The Reemergence of the Democratic Left (Started Some Time Ago)
E.J. Dionne makes an interesting argument today designed specifically for the Village. I don’t know how it’s going to go over — there remains an irrational fear of hippies among its denizens, even among those who were born long after the 60s lefties turned to worrying about their rheumatism. But it’s good to see him making the argument:
The reemergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014. Moderates, don’t be alarmed. The return of a viable, vocal left will actually be good news for the political center.
For a long time, the American conversation has been terribly distorted because an active, uncompromising political right has not had to face a comparably influential left. As a result, our entire debate has been dragged in a conservative direction, meaning that the center has been pulled that way, too.
More generally, the Democratic left is animated by the battle against growing inequality and declining social mobility — the idea, as Warren has said repeatedly, that “the system is rigged for powerful interests and against working families.” She and her allies are not anti-capitalist. Their goal is to reform the system so it spreads its benefits more widely. Warren has argued that everything she’s done on behalf of financial reform has, in fact, been designed to make markets work better.
The resurgent progressives are battling a double standard. They are asking why it is that “populism” is a good thing when it’s invoked by the tea party against “liberal elites” but suddenly a bad thing when it describes efforts to raise the minimum wage and take other steps toward a fairer system of economic rewards.
And here’s why moderates should be cheering them on: When politicians can ignore the questions posed by the left and are pushed to focus almost exclusively on the right’s concerns about “big government” and its unquestioning faith in deregulated markets, the result is immoderate and ultimately impractical policy. To create a real center, you need a real left.
I suppose I like this formulation because it sounds so much like what I’ve been writing about on this blog for the last decade:
Thursday, July 06, 2006
The next time somebody asks you about what the blogosphere really means to politics, pull this out:
The great benefit of the blogosphere is that it isn’t really an “interest group”; it’s more like an old-style membership organization (or a series of such organizations) whose existence used to do something to check what’s now become the out-of-control influence of business groups over the policy process.
That’s from Matt Yglesias. He’s responding to a post from Noam Schieber examining whether the blogosphere is a good thing, on balance, as its influence starts to crowd out the influence of liberal interest groups. Yglesias nicely analyzes that notion and I tend to agree with what he says, although I think the Republican coalition offers some lessons in how interest groups and a strong partisan identity can work fairly comfortably together.
Scheiber’s post suggests that the problem with the netroots is that we are going to make the party more liberal and that means we will lose elections. That would be the conventional diagnosis of what is wrong with the Democrats generally and it’s been the conventional wisdom as long as I can remember, at least since 1968. Yet, somehow, the society itself has become much more liberal. It’s true that the politics of the day seem extremely conservative, but if you look back at the way people really thought and spoke 40 years ago, you’ll see that this country was unrecognizably intolerant and that while the unions were much more powerful and the middle class was still growing, the workplace was inhospitable to at least half the population (also known as women and racial minorities.)
Yglesias explains it this way, and I think it’s very astute:
I generally doubt that systemic social change will radically alter election outcomes since I tend to believe that the parties will more or less alternate in power — the important issue is the terms of debate between the two parties, and I think that insofar as the netroots become more influential (which I think is a fairly open question) the aggregate impact will be positive.
This is where the modern conservative movement has had its great impact: the terms of the debate. Progress marches on — or, at least, it has so far. Despite the most conservative political era in a century (maybe ever) the basic idea of extending rights to all, of opening the work force to all comers, to liberalizing society in general has continued, at least in fits and starts. But as an example of the terms of the political debate changing, where once it was considered natural to tax the rich more for the common good, the conservatives have managed to convince a good number of people that the common good is served by rich people keeping as much money as possible so they can “create jobs.”
Democrats have spent the last two decades trying to adapt to that change in the debate, sometimes out of a sincere desire to experiment with new ways of doing things, which is a liberal trait. But it was often a failure of imagination and fundamental commitment, as well. And in the end the DLC experiment failed liberalism. Trying to solely use capitalistic methods and modern business techniques to supplant government functions to solve problems has resulted in corrupt politics, inefficient government and huge income inequality. (And let’s not pretend that the plan wasn’t terribly tempting because of the vast sums of money that would flow from tapping into business and industry.) As Yglesias points out, the Netroots may just provide a needed counter weight to that system by challenging some of the plainly illiberal policies that have become so ingrained in the establishment that politicians today seem stunned that their constituents are objecting. (The bankruptcy bill comes to mind.)
But there is more to it, I think, than just counterweight against the influence of business, although I think that’s vastly important. I have described this current political stalemate before as a tug of war rather than a pendulum. Liberals let go of the rope for a while and failed to pull their weight in the debate. Without them — us — being there, helping to shape the debate (which sometimes means we are here to be triangulated against, BTW) politics and society become out of whack as they clearly are now.
Conservatives benefit from their appeals to fear. It’s actually the very essence of conservatism — fear of change. And that is their weakness because in a democratic, capitalistic society optimism and a willingness and ability to risk are necessary for the society to thrive. Liberals’ job is to articulate that optimism, that belief that problems can be solved, that democratic government of the people is a positive force that provides the necessary structure for individuals and businesses to thrive and grow. It is that general sense of liberalism that the netroots, as a loosely affiliated organization of activists, thinkers, businesspeople, gadflies and interested observers might also bring back into the public debate.
We could potentially provide the ballast to the conservative political machine that has pulled the debate too far over to its side and created this nauseating sense of political instability. I think the country would welcome a little equilibrium (and by that I don’t mean a continuation of the 50/50 political stalemate.) We function better when society and politics are more in synch than they are now. And since progress is marching on as always, liberal politics are what’s necessary to end the cognitive dissonance.
And, by the way, I would be remiss in not acknowledging that Dionne hasn’t just come to this conclusion today. He wrote about this way back when as well, noting the emergence of the netroots as a counterpoint to the GOP’s noise machine. He has always tried very patiently to explain to the Villagers why it’s important that this country has a vital left-wing. They just haven’t been able to hear him.