The Democrats Must Own the Center

There are some things in Ross Douthat’s latest column that I at least partially agree with, which is rarity for me. I’m pleased that he so readily acknowledges that the center-left has no contemporary partner, or even potential partner, on the center-right due to the Republicans’ complete abandonment of centrism as both a matter of preference and strategy. I think he’s mostly correct when he says that the Democrats’ leftward lurch on cultural issues has left a lot of potential votes on the cutting room floor. He’s making a fairly unassailable point when he argues that “if the center-left abdicates, [Brad] DeLong-style, on economic policy, the Democratic Party as a whole will have moved to the left on every front.”

When Douthat mentions Brad DeLong, he’s referring to this recent statement made on Twitter in which DeLong basically passed the economic policy baton to the progressive left:

On the center … those like me in what used to proudly call itself the Rubin Wing of the Democratic Party — so-called after former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, and consisting of those of us hoping to use market means to social democratic ends in bipartisan coalition with Republicans seeking technocratic win-wins — have passed the baton to our left. Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition. We blame cynical Republican politicians. We blame corrupt and craven media bosses and princelings. We are right to blame them, but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.

I also have sympathy for what Douthat says here about the Democrats abandoning the cultural center:

Because the country as a whole has also shifted left since 2000, that kind of writing-off will not prevent the Democrats from winning elections; it probably won’t prevent them from beating Donald Trump. But it will stand in the way of any dramatic left-of-center consolidation, any kind of more-than-temporary Democratic governance.

I’ve made many of these same points in recent years, although I come to them from a completely different perspective.

But I’d like to focus more on where I do not agree with Douthat. I don’t think the Democratic Party has drifted away from centrism for ideological reasons–or even for any kind of concerted or wholly conscious reason. The party just hasn’t held that many vulnerable seats in recent years because they were decimated in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. The Republicans just experienced the same thing in 2018. Centrism isn’t something people come to naturally; it’s more of a survival mechanism. It works fairly well when both parties have a lot of vulnerable members. When neither party has a lot of vulnerable members, it doesn’t work well at all.

The problem for centrism in contemporary America is that the two parties are too ideologically distinct and internally coherent for there to be any meaningful cross-pollination of ideas or common agendas. We can barely keep the government open.

In the 2018 midterms, a lot of vulnerable Democrats were elected, which might create an opening for a normal Republican administration. The problem is that Trump burns bridges faster than anyone can build them, and he has salted the fields. He isn’t even trying to drive a wedge into the Democratic caucus, so it’s hard to see how any Democrats could even consider working with him.

The Democratic Party has an opening to claim more of the center. We can already identify small blocs of Republicans in both the House and the Senate who are voting with the Democrats now on a semi-regular basis. They could focus on expanding the universe of vulnerable Republican seats, but they don’t seem inclined to make that a priority right now. The Democrats are also being pulled by their base, and the base seems convinced that they can get more done with smaller majorities so long as those majorities are more passionate and committed. I’ve never found this to be true, and never more so than now when the opposition in implacable and unmovable.

The truth is, I don’t find centrism very appealing. But I do acknowledge that our form of government doesn’t really function without it. But I don’t worry too much about ideology because I realize that everything comes down to raw numbers and raw power. A bigger Democratic caucus will have more endangered members, which means that it will be more moderate. Nonetheless, a bigger Democratic caucus will accomplish more than a smaller one due to the way our legislative system works. Even endangered Republicans don’t deviate very often or very far from the party line, and there are no more progressive Republicans. They’ve abandoned environmentalism. There are no pro-labor Republicans. There are no pro-choice Republicans. So, the old push and pull between the two parties is no longer creating a center where people can come together to hammer out compromises.

That leaves the left with no choice but to pursue a go-it-alone strategy, no matter how impractical or unrealistic that may be. Compromise that is not rewarded has no point. Yet, the Democrats now seem unfettered to some basic realities and limitations inherent in the American system and culture. They still need the same number of votes in Congress, but the only way to get them now is from their own side. That argues against ideological self-policing and in favor of heterodoxy. I say this not because I want heterodoxy for its own sake. I generally agree with progressive goals and objectives, and I’m easily irritated by Democrats who pander to the right. I say this because Douthat is correct that the Democrats’ way of thinking about things will “stand in the way of any dramatic left-of-center consolidation, any kind of more-than-temporary Democratic governance.”

I wish it were not so, but that’s how I see things.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com