On Friday, House Democrats shocked almost everyone by rejecting key provisions needed to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement the White House wants but much of the party doesn’t. On Saturday Hillary Clinton formally began her campaign for president and surprised most observers with an unapologetically liberal and populist speech.
These are, of course, related events. The Democratic Party is becoming more assertive about its traditional values, a point driven home by Clinton’s decision to speak on Roosevelt Island. You could say that Democrats are moving left. But the story is more complicated and interesting than this simple statement can convey.
You see, ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Democrats have been on the ideological defensive. Even when they won elections they seemed afraid to endorse clearly progressive positions, eager to demonstrate their centrism by supporting policies like cuts to Social Security that their base hated. But that era appears to be over. Why?
Part of the answer is that Democrats, despite defeats in midterm elections, believe – rightly or wrongly – that the political wind is at their backs. Growing ethnic diversity is producing what should be a more favorable electorate; growing tolerance is turning social issues, once a source of Republican strength, into a Democratic advantage instead. Reagan was elected by a nation in which half the public still disapproved of interracial marriage; Clinton is running to lead a nation in which 60 percent support same-sex marriage.
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At the same time, Democrats seem finally to have taken on board something political scientists have been telling us for years: adopting “centrist” positions in an attempt to attract swing voters is a mug’s game, because such voters don’t exist. Most supposed independents are in fact strongly aligned with one party or the other, and the handful who aren’t are mainly just confused. So you might as well take a stand for what you believe in.
But the party’s change isn’t just about politics, it’s also about policy.
On one side, the success of Obamacare and related policies – millions covered for substantially less than expected, surprisingly effective cost control for Medicare – have helped to inoculate the party against blanket assertions that government programs never work. And on the other side, the Davos Democrats who used to be a powerful force arguing against progressive policies have lost much of their credibility.
I’m referring to the kind of people – many, though not all, from Wall Street – who go to lots of international meetings where they assure each other that prosperity is all about competing in the global economy, and that this means supporting trade agreements and cutting social spending. Such people have influence in part because of their campaign contributions, but also because of the belief that they really know how the world works.
As it turns out, however, they don’t. In the 1990s the purported wise men blithely assured us that we had nothing to fear from financial deregulation; we did. After crisis struck, thanks in large part to that very deregulation, they warned us that we should be very afraid of bond investors, who would punish America for its budget deficits; they didn’t. So why believe them when they insist that we must approve an unpopular trade deal?
And this loss of credibility means that if Clinton makes it to the White House she'll govern very differently from the way her husband did in the 1990s.
As I said, you can describe all of this as a move to the left, but there’s more to it than that - and it’s not at all symmetric to the Republican move right. Democrats are adopting ideas that work and rejecting ideas that don’t, whereas Republicans are doing the opposite.
And no, I’m not being unfair. Obamacare, which was once a conservative idea, is working better than even supporters expected; so Democrats are committed to defending its achievements, while Republicans are more fanatical than ever in their efforts to destroy it. Modestly higher taxes on the wealthy haven’t hurt the economy, while promises that tax cuts will have magical effects have proved disastrously wrong; so Democrats have become more comfortable with a modest tax-and-spend agenda, while Republicans are more firmly in the grip of tax-cutting cranks than ever. And so on down the line.
Of course, changes in ideology matter only to the extent that they can influence policy. And while the electoral odds probably favor Clinton, and Democrats could retake the Senate, they have very little chance of retaking the House. So changes in the Democratic Party may take a while to change America as a whole. But something important is happening, and in the long run it will matter a great deal.