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:
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.