Political Animal

Blog

February 01, 2013 6:20 PM What Explains the Democratic Party’s Unity?

By Paul Glastris

I did not realize that Policy Review, the moderately conservative journal published by the Hoover Institution, is shutting down. I guess journals come and go, but at a time when brain activity on the right is hard to detect, what sense does it make for conservatives to abandon one of their most respectable thought-leader publications? Is money that tight on the center-right these days?

Anyway there’s an essay in this final issue by the journal’s editor, Tod Lindberg, who I know from when he and Ruy Teixiera used to host “left-right” lunches for journalists and think tankers here in DC (I guess the money dried up for those, too). The thesis of the piece is summed up in its first paragraph:

The left side of the American political spectrum has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the past dozen years. Perhaps because it remains a work in progress, the extent of this transformation has gone largely unremarked and seems underappreciated even among those who have been carrying it out. Forty years after the forces of the “New Left” managed to deliver the Democratic presidential nomination to their preferred candidate, George McGovern, only to see him lose the general election to Richard Nixon in a 49-state landslide, the United States is home to a newer Left. Its political hopes repose not in a man able to muster less than 40 percent of the vote nationwide, but in the convincingly reelected president of the United States, Barack Obama. This newer Left is confident in itself, united both in its description of the problems the country faces and in how to go about addressing them. This Left is conscious of itself as a movement, and believes it is on the rise. It has already managed to reshape American politics, and its successes so far have hardly exhausted its promise. Policies are changing under its influence. And its opponents do not seem to have found an effective way to counter it politically.

Lindberg’s basic observation is that the left and the Democratic Party have fused in a way that feels quite new. I think he’s right about that. But I also think he’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope in trying to explain that unity in terms of the rise of the left. Sure we’re seeing an ascent left, but it is ascending from a very low base.

Of all the reasons the Democrats are powerful and unified now, probably the biggest is that the left has become a cheap date—its demands and expectations are very modest. In 1993, every good liberal-lefty hated Hillarycare and demanded single payer. In 2009, liberals were telling the single payer crowd to shut up and get behind Obamacare, which was more “market-oriented” and less “statist” than Hillarycare. During the ’90s the defining issue between liberals and New Democrats was welfare reform. During the great recession, a handful of liberal-left voices tried to relitigate that issue, but that effort went nowhere, and virtually no one on the left is calling for a return to AFDC. For the most part, the left has conceded that New Democratic policies are now mainstream Democratic policies. Those policies also resonate with the moderates who make up the majority of the party. And where Lindberg sees Obama as representing primarily a break with Bill Clinton—and in some ways he is—I think there is so much continuity there that it’s more accurate to see Obama’s first term as Clinton’s third term. Whether the nature of the majority that Obama put together in November will allow him and the left greater scope for more traditionally left-liberal policies is the question of the moment. I guess we shall see. But having written umpteen speeches for Bill Clinton back in 1999 demanding the closing of the gun show loophole, it sometimes feels to me less like a brand new day than Ground Hog Day.

There are some other big reasons the Democrats are united that also run against Lindberg’s thesis. One is that the trend towards growing income and status inequality, the existence of which many on the right have spent years doubting, is now too obvious to deny. Just about every American gets it, in a way that wasn’t really the case 10, 15, 20 years ago. Lindberg argues that “equality” is the unifying belief of the left. I think that’s a gross over-generalization. It may have been true of communists or the French revolutionaries but it’s never been the case with the broad center-left in America, which (with exceptions) has always marched to the banner of “equality of opportunity,” a very different beast. In any event, whether he’s right or I’m right is immaterial, since the goal that unites every Democrat today regardless of ideology and makes the party appealing to moderates who don’t self-identify as Democrats is mostly the desire to simply arrest the growing economic inequality of society.

The final big reason the left and the Democratic Party are united is, obviously, that the GOP has gone so far to the right. But on that I need not elaborate.

Anyway, my criticisms notwithstanding, the whole essay is worth a read if you’re genuinely interested, as I am, in how smart, non-crazy conservative policy intellectuals are making sense of the world these days.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • jjm on February 01, 2013 6:37 PM:

    If we 'lefties' are together it's because we have seen the nation's institutions built by and for the middle class and the working class systematically gutted, thieved from or allowed to wither in favor of the rich.

    People are TIRED of the legacy of Reagan. It was then and still is a big fat scam.

  • Sean Scallon on February 01, 2013 7:21 PM:

    Money is tight because the people and corporations who sponsor publications and think tanks on the Right are not interested in pursing the truth or policies which fit reality. They want those publications and think tanks to regurgitate exactly what they believe and make reality try to fit the ideology.

