Communists. Socialists. Subversive revolutionaries hell-bent on spreading their radical vision of Bolshevism into every nook and cranny of the country. This is the image of the modern Democratic Party you might have if your only source of news spews out from the frothing mouths of the right-wing punditry or from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. But as many a disappointed Democratic Socialists of America member knows all too well, this characterization is, to say the least, not entirely accurate.
Perhaps a more proper depiction of the party might rein things in just a little. At least among those not steeped in the magical thinking of Fox and Friends, it probably wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows to suggest that the Democratic Party exists on the moderate left of the political spectrum. Of course, it’s a big tent, so one can imagine there would be a wide range of positions between Democratic Congress members — positions that might even cross the left-right axis from time to time. But, once you account for the outliers, surely the party represents at least the center-left dimension, right?
Well, as it turns out, neither of these depictions is accurate. The Democratic Party is certainly no bastion of the socialist left, but in fact, when it comes to some of the most pressing policy issues of the 21st century the Democratic Party leadership lies to the right not just of its base, but of the voting population in general.
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Party Leaders Try to Water Down “Green New Deal”
Take climate change. The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have less than 12 years to enact “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to prevent a full-blown climate apocalypse. There are a number of milquetoast climate change policies that Democrats have considered over the years, but scientists say the only policy ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate change is the Green New Deal, a wide-ranging plan which has been in the works for decades and which was most recently proposed by self-described democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), along with a number of key organizations such as the Sunrise Movement.
The Green New Deal is a federal infrastructure and jobs plan that aims to ensure a just and rapid transition to a fully decarbonized economy within a decade. The plan outlines seven goals to be accomplished by 2030, including a move to 100 percent renewable energy, the building of a nationwide energy-efficient “smart grid,” the upgrading of infrastructure, and the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions.
Further, unlike the original New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, the Green New Deal emphasizes the inclusion and empowerment of marginalized communities throughout this transition. The plan aims to provide all members of society from all communities with training, education and a green, living-wage job to every person who wants one.
When polled, 92 percent of registered Democratic voters say they support the Green New Deal. But perhaps more importantly, a full 81 percent of all registered voters support it — a number that includes both Republicans and Democrats.
After the Democrats won back a majority in the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez proposed the formation of a select committee that would take on the task of making the Green New Deal proposal a reality:
We must keep pushing on a #GreenNewDeal.
We simply don’t have any other choice. If it’s radical to propose a solution on the scale of the problem, so be it.
We’ve got a planet to save and there’s a whole lot of opportunity we can create in the process.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 31, 2018
The cause was taken up by a number of climate and environmental groups, which organized sit-ins and demonstrations on Capitol Hill in order to get the attention of Democratic congress members.
But their efforts failed. The proposal for a select committee on the Green New Deal was killed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who instead decided to revive an old House panel on climate change from 10 years ago. Led by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida), the revived Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is seen by many progressives as a disingenuous attempt to pay lip service to bold climate policy, not least of which because Castor has stated that the panel she heads will not be focusing on the Green New Deal. In fact, Castor, who reportedly owns shares in a fossil fuel fund, has flatly rejected one of the key provisions of the original Green New Deal Select Committee proposal — that Congress members who have accepted donations from the oil, gas and coal industries should not serve on the panel. Her reasoning behind this position echoes similar statements deployed by the likes of the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil: Excluding members who have accepted these donations would violate freedom of speech.
Pelosi is not the only high-ranking Democrat who wants to water down the bold ambitions of the Green New Deal. Current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) publicly stated that Castor’s committee should not have the power to issue subpoenas for records or to compel testimony. And Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), the incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been accused of hamstringing the committee in an attempt to remove its teeth and limit its jurisdiction.
In a Twitter thread on New Year’s Eve, Ocasio-Cortez called out the House leadership for rejecting her proposed committee on a Green New Deal for being “too controversial,” claiming that Castor’s committee would be in an even weaker position than the original select climate committee from 10 years ago.
