With midterms coming up, I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing about the Democrat’s approach to certain issues. This has only been magnified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York’s 14th district and some Democrat’s policy positions regarding ICE. Therefore, I feel that it might be worth fleshing out some of my thinking on the issue. I’m by no means an expert on American domestic politics, so hopefully Evan weighs in with his thoughts as well. Nonetheless, I think this post should help define and expound some of the major points of controversy.
1. I see a lot of moderate Republicans and Never Trumpers bemoaning Democrats’ perceived shift to the left, but I’m not sure their opinions really matter. After all, politics is mostly about mobilizing the base, not trying to win over disaffected people in the other party. In 2016, the Clinton campaign tried to square the circle of creating a progressive platform while maintaining a moderate tone, but it wasn’t enough to secure victory. If there were enough conservative independents and moderate Republicans willing to break ranks for a centrist Democrat and swing an election, maybe actively fighting to stay in the center would be worth it. But with around 85% of Republicans backing Trump, I’m just not sure that the Democrats owe anything to the few anti-Trump Republican hold-outs.
2. People seem interested in novel approaches to politics. As exemplified by Sanders, Trump, Le Pen, Macron, and Conti, voters seem to support bold ideas from all over the spectrum. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people want leftist politics necessarily, but it does suggest that people are willing to try out new ideas as long as politicians have the guts to put their careers on the line to defend them. Again, this doesn’t mean Democrats have to move left to be successful. It does, however, mean that they need to move past their boring technocratic approach to politics, which usually just involves repeating politically correct warmed over truisms, if they seek to mobilize voters hungry for change.
3. The GOP moved very far to the right during the Obama years, and that didn’t seem to hurt them one bit electorally. Obviously the Democrats have a different history and base, but it just isn’t obvious to me that moving toward ideological extremes necessitates lower levels of support. Most Republicans didn’t like Trump, but when November rolled around, they knew who to vote for, and it wasn’t the Democrat.
4. Moving too far left might endanger the new Democratic coalition of immigrants, college-educated suburbanites, and African Americans, though. I think this coalition would be willing to tolerate slightly more progressive politics – moderately higher minimum wages, criminal justice reform, etc. – but I’m skeptical that they would tolerate a social democratic platform. Indeed, in some areas such as free trade, the Democrats might benefit by moving to the right to win the support of certain parts of the business community.
5. Younger voters are seemingly quite happy to support “socialism,” loosely defined, but they also don’t seem particularly keen to vote. If moving to the left can pick up a large amount of younger voters and turn them into life-long Democrats, it’s probably worth losing a few independents. However, the Democrats need to be very careful that they don’t get yanked to the left by the loony extremists only to be stabbed in the back when those extremists decide to vote Sanders or Stein anyway.
6. Ultimately, the Democrats probably need to adopt a more local approach that eliminates purity tests and replaces them with pragmatism. If parts of New York want to move toward a Corbynist platform, let them. If West Virginia Democrats want to back Joe Manchin, who’s to say they shouldn’t. This sort of decentralized approach seems particularly useful in this political climate, as it is one marked by intense political uncertainty and a fair amount of party realignment. Until the leadership knows how to tack, it makes sense to give party members more autonomy. After all, every Democrat, no matter their specific ideological leanings, brings the party one seat closer to the majority and all the power that it grants. But the Democrats also must ensure that this greater autonomy does not end up fracturing the party, as that could significantly reduce the value they derive from a return to power.