usual. From my standpoint as a progressive (“left” on economic issues, “liberal” on social ones), the progressives look, ironically, to be both the conservatives and the revolutionaries – or, rather, counterrevolutionaries –just now. We want to conserve the nation’s progress in areas like race relations and environmental stewardship. At the same time, we want a meaningful tilt to the economic left – a mixed economy that leans socialist.

I’ve described here a reversal of course on two fronts. I think the time is quite ripe for it. We will see in the next two election cycles.