No room for moderation

Since at least the middle of the Obama era, all the energy and activity and creativity in the Democratic coalition has been with people pushing the party away from any kind of centrism — with the journals and zines that have resuscitated something they call socialism, with the activists trying to impose the college-campus style of cultural liberalism on the wider country (or at least the wider internet), with the feminists and intersectional types and Bernie Bros who clash and feud and sometimes absolutely hate one another, but still share a common “to the left, march” purpose.

Now that energy has transformed Democratic politics. We have a swelling Democratic 2020 field in which a capital-S Socialist is arguably the front-runner, most of the declared candidates are offering maximal ideological ambition, and the last Democratic vice president is hesitating to run in part because of all his long-gone compromises with conservatism.

With Clintonism as toxic as Bill Clinton’s post-#MeToo reputation, even the old Clintonites are throwing in the towel. In a memorable Twitter thread, center-left economist Brad DeLong argued that the time has come for centrists to become, in effect, junior partners in the Democratic coalition, working to sharpen and smarten up the new socialism rather than seeking Republican partners and bipartisan reforms.

But there is also something missing in DeLong’s self-criticism, a blind spot common to the contemporary center-left, which points to one reason a “durable governing coalition” may continue to elude the Democratic Party’s grasp.

One way to distill the center-left failure that DeLong describes is this: Over the last 15 years, the center-left establishment in the United States separated itself from the Democratic base on two major issues — its support for the Iraq War in the early 2000s, and its support for a bipartisan “grand bargain” on fiscal issues in the early-to-middle Obama years. The first separation was a disaster; the second one was a mistake. And neither ultimately helped the Democratic coalition win elections.

Another way to distill the failure is to say that in the last decade or so the center-left attempted a series of policy compromises — Obamacare instead of single-payer, cap-and-trade instead of a Green New Deal, modest upper-bracket tax increases instead of big attempts to soak the rich — and then discovered that the Republican Party was either still too far away ideologically or too much of an internally divided mess to make a lasting deal on any issue. And meanwhile the compromises were often unpopular with swing voters — as Obamacare was at first, as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax probably would be so there was no obvious political advantage to making them pre-emptively.

Both of these accounts fit DeLong’s narrative; both make a case for letting the further-left parts of the Democratic coalition try leadership instead, and seeking compromises between socialists and liberals rather than pining for moderate-Republican partners who don’t appear to be in evidence.

But consider a third narrative, in which the center-left’s signal political failure was that it never really sought to preserve a cultural centrism, which meant over time that its party’s approach to social issues has been dictated more and more completely by the left. In this story the political success of Bill Clinton reflected not only his compromises with Republicans on taxes and spending, his tacit nods to Reaganomics, but also his ability to infuse a centrist liberalism with reassuring nods to various kinds of moderate cultural conservatism — the school uniform and v-chip business and the rhetoric of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion, the easy Baptist religiosity, the tacitly center-right positions on immigration and crime and same-sex marriage.

If Clinton had matched this cultural conservatism with decency in his private life, Al Gore would have won re-election as his heir, and the larger story of the center-left might have been entirely different. But instead, from the mid-2000s onward, the leftward flank of the Democratic Party looked at the country’s changing demographics and growing social liberalism and decided that Clinton’s compromises with cultural conservatism weren’t as politically necessary as they had been (which was true), and that therefore they were free to become increasingly ideologically maximalist on everything touching gender or race or sexuality or immigration (which was not true).

In this sense the story of the Democrats’ struggles over the last 15 years is a story of a party that has consistently moved leftward faster than the also-changing country, and consistently overread victories — on same-sex marriage above all — as a template for how every cultural battle should play out. It’s a story of a new feminism that’s pushing the party ever-further from the center on abortion, of a new cohort of white liberals who are actually to the left of many African-Americans on racial issues, of an activist base that brands positions that many liberals held only yesterday as not only mistaken but bigoted or racist or beyond-the-pale.

Which means that if the center-left abdicates, DeLong-style, on economic policy, the Democratic Party as a whole will have moved to the left on every front, writing off not only the possibility of compromising with Republican politicians (which, for now, might be understandable) but also the possibility of winning over voters who would almost certainly be Democrats if the party still occupied the cultural terrain that it held in 2000 or even as late as 2008.

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. And if the center-left feels itself irrelevant in an age of socialist ambition, then taking up the task of rebuilding a cultural center, and a Democratic Party capable of claiming it, seems like the task that might actually be suited to the times.

Sadly the rest of the DeLong thread didn’t take up that possibility. It degenerated, instead, into a howl against Republican fascism and a post-Protestant sermon about how liberal America can build the true and only heaven, the real shining city on the hill.

Which suggests that to reckon with the possibility that making liberalism a pseudo-church might be a problem, not an aspiration, we need a very different center-left from the one surrendering today.

———

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

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