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The Battle in the Democratic Party is More About Ideas than Ideology

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My general position on the 2020 presidential nomination is that all of the candidates, except for Tulsi Gabbard or Michael Bloomberg if he runs, are basically acceptable and all believe in about 80% of the same things. Now, that other 20% counts and there’s nothing wrong a vigorous debate over it, but people who are ready to sit out the election or otherwise blow up because their preferred liberal candidate doesn’t win and some other, quite similar, candidate does win are really missing the forest for the trees.

That said, there are real divisions in the Democratic Party. But I don’t really buy that they are over ideology because there’s just not that much difference between anyone. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are just 70s era liberals who believe in pushing their ideas aggressively, but they aren’t calling for large scale nationalization of private property here. Cory Booker obviously is way too close to Wall Street and Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor is a problem at a moment when the Democratic base has moved away from 90s style politics, but on most issues, they don’t have big disagreements with Bernie.

Where the real division exists is over ideas. There are two generations of Democrats who came to office in an era where they had to apologize for being liberals, where Republicans were in the ascendant, where the model for political success was Bill Clinton. Postwar liberalism had spent a lot of its intellectual force and most of the ideas–as bad as they all were–in American politics were coming from the right. This has created some pretty tepid leadership. Probably no one embodies this more than Chuck Schumer, but both Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama have pretty sharp limits on big ideas they are going to embrace.

This all leads to me Michelle Goldberg’s column today on the Green New Deal. While I am typically skeptical of the political science stuff she starts with, I do think this is pretty close to correct:

A rapidly congealing conventional wisdom holds that the Green New Deal is likely to be electoral kryptonite for Democrats. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, clearly thinks the proposal is politically toxic, which is why he plans to have senators vote on it.

Maybe McConnell is right. I’ve lived through enough right-wing backlashes to worry about left-wing overreach. But it seems at least possible that, at this moment of social breakdown and planetary emergency, the calculus of what’s politically feasible could be changing. The electorate certainly is; within the next decade, millennials, the most diverse and perhaps most progressive generation in history, will be the single largest voting bloc.

If we are in fact on the cusp of a new political epoch, then a sweeping, idealistic plan for social transformation is not a wild fantasy but a practical necessity.

This is not to say there’s nothing to dispute in the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress last week. Ocasio-Cortez’s staff certainly made a mistake by releasing a flip document about the resolution saying that it will be impossible to “fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes” in 10 years, giving Republicans an opening to claim that Democrats want to ban hamburgers and air travel.

Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith makes a convincing case for a version of a Green New Deal that emphasizes funding for the development and export of green technologies and includes a carbon tax and carbon tariffs. The United States, after all, is responsible for only about 14 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions; in a hypothetical future where America became a leader on climate, it would probably have to use economic incentives to convince other countries to change their behavior.

Still, the fact that more centrist thinkers are now coming up with their own takes on the Green New Deal is testament to the idea’s conceptual power. If there’s a mainstream debate about how best to completely reorient the economy around environmental sustainability, then the proponents of the Green New Deal are already winning.

Democrats who are dismissive of the Green New Deal, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, have written it off as a “dream.” But if America is going to start again after the nightmare of Trump, maybe dreaming big is what’s needed.

McConnell is going to hold that vote and probably 30-35 senators vote for it. But that’s not really a repudiation of the idea of a Green New Deal. Rather, it’s a sign that for the first time in a very long time, the left is putting forward big new ideas in the Democratic Party. A lot of politicians who still believe their biggest threat is from conservatives and who still embrace a centrist rhetoric are going to be scared of this. It just means that the takeover of the Democratic Party by those who want big bold plans is a work in progress. Given that every possible presidential candidate is going to embrace the idea on some level or another means that it is going to become Democratic orthodoxy in time. But the real battle within the party is in convincing older members that these big ideas are the path forward to electoral victory. Given that the Republican ideology that has dominated the nation in the past 40 years is completely spent and they are relying on undermining democracy to hold power, there is now a huge vacuum in the nation’s political world for ground-shifting ideas. The left is going to provide them and Democrats need to realize this is their path forward.

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