Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Leftward March

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
The party is now well to the left of where it was during Bill Clinton’s administration.

Both victory and defeat have been radicalizing experiences for the Democratic party during this century. Democrats moved left after losing to George W. Bush; they moved farther left after winning with Barack Obama; and now they seem to be moving farther left still under President Donald Trump.

The cumulative effect of all this movement has been to put the party well to the left of where it was during Bill Clinton’s administration. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign felt it necessary to disavow many of her husband’s old stances, and some of her own. President Clinton signed a tough-on-crime bill; Hillary Clinton said it had gone too far. Bill Clinton appointed a commission that recommended a reduction in legal immigration, and briefly endorsed that recommendation. Hillary Clinton campaigned against “large-scale raids and roundups” of illegal immigrants and vowed to bring back some of those who had been deported.

Bill Clinton supported free trade, fighting to get the North American Free Trade Agreement approved. Hillary Clinton repudiated the big trade agreement up for discussion in 2016, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Leading Democrats, including Bill Clinton, seemed open to paring back the growth of entitlement programs in the 1990s. Last year, Hillary Clinton campaigned on an across-the-board increase of Social Security benefits.

The Democratic party’s liberalism became more pronounced on social issues, too. Bill Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”; by 2016 the Democratic platform no longer called for making abortion “rare” but did call explicitly for federal funding of abortion for low-income women. Bill Clinton signed legislation codifying marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Hillary Clinton came out for same-sex marriage in 2013.

She did not lead the way on any of these issues. Left-wing activists dragged her into opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Same-sex marriage was gaining majority support from the public, and supermajority support from Democrats, when she embraced it. Expanding Social Security had already won the support of all Senate Democrats before Clinton.

These leftward moves were not enough to satisfy some Democratic primary voters. Forty-five percent of them chose Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who has stayed out of the party for most of his career because he has defined himself to its left.

The odds are pretty good that the Democrats’ next presidential nominee will run on a program even more left-wing than the one Clinton adopted in 2016. Many Democrats want to weaken the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed almost by acclamation under President Clinton. The American Civil Liberties Union, which once championed the law, is on board. The party is moving left on health care. Most House Democrats have concluded that the problems of Obamacare are a reason to create a federal-government monopoly on health insurance, which they call “single payer.” Democrats are raising their antes on the minimum wage, too. Obama began his second term calling for an increase from $7.25 to $9 an hour. Clinton campaigned for $12, but the party platform called for $15. Nancy Pelosi says that if Democrats win the House, they will pass this more-than-doubling of the minimum wage within a hundred hours of taking control.

There are two big exceptions to this trend. Democrats have not made a left turn on guns or on welfare. On guns, they have, if anything, moved right, along with public opinion. In 1993, a Democratic Senate mustered 56 votes for a ban on assault weapons. The Democratic Senate of 2013 had only 40. In recent years, liberal intellectuals have decided that the welfare reform Bill Clinton signed in 1996 was a crime against humanity. Democratic politicians have refrained from joining this chorus.

Changes in public opinion have clearly driven some of the Democrats’ shifts. Same-sex marriage, in particular, grew rapidly in popularity. Some Democratic politicians moved along with the public, and many others felt liberated by voters’ change of mind to declare what they really thought. Public opinion has turned more pro-immigration, too. The year Bill Clinton’s commission issued its report, Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans wanted lower levels of immigration and 7 percent wanted higher. By 2016 only 38 percent wanted less immigration and 21 percent wanted more.

The Democrats’ shift is in large part a result of the long process by which conservatives and liberals have sorted themselves into the two major parties. Millions of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans left their former parties, the parties changed to reflect that increased philosophical uniformity, and then millions more voters defected. There are fewer conservative Democratic politicians to restrain the party’s progressivism, and fewer conservative Democratic voters to give them a reason to do so.

Another reason the Democrats have moved left in fits and starts over the last two decades: Victories have confirmed and defeats only momentarily shaken their confidence that the future belongs to them. That confidence may be built into the Left: One of Obama’s favorite sayings was that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Liberals took discrete changes in public opinion, such as the embrace of same-sex marriage, as examples of a general progressivizing tendency. Young people strengthened this impression by voting more and more for the Democrats. During the Obama years in particular, Democrats became invested in the idea that they represented a progressive “coalition of the ascendant,” with the ascending to happen as old white men died off. Democratic politicians felt both that they had to move left to keep up with their primary voters and that they would not pay a price for it with the general public.

George W. Bush’s election did not cause a major rethinking: He won fewer votes than Al Gore, after all. His presidency ended in a pit of unpopularity that appeared to validate both the Democrats’ preferences on foreign and domestic policy and their political optimism.