    Conservatism over the post-war period has benefited from a certain self-confidence and self-justifying rhetoric one could only find among Marxists (which just goes to show since so many of the early conservative thinker were ex-Marxists) that a broad-minded liberalism, open thinking liberalism could not even hope to match really since the Reagan-era (this is why conservatives dominated the political talk show format because they could transform it from one information and discussion to polemics which much more attune to what they felt their audience wanted to hear). The problem of course was when things went wrong, it was impossible for analysis because persons in a position to do so believed it would challenge what had become dogma and they would see their careers wrecked because of it (which has happened). Thus self-confidence and certainty became hubris, arrogance, blind stupidity and finally paranoia in descending order. This is not unlike what happened to Cold War liberalism or the New Left as well and perhaps is part of the cyclical nature of politics if not history itself. While being open minded and free thinking can lead to doubt and even weakness, it at least it mad it easier to discard outdated philosphies and rhetoric much quicker on the Left than on the Right. I'm afraid until the Baby Boom generation finally passes and the political talk show format as it now operates passes with it, you're not going to get much in the way change on the Right simply because most conservatives are still committed to, Austin Bramwell put it "making sure the flame of pure intention is never quenched."

  • Alan Tomlinson on February 01, 2013 7:23 PM:

    I read a copy of Policy Review in the mid-1980s. There were articles in it by Condoleeza Rice and Edward Teller. Reading that journal proved to me that the emperor was indeed not wearing any clothes. The article by Rice was bullshit of the first order and I was a mere sophomore at UC at the time.

    Perhaps fewer trees will be sacrificed because of Policy Review's demise. What garbage!

    Cheers,

    Alan Tomlinson

  • Kathryn on February 01, 2013 7:24 PM:

    Too true, jjm. Whenever I see the old tape of Reagan saying government is the problem, I feel like throwing something at the TV. Thirty years of decline, stagnant wages and the true class warfare of the privileged against working people aided and abetted by elected hacks doing everything they could to destroy effective governance while collecting their salaries and eventually fat pensions from us. All those Ayn Rand types like Paul Ryan, religious fanatics like Michele Bachmann, Boehner, McConnell feasting at the trough of government jobs their whole working lives while doing little or no work, getting mad just thinking about them grrrrrr!

  • Mitch on February 01, 2013 7:25 PM:

    "Unity" is not a word that I would ever connect to the Dems. We are a herd of cats, and it seems like none of agree on more than 75% of any discussion.

    But that's a big part of our strength.

    Let's face it, the GOP appeals to a rather narrow range of people: angry culture warriors (who live in an imaginary past), self-described libertarians (who don't know/care that libertarianism does not work and never has), and greedy plutocrats (who will never admit that tax rates in the past were MUCH higher than now, yet oddly the nation prospered during those times).

    I know many Republicans all over the country and they are ALL on the spectrum of those three types.

    The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is accepting of pretty much anyone, and does not force it's members to act or believe in one certain way.

    Does anyone remember how the GOP utterly rejected and trashed the Dixie Chicks for being against the war in Iraq? People who had previously been die-hard fans dragged those ladies through the mud.

    Do Dems treat, say, Jon Stewart like that when he says something against them? When a leftie expresses disappointment/anger with, say, the Drone Program, or the XL Pipeline, are they hounded from the party and called un-American traitors?

    No.

    And that is a huge advantage that the Dems have over the GOP.

    The GOP comes within a hair of Orwell's "Thoughtcrime" mentality. They have a dogma that seems to only grow more strict and narrow-scoped every month.

    Couple this arrogant sense of superiority and unreasonable demand for ideological purity with their utter denial of science, reason, logic and history ... their total scorn for the environment ... their constant appeal to racists (for the record, I don't think the GOP is racist; but they try to appeal to racists for easy votes, hence the dog-whistles) ... their disregard of public opinion ... their patriarchal attitude towards women ... their idiotic nationalism ...

    I could go on, but you get the idea. IMHO it's not that the Dems are more unified than the GOP (quite the opposite, actually) but the Democratic Party is—without a doubt—the Bigger Tent.

  • Doug on February 01, 2013 7:54 PM:

    What had happened to the Democrats in the late 60s and early 70s was, I think, sort of like what has been happening to the GOP since the Gingrich days: Democrats just refused to face reality. The New Deal coalition was disintegrating, but while there just weren't enough "activists" to win elections, they were making the most noise. So Democratic politicians and pundits believed, or pretended to believe, the "activists" WERE the majority.
    The big question in 1972 was Viet Nam. McGovern campaigned honestly against continuing the war and had the support of Democratic "activists". A lot of individual Democrats, many of them of WWII age, weren't certain about HOW McGovern was going to get us out of Vietnam without just surrendering, and they most certainly didn't like that idea.
    The resulting loss in 1972 tarnished the luster of being an "activist" and led the way to "centrism", which I see originally as less a method of dealing with Republicans, and more of a means of containing the "activists" in the Democratic ranks; ie, pulling the "activists" back towards the "center" of the Democratic Party. Thus making the Democratic Party again more appealing to a majority of the country's voters.
    And, I don't know how or when, but somehow that attempt to constrain Democratic "activists" and prevent them from tarnishing the Democratic image, morphed into the idea that "centrism", in and of itself, was the goal.
    The past two decades, however, have shown that voters prefer the Democratic positions on economics, equality, the environment and even defense/national security.
    We've also been shown that, given a choice between a Republican running on a Republican platform and a Democrat running on a Republican platform, voters tend to go with the wolf in wolf's clothing. Apparently a Democrat trying to woo Republican voters by pretending to be some sort of closet Republican just isn't believable and the effort only causes undecided voters to wonder about just what that Democratic candidate is up to.
    At least we can't say say today's Tbaggers are pretending to be Democrats, so that's something...

