At the Prospect, Paul Starr has a fine brief summary of the Democratic Party biggest problems (which he calls “curses”) which should be familiar to readers of this blog: Democrats are heavily and increasingly dependent on voting demographics that don’t reliably turn out to vote; Republicans have disproportionate obstructive power via their strength in the states and on the Supreme Court; thus Democrats have trouble delivering on the policy advances that might motivate their base to participate more regularly in elections.
That’s all semi-irrefutable, as is Starr’s additional point that what we think of as “the center” has steadily drifted to the right, and will continue to do so if Republicans maintain their starboard direction without serious punishment at the polls. So in endorsing a “populist” message for the foreseeable future, Starr is hardly raising the red flag of revolution:
Call this approach “moving left to the center.” Obama’s belated emphasis on raising the minimum wage and increasing overtime pay are good examples of the approach. Taxing the 1 percent to finance broadly distributed benefits also fits this description. If the Democrats are going to convince their supporters it is worth the trouble to vote, they need to draw unambiguous distinctions on economics with Republicans.
Such policies will predictably be described as class warfare. But, to use a well-worn phrase, this is about saving capitalism from the capitalists. The objective is actually to get back to an income distribution more like the level that prevailed in the Eisenhower administration. The entire political and legal spectrum has been moved so far to the right that what used to be centrist only seems populist. The purpose of moving left to the center is ultimately to move the center back closer to where it used to be.
I don’t even know if “move left” is all that accurate a description of what Starr is talking about. If a policy position (say, keeping the minimum wage at historic levels instead of allowing it to be eroded by inflation) is a historic Democratic Party position that also happens to poll extremely well, and Republicans have abandoned any pretense of sharing it as a goal, then emphasizing it is more a matter of refusing to follow the GOP to the Right than of “moving left.” And Lord knows Republicans are making it very easy to “draw unambiguous distinctions” between the two parties.
It’s also not especially clear than there’s any real debate within the Democratic Party on this subject anymore. If Mark Pryor is perfectly happy pushing for a minimum wage hike, does it really matter if a self-proclaimed pundit or the occasional think tank suggests otherwise? Indeed, applying ideological labels to positions most Democrats agree with may actually exaggerate the need for debate. So call it “move to the left” or “move to the center” or just standing on principle, it makes sense for Democrats to draw attention to the economic royalism of the GOP and the many specific ways the Donkey Party doesn’t agree with it.