Conventional wisdom says that the middle is disappearing from American politics: The Republicans have moved far to the right, the Democrats far to the left, and woe to any moderate voters looking for politicians to represent their views.
Well, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The Democrats have not actually become radical leftists, or anything close to it.
You keep hearing this story partly because Republicans have an obvious interest in promoting it and partly because large parts of the news media find it irresistible. It’s a “both side do it” angle that allows us journalists to appear tough, knowing and above the partisan scrum. We love that image. But the facts don’t support the story in this case.
For starters, look at this year’s primaries, which finished last week. Across the country, a grand total of two Democratic incumbents in the House lost a primary. Zero Senate candidates did. In conservative states with moderate Democratic senators — like Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia — not one of those moderates even faced a serious primary challenge.
The situation was very different in 2010 with the Tea Party, which pushed the Republican Party to the right. Multiple incumbents lost that year, as Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report noted last week. “Please stop with the ‘revolution’ in the Democratic Party narrative,” she said. This year’s real story is the one that the political scholars Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol have tried to tell: Anti-Trump activists have taken a strategic approach, backing either moderate or more progressive candidates, depending on the district.
It’s true that a few proudly left-leaning Democrats won gubernatorial primaries, like Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida. But I encourage you to watch a few of their speeches. For one thing, both are strong candidates. For another, they are hardly socialists.
[And by the way? If we are ALL socialists to some degree, if we support public schools or public highways or Medicare or public fire departments. — A.T.]
And the list of progressive insurgents who got thumped is much longer. In New York, Cynthia Nixon didn’t crack 35 percent.
Meanwhile, in Congress, the party’s reaction to President Trump tells a similar story. Political pundits sometimes talk about “Trump derangement syndrome” — a condition, supposedly, in which his presidency has made Democrats go crazy. Except that it hasn’t.
To take just one example: There is strong evidence that Trump has broken the law, both by obstructing justice and by using the presidency to enrich himself. Still, Democratic leaders refuse to push for impeachment. They say the country should wait for Robert Mueller’s investigation to finish. I think that’s wise. Either way, it’s certainly not deranged.
Finally, there is policy. Democrats have indeed moved somewhat to the left over the last few decades, on both social and economic issues. As Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary (and no lefty revolutionary), likes to say, the last 15 years should have nudged open-minded people to the political left: The free market isn’t delivering healthy increases in living standards for most Americans. In response, Democrats are focusing less on Bill Clinton’s old themes, like personal and fiscal responsibility, and more on using the government to help people.
But think about what a truly left-wing agenda would look like: Top tax rates of 70 percent (which we had as recently as 1980) or higher. A generous “universal basic income.” The elimination of employer-provided health insurance, with a system more like Britain’s. These ideas remain limited to the margins. None is likely to happen even if Democrats sweep the elections of 2020.
I’m not suggesting that the party has completely avoided Trump overreaction. In our polarized era, Democrats do sometimes confuse its progressive base with the country as a whole. They are to the left of the American public on immigration policy, for instance.
For the most part, though, the Democratic agenda remains decidedly center-left: Raise taxes on the rich, and use the money to help the middle class and poor. Protect civil rights. Expand educational access. Regulate Wall Street, and fight climate change. Expand health insurance using the current system. And compromise with Republicans when necessary.
The radical agenda is the Republican agenda: Make climate change worse, unlike almost every other conservative party in the world. Aggravate inequality. Sabotage health-insurance markets. Run up the deficit. Steal a Supreme Court seat. Keep dark-skinned citizens from voting. Protect Trump’s lawlessness.
If you consider yourself a moderate — whether you lean slightly right or slightly left — your choice in this year’s midterms is clear.
And if you consider yourself a leftist, I understand you are probably frustrated that the Democrats won’t go further. But look at the big picture. The Democratic Party may not have moved nearly as much as you would like, but the party has moved. It has adjusted its agenda in response to soaring inequality and stagnant living standards.
The one mistake no voter should make is pretending that the two parties are just different versions of the same thing.
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