Trump’s victory stunned Democrats (among others) because they didn’t expect it. But Trump won with an even lower percentage of the vote than Bush, or even Mitt Romney, had received; his numbers have been anemic at best since he became president; and most polling has suggested that the public is moving left in response to him. Obamacare, for example, has gotten more popular as Republicans have threatened to replace it. But the latest left turn is not just a matter of cool calculation. Rage and hysteria seem to be the dominant emotional reactions to Trump among both rank-and-file and professional Democrats.

The intra-Democratic debate about how Trump won is mostly reinforcing the party’s inclination to keep going where it wants to go: farther left. Clinton is blaming the Russians, the FBI, the media, sexism. To the extent Democrats believe her, they will think that they should have won the election and that it was stolen from them. Other Democrats blame Clinton herself for being personally uninspiring, taking too much Wall Street money, campaigning arrogantly, and neglecting Wisconsin. Neither explanation points toward any need for the Democrats to do anything different when it comes to program or ideology. The pro-Clinton explanation does, however, push in the direction of becoming more conspiracy-minded. Many Democrats are eagerly accepting that invitation — something about which some liberals, to their credit, are worrying.

Other arguments among Democrats have gone a little deeper. As soon as the returns were in, an old struggle resumed over whether to place a higher priority on economics or on cultural issues — or, to put it in different terms, the class struggle or identity politics. Some progressives tried to finesse the issue, saying that such feminist causes as mandatory paid leave and subsidies for contraception and abortion are vital for the material fortunes of the working class.

Even if that proposition is granted, though, Democrats face a strategic choice. Should the party define itself by progressive economics, in which case it will make room for at least a few social conservatives who agree on the $15 minimum wage? Or should it define itself first and foremost as a socially liberal party? That choice has implications for which voters the Democrats should court most aggressively. An economically progressive party might win back some of the white voters without college degrees who went for Trump last fall. A socially liberal party, on the other hand, might keep some of the college-degreed Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for Hillary Clinton.

The matter came to a head in Omaha, Neb. Sanders endorsed Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor who had co-sponsored legislation to ban late-term abortions and described himself as personally opposed to abortion. Sanders, who himself has an impeccably pro-abortion record, lauded Mello’s economic platform. The head of NARAL Pro-Choice America attacked Sanders over the endorsement, and other Democrats were drawn into the debate. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez first endorsed Mello and then, under criticism, said that all Democrats had to support “the Democratic party’s position on women’s fundamental rights.” Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, argued for a bigger tent, noting that members of her own Democratic family broke with her on abortion.

Clinton repeatedly invited Republicans to support her — but refused to give an inch of substance in return.

While some Democrats are arguing that the party should tolerate a range of viewpoints on social issues, and others are saying that they should at least try not to condescend toward people who disagree with them, no prominent members of the party are saying that it should actually moderate its positions on abortion, immigration, or religious liberty. When the party is viewed from the outside, it might seem like there’s a good case for such moderation. Even in the Obama years, betting on inevitable demographic tides made for a narrow coalition. The geographic distribution of liberal voters makes it easier to assemble a majority for president than one for Senate and governors’ races, which is in turn easier than to assemble one for a majority of House races.

Betting on the coalition of the ascendant didn’t work for Clinton even at the presidential level. She repeatedly invited Republicans to support her — but refused to give an inch of substance in return. She did nothing even to gesture toward the cultural concerns of working-class white voters, who everyone knew had found Trump appealing. She didn’t actually call working-class whites “deplorable,” but she might as well have. President Obama had done abysmally in key swing states among white voters who were working-class, Evangelical Christian, or Catholic, and the fact that he won anyway helped lead Democrats to write off these groups as a coalition of the descending. Clinton managed to do significantly worse, enough to cost her the election.

That’s not the way many Democrats see it. In their view, Trump was reason enough for many Republicans to abandon their party, and he still got 90 percent of their votes. Conservatives’ partisanship is too strong to make it worth reaching out to them. Besides, Republicans spent the Obama years being obstructionist, turning more extreme, and indulging in conspiracy theories, and it didn’t keep them from winning unified control of the federal government. The public figure who did more than any other to spread the nutty theory that Obama wasn’t born in America is now president. Why, they ask, shouldn’t Democrats act the same way?

There are a number of possible answers to that question, starting with the fact that the bet doesn’t offer much protection on the downside. But there may not be a large Democratic audience for such answers. Too many of them think that they already represent an anti-Trump majority or inevitably will represent a liberal one, convictions that reduce the urgency of building either. Political life being what it is, their approach might pay off anyway.


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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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