Big Tents

By James Kwak

“This is a Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders party. Our party has moved right, their party has moved really left.”

That’s Paul Ryan on the Democratic Party. In Vox, Matt Yglesias points out that Ryan is being disingenuous, but only  “in part.” Yglesias goes on to say this:

“In a fundamental way, Ryan is correct — in 2016, the center of gravity in the Democratic Party is much closer to Bernie Sanders than it was in 2006 or 1996.”

Except, that just isn’t true.

You can look at this question in a couple of ways. You can look at the actual accomplishments and priorities of actual Democratic politicians over the past decade. You would see the adoption of Romneycare, the relatively moderate Dodd-Frank Act, the extension of most of the Bush tax cuts, a decline in domestic discretionary spending, the failure to do anything about the criminal justice system, the failure to very much about climate change, and now the push to ratify the TPP. I don’t see a party shifting to the left.

But, you might say, that’s because Obama has been blocked by the GOP at every turn. So let’s look at the data:

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.08.59 AM

Those are the ideological positions of the two parties’ Congressional delegations since 1995, from the absolutely indispensable Vital Statistics on Congress project, led by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann. (The years on the X-axis are the years of Congresses.) And, of course, they confirm what everyone knows: The Republicans have been getting more extreme, while the Democrats have stayed roughly the same. Even in the House, which should be more sensitive to ideological shifts, the Democrats remain the party of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton—none of whom is to the left of, well, anyone significant in recent party history.

Why does Yglesias, who is usually very sharp, make this mistake? His evidence is a campaign brochure created by Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel for the 2006 elections, which is relatively moderate; he then asserts, “Whatever you make of Hillary Clinton’s current policy agenda, there’s no denying that it’s far more left-wing across the board even as the status quo in many of these areas has shifted to the left.”

But that’s mistaking tactics for substance. In 2006, the Democrats were running against George W. Bush, a man widely seen at the time as a corrupt, incompetent warmonger; they only had to be as inoffensive as possible in order to win the elections. By contrast, Hillary Clinton is just emerging from what was, in some ways, a pretty standard primary campaign in which the establishment centrist tacked left to siphon votes away from the left-wing challenger. Furthermore, Democrats have controlled the White House for the past eight years, and although Barack Obama is personally popular, Americans in general feel insecure about their economic prospects and unhappy about the political system. Clinton has to run on something different, because few people think Obama’s centrist economic policies have worked. (Whether they have worked is an entirely different question.)

Or maybe Yglesias means to focus on tactics rather than substance. His concluding point is that his 2006 version of the Democratic Party was better at winning elections than the ideological version he sees today:

“Positioning themselves as a kind of big tent catchall alternative to [the post-Reagan, ideologically rigid Republicans] worked very well for Democrats across the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Their ongoing reinvention as a more ideological party has coincided — not entirely coincidentally — with a period of weakness in down-ballot races, especially in midterm elections where turnout by young people is pathetically low.”

But again, I think this is just wrong. The Democrats won in 2006 because Bush was unpopular and they won in 2008 because the world was collapsing. They have not reinvented themselves in a more ideological form—see the chart above—and they have done poorly beginning in 2010 because of the rise of the Tea Party and ideologically extreme big money, particularly on the state level. Generic Democrats remain more popular than generic Republicans. Democrats get fewer House seats than their popular vote totals would warrant because of state-level gerrymandering; and that gerrymandering exists because right-wing Republicans, backed by extremist billionaires, have taken over state legislatures. If Republicans had managed to nominate anyone remotely plausible as president, they would be on the verge of a complete sweep in November (legislative, executive, and, thanks to playing hardball with Merrick Garland, judicial). In short, the real story of the Democratic Party is that it has more or less stayed the same, but it has been overwhelmed by ideological rigidity backed by lots and lots of money.

Unfortunately, Yglesias’s advice to Democrats is to continue pitching that big tent, chasing moderates, and backing away from any positions that would actually excite young people or attract ideologically minded donors. The irony is that we have a blueprint for political success staring us in the face: become more ideologically rigid, shift the Overton window as far as you can (dragging the other side with you), prevent your opponents from accomplishing anything, gradually take over all the branches of government, and use those branches to consolidate your power.

Democrats may not be able to completely follow that blueprint, because our positions tend to be less attractive to billionaires (which is why electoral reform is, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters). But the big tent strategy only works when the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot (see Bush, George W.), and even then it just gives us a filibuster-prone majority that changes little in the long term and only lasts for two years (see the 1993 and 2009 Congresses). We need more ideology, not less. Because what we’re doing isn’t working.

12 responses to “Big Tents

  1. There is only ONE party, politicians are scam artists over all, a vote for Hillary is a vote for the status quo, you might as well jump in a lake of fire if you vote for her.
    Take your pick, for the ending is the same either way.