  • Robert Waldmann on February 01, 2013 9:05 PM:

    For the record, I call for a return to AFDC. Yes you are very right, the left has become a very cheap dat. I think you are familiar with the great recession discussion of welfare reform during which the record rate of deep poverty (income less than half the poverty line). I suppose there was the other side of the debate in which it was argued that TANF should be a block grant and the optimal expansion of the caseload in response to the great recession was around zero. I missed it. I think the 1996 welfare reform is plainly indefensible, but politically invinceable, so Democrats have decided to just not mention it.

    Also huge temporary efforts as part of the ARRA kept us quiet. -- extended unemployment insurance, expanded food stamps and the TANF emergency fund temporarily fill gaps. Having to constantly fight to keep extended UI keeps the left wing and the mainstream of the party united.

    I add that new Dem policies also included "reinventing government" which basically meant replacing programs with vouchers (according to Larry Katz who knows). That is not theolicy of the Democratic party now.

  • Robert Waldmann on February 01, 2013 9:09 PM:

    For the record, I call for a return to AFDC. Yes you are very right, the left has become a very cheap dat. I think you are familiar with the great recession discussion of welfare reform during which the record rate of deep poverty (income less than half the poverty line). I suppose there was the other side of the debate in which it was argued that TANF should be a block grant and the optimal expansion of the caseload in response to the great recession was around zero. I missed it. I think the 1996 welfare reform is plainly indefensible, but politically invinceable, so Democrats have decided to just not mention it.

    Also huge temporary efforts as part of the ARRA kept us quiet. -- extended unemployment insurance, expanded food stamps and the TANF emergency fund temporarily fill gaps. Having to constantly fight to keep extended UI keeps the left wing and the mainstream of the party united.

    I add that new Dem policies also included "reinventing government" which basically meant replacing programs with vouchers (according to Larry Katz who knows). That is not theolicy of the Democratic party now.

  • tko on February 02, 2013 9:32 AM:

    Sounds like bullshit from start to finish. Filibuster reform shows how unified the Democraps are. Sold out by leader Reid the Weed. Comments saying how Dems are more accepting and don't force any behavior on anyone's part. More bullshit! We can't criticize RepubliBama about indefinite detention, war on whistle blowers, no accountability for Wall Street Fraudsters or torturers because he may not win the election, or did all of you forget that bullshit too. Dems can pat themselves on the back for becoming solidly like the Republicancer Party of 20 years ago. They need a kick in the ass, not a pat on the back. This site used to get in Bush's ass about his crimes and improprieties but hardly a word when Obama or the other Democraps do the same thing.

  • OKDem on February 02, 2013 10:50 AM:

    I would suggest that a major factor in whatever unity and effectiveness the Democatic party manages is the disappearance of white conservative Southern Democrats.
    There are urban white moderates and liberals in the South but they are not carrying the baggage of generations like those of the 1990's. Many moved South from the Midwest.

  • Cranky Observer on February 02, 2013 10:59 AM:

    Wow, neoliberals sure love to gloat, don't they? Telecommunication Act of 1996, repeal of Glass-Steagal, enshrinement of Wall Street executives as Treasury Secretaries and Fed managers, abjurement of any prosecution of Wall Street fraudsters, embracing of Peter G. Peterson as the go-to guy for Social Security chopping, I mean policy: these neoliberal "victories" have worked out _so well_ for the American people.

    Cranky

    nsollar are - 1st try

  • Cranky Observer on February 02, 2013 11:11 AM:

    = = = The big question in 1972 was Viet Nam. McGovern campaigned honestly against continuing the war and had the support of Democratic "activists". A lot of individual Democrats, many of them of WWII age, weren't certain about HOW McGovern was going to get us out of Vietnam without just surrendering, and they most certainly didn't like that idea. = = =

    Much like the neoliberals' backing of Bush/Cheney's Iraq war, this analysis makes a lot of sense as long as you ignore the tiny fact [1] that __the "activists" were RIGHT about the Vietnam Was__, and the forces calling for continued war were WRONG. Just as with Iraq II (and now Afghanistan) there wasn't /ever/ going to be a "victory" (whatever that might have meant) and every option led to ignominy. IIRC the operative quote was 'How do we leave Vietnam sir? In ships'. But instead we had to "show strength" for three more years and kill several hundred thousand human beings in doing so, all to satisfy the geopolitical Risk dreams of the conservative Democrats who would shortly move over to the Republican team. That worked out well.

    Cranky

    [1] Assuming we simply ignore, as US history tends to do, the United States' betrayal of the Nationalists in 1946 (the Nationalists then assuming the mantle of Communists, but who were and are still nationalists).

    eolver signified - 1st try

  • Anonymous on February 04, 2013 9:32 AM:

    In 1993, every good liberal-lefty hated Hillarycare and demanded single payer.

    Not true.