What Explains the Democratic Party’s Unity?

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

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