  2. This is the story of the crack head and the ducks:

    It was the summer or 94, I was delivering pizzas part time and met upon this strange fellow at work who happened to live a few blocks from me, he would walk his preteen daughter to the local pond across the street from my house and then come over to do some cocaine as she would cool her self in the water. Once she was ready to return home she only had to cross one busy street and the rest of the trip home was caution free, he on the other hand needed a safe place to get high and my house was a perfect stopping place.
    But one day he came by with a count and wanted to know if I had some baking soda, I strange request I thought, yet I happen to have some and obliged him. That is until he needed a spoon and I watched as he mixed his cocaine with the baking soda, some water, and preceded to heat the mixture a bic lighter, i’m like what the hell is doing to that cocaine, I told him to stop doing that in the house and if had to do it, do it in the garage for gods sake, I wanted nothing to do with this. At the end of his affairs he had some pasty material which he put in the pipe and smoked, I was like this guy is totally out of his mind and wanted nothing to do with this scene. I later found out he was making a thing called crack, huh?

    Well one day shortly after that I was watching the Sunday evening news and thought I heard he had drowned in Goodwin park lake, a few minutes later his wife called me a told me it was him, she sounded interested in me yet I had no interest in her. She tells me they were at the park on that hot Sunday and there were ducks swimming in the small lake, their dog had leaped into lake and began chasing the ducks around but the ducks were faster swimmers than the dog. The dog started slowing down but didn’t stop trying to catch up to the ducks, the husband got worried about the dogs ability to realize he was tiring chasing the ducks and being afraid the dog might drown itself went in to rescue the dog. But the dog out swam the husband as the ducks out swam the dog and soon the wife hears the cry’s of the husband not being able to stay afloat in the middle of the lake, she watches as he goes under. Quickly upset about the situation she goes in to fish out her husband but by the time she gets him to shore he was to far gone. There were two thousand people who attended that funeral, and I was not one of them.

    Moral of the story: Know the difference between a drowned rat and a piper before YOU, become one of the government drowned rats.

  3. Your graph deserves a prize for being exceptionally meaningless. No explanation of the numbers on the Y-axis, no explanation of averaging. Why should anyone trust the views of a writer who uses this graph?

  4. BRUCE E. WOYCH

    Politics is equivocation made to look as reasoned and rational as possible; which is easy with a gullible intellectual community presenting as…well …. they don’t like to be categorized.

  5. It would be nice to put 2 + 2 together and get 4 – I miss those simple times

    https://baselinescenario.com/2016/05/16/moral-worldviews-and-empirical-beliefs/

  6. Except Annie it was never really that simple, (only perceived to be simple) politics and politicians over the past 100 or so years, has either not been smart enough to make the right decisions, or, to corrupt to change their ways. As Bruce said, gullible intellectuals, or as I said, not smart enough to make the right decisions. The end result being pure hell on Earth, created and complements of, politics and politicians.

    Welcome to the end and take care of yourself, for that is all there is of you, enjoy it while it lasts.

  7. And you were not smart enough to get which 2 + 2 that I was alluding to, skunk, so count yourself in the “not smart enough” category…

    Now get out of my face….

  8. Another selective interpretation Annie? Shoot, I guess i’ll just mow down some grass blades today in frustration, want to help me?

  9. Homework for the day….and if you use the “internet”, you will not get the correct answer because you cannot search based on timelines – the sequence of events as they happened in the eternal “NOW”.

    How’s that for dumbing down and DEFORMING the human race…?

    Back to the homework – The Nobel Prize for Economics.

    1. What was the rationale for creating that category?

    2. In what year was the first Prize given out?

    3. What was the “economy” based on before the Prize winning discovery was made?

    4. Was the new discovery implemented into commerce by “replacing” an existing layer of the economy?

    5. If it did not replace a layer of the existing economy, then did the Prize winning theory add a new layer of commerce that increased a fairer distribution of wealth and a greater protection against a massive loss of wealth?

    Should be easy homework for you, skunk, since you keep reminding everyone how it is the same schtick that keeps on giving….

  10. I find economics irrelevant, irrational, a self motivated tool to control others financially by political means.
    A return to the gold standard with a fair tax at the register only for new products, along truth in design, would designate many professions useless, among them, economics.
    I know my grade is a big fat F, and I love it too. Beating A students over the head with a sixth grade education is all the amusement I need, plus it’s all I have so, no need for out bursts or responding unkindly, it’s exhausts the mind and tilts the scales toward injustice. And it obstructs wisdom too.

  11. Most predatory criminals stop ejukating themselves around 6th grade because they figure out that STUPID crime pays better…now this USA class of “got here first” even got whole mega-churches in which to acquire spiritual pride about their iniquity…”Jesus died so that MY sins are forgiven (and I can keep on getting rich)…”

    UK getting a divorce…first shoe to drop….trust me, you ain’t gonna get away with it….and you won’t see Justice coming….so keep rollin’ around in the blood soaked booty…kissing it…”My Precious”…..

    And get outta my face….

  12. The Jesus died line is the Fed protocol Annie, they live and die and get rich by it. The Fed, which is the last link in the chain of corruption and fraud to exist before the gvt default, and can be the justice the citizens are missing and be grateful for. A cindy that it’s too bad you arn’t among the precious, huh?