I’ve done a lot of blogging about the Republicans and said hardly anything about the Democrats, so it’s about time to redress that imbalance a bit.
The civil war between “establishment” and Tea Party Republicans has gotten a lot of attention lately, but there’s also been a less publicized but no less interesting discussion about a coming struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. As far as I can tell, that discussion was initiated by a post by Peter Beinart in “The Daily Beast” a few months ago. Taking note of Bill DeBlasio’s come from behind triumph in the New York Democratic mayoral primary, Beinart saw it as “…an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now. “
Beinart sees the challenge from the left largely as a result of generational change. The millennials—basically, people born since the early 1980s—are significantly more liberal than older generations. Their liberalism reflects the fact that they have come of age in a period of increasing insecurity and declining government action to counter that trend. It also reflects their more tolerant social outlook—millennials are less likely to be distracted from their economic grievances by resentment of minorities or gays or an increasingly secular mass culture. Beinart cites polls showing millennials as far more suspicious of big business and more supportive of labor unions and of Obamacare and active government generally. In one poll, a narrow plurality of milennials favored socialism over capitalism. (My own interpretation of that poll is that Republicans, by constantly calling Obama a socialist, have given socialism a good name.)
In short, according to Beinart, the wind is blowing from the left, and it is a chill wind for Clintonian centrism, which succeeded in expanding the Democratic Party coalition to include a significant portion of the country’s corporate elite, especially from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and international business generally.
The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber took up this theme in a cover article for the November 25 issue entitled “Hillary’s Nightmare.” The cover picture shows a vast throng of people holding Elizabeth Warren masks to their faces, while the article’s subtitle explains that the nightmare consists of “a Democratic Party that realizes its soul lies with Elizabeth Warren instead.” Scheiber describes a bifurcation in the Democratic Party between a base that is more militantly populist than it has been in years, and business-oriented party elites who became dominant during the Clinton administration who remain close to Wall Street. In addition to the DeBlasio win, Schieber points to the success of Warren and others in squelching the nomination of Larry Summers to head the Fed; and the withdrawal of Bill Daley, former Obama chief of staff and JP Morgan executive, from his primary campaign for Illinois governor after polls showed him trailing his more populist opponent.
Scheiber is a pretty sober guy, and I suspect that the melodramatic title and cover picture for his article were the work of his editors. He doesn’t really believe that Warren could defeat Hillary for the nomination; his point is that the excitement building around Warren is indicative of a definite shift in the party that Hillary can’t safely ignore. The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson agrees that Hillary would face a serious revolt within the party if she surrounds herself with economic advisers drawn from apostles of Robert Rubin, the Wall Street baron who headed her husband’s Treasury Department and guided the Clinton administration’s banker-friendly economic policies.
As Meyerson points out, Democratic populists and centrists have no real disagreements on foreign policy and also agree on a wide range of economic policies. At the national level, the main differences would be in the populists’ push for further, aggressive reform of the financial industry, a more skeptical view of international trade agreements, and advocacy of vigorous expansionary fiscal policies to combat continuing economic stagnation. Populists would put up stiff resistance to the kind of compromises with the right often favored by centrists that would cut social spending, especially on the safety net.
I hope Beinart, Scheiber and Meyerson are right. I would like to see a Democratic Party pursuing more aggressively progressive positions than it would if its leaders simply followed the money down the centrist path. I have my doubts. The broad attitude changes described by Beinart aren’t easily reflected in the kind of organized pressure usually needed to actually register an impact in our democracy. As I’ve noted previously, the US labor movement for decades served as the most consistent organized force advocating for the interests of middle and lower income people, but labor has long been in political eclipse, with no obvious replacement in sight.
I haven’t seen any organizations of pissed-off milennials, or of long-term unemployed, lobbying Washington or putting up candidates in Democratic primaries. That’s unsurprising—labor historically was organizable (as Karl Marx recognized) because workers were concentrated in factories, where they could be located and organized. How/where do you organize milennials or unemployed? Meyerson ends with a note of caution: the kind of organized movement that could significantly strengthen the left within the Democratic Party is nowhere in sight.