Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist, wrote an interesting piece in Politico recently on how “the left” is taking over the Democratic Party. Of course, what he calls “left” would be centrist, maybe even right of center, in most other Western democracies, and I think it’s still true that today’s progressive icons – say, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – are to the right of where old-line liberals like Teddy Kennedy were.
But Mr. Sosnik is right that there has been a pretty big change in the way Democrats approach things. Here’s how I’d put it: They have lost their post-Reagan cringe.
For a long time, it wasn’t just Republicans who believed that history was on their side; a lot of Democrats seemed to feel the same. There was an old cartoon from the 1980s showing Democrats laying out their new platform – tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor and strong defense. When asked how this differed from the Republican platform, the answer was “Compassion: we care about the victims of our policies.”
But things have changed, for the reasons Mr. Sosnik described and more. Democrats have, after all, won the popular presidential vote in five of the past six elections.
Despite all the craziness and challenges, they have made big progress on their generations-long quest for universal health insurance.
They have a network of think tanks that is a lot less lavishly funded than the right-wing apparatus, but intellectually runs rings around its opponents.
And as Mr. Sosnik wrote more or less clearly, the craziness of the right in some ways empowers the moderate left.
Time was when “centrist” Democrats would in effect urge appeasement: don’t talk about inequality or say nasty things about privatization, or the right will get mad. But now it’s clear that no matter what you do, short of destroying the entire legacy of the New Deal, the mere fact of being a Democrat will bring accusations that you’re an atheist Islamic communist. So why not stand up for some liberal principles?
A Republican wave election later this year – not just a narrow win in the Senate with a very favorable map, but a drastic shift of the map – could bring back the cringe, I guess. But that’s looking less likely with each passing week, and in 2016 the map will favor Democrats.
How it all turns out is anyone’s guess – maybe we will eventually see a California scenario on a national basis, with the growing diversity of the electorate and the evident madness of the right delivering an overwhelming Democratic majority; maybe we will see some exogenous event tip the balance back to the G.O.P. despite what looks like a trend the other way. But what I don’t think we’ll see, even if there’s a Clinton in the White House, is another Clinton era in which liberals are afraid to take a stand.