Why the Democrats Can Move to the Left
Democrats are galloping to the left. David Weigel made the point in a Washington Post report on their new party platform: “The Democratic Party shifted further to the left in one election than perhaps since 1972, embracing once-unthinkable stances on carbon pricing, police reform, abortion rights, the minimum wage and the war on drugs.” He could have added Social Security and immigration to his list.
So why has the unthinkable become thinkable? Four reasons come to mind.
Partisan sorting. The Obama years saw the remaining conservative Democrats get wiped out, as Weigel notes. The Democrats are a more uniformly progressive party now. There are fewer conservative Democrats among the party’s elected officials and activists to counsel restraint, and fewer conservative Democratic voters to worry about alienating. The platform reflects these developments.
Demographics. Democrats have grown increasingly convinced that demographic trends augur a lasting progressive majority. Whites are more conservative than nonwhites, married people are more conservative than single people, and church-going Christians are more conservative than everyone else. The percentage of the population that belongs to each of those conservative groups is dwindling, which suggests that conservatism will dwindle, too. These trends give liberals a reason to think that their positions have become less politically risky than they used to be and will be even less risky in the future.
The success of Bill Clinton. Judged by the standards of today’s Democrats, the Clinton administration looks conservative. Clinton signed laws cutting the capital-gains tax, requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work, making criminal sentences more severe, funding the building of prisons, and defining marriage in federal law as the union of a man and a woman. He said abortion should be “rare,” a sentiment absent from the party’s platform today.
Some progressives damn the compromises of the 1990s. But they should consider that they are able to do so only because those compromises rehabilitated liberalism in the eyes of the public. Welfare reform, in particular, helped to re-legitimize government activism by reassuring middle-class voters that benefits would go to people who work for a living and, in that way, support rather than undermine their values. By playing it safe in a conservative era, the Clintons helped liberalism to survive and grow -- and now can run a more confidently liberal party.
Republican haplessness. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. They have spent much of the Obama administration at war with themselves. This year the party's voters chose the presidential candidate who polled worst in a general election, and looked least likely to organize and raise funds for a competent national campaign, to be their nominee.
A formidable Republican Party would be able to make the Democrats pay a political price for going too far to the left, and this potential would inhibit the Democrats. Today’s Republicans do not have the Democrats running scared, at least in presidential elections.
Progressive Democrats didn’t get their way on every sentence of the platform: There are still limits to how far left Democrats will go. Liberal commentators have reached a consensus that the welfare reform of 1996 was a catastrophe for the poor. But Democratic politicians remain wary of revisiting the issue. The platform is careful, too, on guns, an issue where public opinion has moved right over the last two decades.
Progressives can fight those battles another day. For now they are celebrating what they have achieved in the latest platform. They have a lot more running room than they used to have, and they are making the most of it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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