Conventional wisdom is forming around the idea that the Democratic Party is shifting to the left as a reaction to Donald Trump and because of the influence of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There is certainly some truth to both of those assumptions.
But I think that Kevin Drum provided a more comprehensive view of why the shift is happening. He identified two reasons. The first has been underway for a while now.
…the entire party became relatively more liberal as it went through the process of losing a big bloc of southern white conservatives that abandoned it for a new home in the Republican Party.
That shift started back in the 1960s with passage of civil rights laws and the resulting Southern Strategy adopted by Republicans. Recently, we saw the emergence of a different kind of Southern Democrat in candidates like Stacey Abrams, who rejected what Bob Moser called “business-friendly centrism, with heavy doses of gunfire and Jesus.” Here’s how Ed Kilgore described the transition:
But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.
Drum’s second reason is that some Democrats who adopted more centrist positions in the past did so because it was the only alternative politically. He uses Barack Obama’s position on health care reform as an example, suggesting that, while the former president might have privately supported single payer health care, he knew that it was not politically feasible back in 2009-2010.
That is an accurate description of what happened. Even Bernie Sanders admitted back then that only a handful of Democrats in the Senate supported single payer. Not only that, while Obamacare passed the Senate during the short period of time when Democrats had 60 votes, their ranks included ideological centrists like Bill Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Mary Landrieu, who even opposed things like the public option or lowering the eligibility age for Medicare. But to make Drum’s point, here’s how Obama described his position on single payer during the 2008 campaign:
So what happens when, as Kaiser Family Foundation documented, the majority of people in this country support Medicare for All? We now see a majority of Democratic senators supporting that position, although most are still cognizant of the fact that moving in that direction will require a process to avoid the kind of disruption Obama talked about.
In summary, as Drum suggests, “This seems like a shift to the left in the party, but it’s really more of a shift to the left in the nation.”
But it isn’t just the Democratic Party that is in transition. The most potent signal about what is happening in the Republican Party is actually the candidacy of Howard Schultz. While he claims the mantle of being a “Democratic centrist,” Jeff Stein documented what we know about his policy positions: reduce the debt, cut entitlements, and oppose taxes on the wealthy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sure looks like the traditional Republican platform. There is nothing on that list that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney wouldn’t love. That is precisely why “Never Trump” Republicans like David Frum are thrilled with his potential candidacy.
The truth is that Howard Schultz is a classic “centrist” Republican in that he embraces that party’s fiscal policies while wanting to avoid the xenophobic elements that have taken over their messaging and reached their peak in the presidency of Donald Trump. The reason it is important to watch this development with clear eyes is that, just as some conservatives have been advocating, we could be witnessing a major split in the Republican Party.
The fact of the matter is that we are in a period of major realignment in both parties. The forces that are at work in each of them are very different and they won’t play out in one election—but will become more evident over time. In light of that, it is incumbent on all of us to let go of assumptions that have guided our prognostications in the past, which will eventually be obsolete, and remain open to the new dynamics that are in the process of emerging.