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The Leftward Drift of the Democratic Party

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I didn’t expect to agree with the bottom line, but having seen several smart people recommend the new Harper’s piece by the genuinely brilliant Adolph Reed Jr….I was expecting it to be better.  It certainly has more interesting insights than similar arguments advanced by the Matt Stollers of the world, but I think what he says that’s true isn’t actually controversial and what is controversial isn’t true. A few points:

  • The core of the argument is the assumption of a “Democratic Party whose center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” I find the idea that the Democratic Party has moved right since 1980 frankly bizarre.  A party whose leadership consisted of O’Neill, Byrd and Carter is more progressive than Pelosi/Reid/Obama?  On what planet?  The former Democratic Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for 4 years — where’s their progressive achievement comparable to  the ACA or the repeal of DADT?  Right on economics since the (all too anomalous) LBJ era I’ll buy, but I find the nostalgia for the only Democratic president of the last century to govern to the right of (a not very progressive) Congress baffling.
  • Nor do a buy the idea that the left has been “subdued” by the Democratic Party.  Reed asserts that short-term thinking has prevented the left from pursuing goals like single payer.  My question — how many people on the American left, not just radicals but left-liberals, don’t support single-payer (or a similar European health care model?)  His argument seems premised on the idea that it’s impossible to walk and chew gum at the same time, that nobody could see the ACA as a significant achievement and be aware that it remains greatly inferior to the alternatives in other liberal democracies and so should be a beginning, not an end, of reform.  I don’t think this makes sense in theory and I don’t think it’s true in practice.
  • In addition to minimizing the large and increasing gaps between the Democratic and Republican parties — we’ve been through this enough — Reed says that “[m]ost telling, though, is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success.”  He does not cite anyone who has believes this, I would assume because for all intents and purposes they don’t exist.  (Personally, the only people I’ve seen do this are bloggers attacking Obama from the left, which is baffling on many levels.)  I’m not the one who thinks that the Democratic Party is to the right of where it was in 1996, even though I certainly don’t believe that there was nothing to differentiate Al Gore and George W. Bush.
  • Calling Obama a “neoliberal Democrat” suggests that the term has ceased to have much meaning beyond “a politician I don’t like.”  Obama is certainly not a person of the Left, a point Reed establishes in great detail (although, again, it’s not clear to me what non-Republican ever believed that he was.)  But the ARRA or the ACA simply aren’t Reagan/Thatcher or even Clinton private-centered neoliberalism — name me some neoliberals who were big fans of expanding the single-payer program for the poor.  (Yes, the optimal stimulus would have been even larger, but leaving aside the fact that Obama wasn’t the primary reason it was too small compare it to most other liberal democracies, where it was a huge outlier on the left.)  Since the contours of the term have become so elastic I guess I can’t say it’s wrong to call Obama a “neoliberal” — but doing so essentially renders the term useless.  “Moderate liberal” seems more accurate.  Is that the stuff of dreams?  Indeed not.  Is that superpar for a president of the United States? Most certainly.
  • In terms of his conclusion, I certainly agree that ailing in the rebuilding of labor is an urgent task.   But I disagree with the rest of the fatalism.  The left has more influence on the Democratic Party that it has at any point since 1968, with the defeat of Larry Summers and the removal of Chained CPI from the budget the latest wins.  (And not that the golden age of labor influence that Reed cites was a period in which a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats controlled Congress for more than two decades, not only thwarting progressive reform efforts but passing Taft-Hartley with veto-proof majorities.  Progressive change has never been easy.)  The goal should be to keep moving in this direction, not to walk away in despair.
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