It’s clear that many of the most powerful Democrats in the House are not interested in forming a committee with a mandate anywhere close to what Green New Deal advocates had originally proposed.
A few weeks ago, I joined youth activists in a specific demand for a Green New Deal Committee.
It had 3 simple elements:
1. No fossil fuel money on climate cmte
2. Offer solutions for impacted communities
3. Draft sample #GreenNewDeal
All 3 were rejected as “too controversial.”
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 31, 2018
The Democratic Party’s Reluctance to Embrace Medicare for All
Health care is another example of a major policy issue where Democrats lie to the right of the general public. On Sept. 13, 2017, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Medicare for All Act, a bill aimed at establishing a single-payer health care system in the United States. If passed, the legislation would ensure comprehensive health care for all Americans at a cost significantly lower than what the United States currently pays. A recent Reuters poll revealed that the bill is incredibly popular, with 85 percent of registered Democrats and 52 percent of registered Republicans expressing support for it. In total, 70 percent of voting Americans support the legislation.
And yet the Democratic leadership has been reluctant to embrace Medicare for All. When pressed on the subject in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) refused to explicitly support the bill. In a dance of evasion that would have made White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders proud, Schumer stated that, “there are lots of different routes. I’m going to support a plan that can pass and that can provide the best, cheapest health care for all Americans.” To date, only about one-third of Democratic senators have co-sponsored Sen. Sanders’s bill.
And it’s not only Schumer. Pelosi has yet to endorse the Medicare for All Act, saying that it should not be a determining factor, or what’s often referred to as a “litmus test,” for Democratic candidates. She has also refused to co-sponsor a similar pending bill in the House, H.R. 676, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), which has the support of around half of House Democrats. Although Pelosi has recently agreed to hold hearings on Medicare for All legislation, it’s hard to tell how committed she is to actually advancing the policy proposal.
Throughout her career Pelosi has often stated that she’s been a long-time advocate for single-payer health care, but her reluctance to explicitly endorse or co-sponsor single payer bills speaks louder than her rhetoric. In fact, she even refused to endorse a version of Medicare for All that was brought to the legislature in her own state of California, a bill that ultimately failed. Further, she recently pushed through an austerity provision known as “pay-go” into the new House Rules package that would kneecap any progressive legislation moving forward — including policies like Medicare for All.
College for All
The asymmetry between the Democratic Party and general public opinion is also evident when it comes to another of Sen. Sanders’s hugely popular policy proposals: The College for All Act of 2017. College tuition has increased 213 percent since the late eighties, resulting in a student debt crisis that has reached $1.5 trillion, surpassing both credit cards and auto loans. As a response, Sanders’s College for All bill proposes to establish a grant program to eliminate tuition and required fees for all students at community colleges and for working- and middle-class students at four-year public institutions of higher education.
When surveyed, 79 percent of registered Democrats and 60 percent of those polled supported the idea of free tuition for those who meet certain income levels. But again, neither Schumer nor Pelosi have said much on the topic, and the bill only has seven co-sponsors in the Senate.
If it is just “bi-partisan politics” to spend some $700 billion a year on the military, more than the next ten nations combined, why is it a “radical” idea to lower student debt and make public colleges and universities tuition-free?
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 29, 2018
From instituting a 70 percent marginal tax rate to marijuana legalization to breaking up the big banks to the influence of big money in politics, the same pattern holds: the leadership of the Democratic party has either been silent or outright antagonistic toward many of the most popular policy proposals.
As the 2020 Democratic primary season unfolds, the proposals outlined above — and the insurgent Democratic congress members supporting them — are already being subjected to an onslaught of criticism from those claiming that universal health care is a fringe idea or that a Green New Deal is nothing but a pie-in-the-sky dream.
Wall Street-funded neoliberal think tanks like The Third Way have already begun assembling lawmakers, operatives and donors in an attempt to challenge what they refer to as “Sanders-style socialism.” They recently took to Twitter to portray Sanders’s policy proposals as unpopular and to condemn “litmus tests” for Democratic primary candidates. Similarly, establishment pundits continue to accuse progressives of waging wars from “BernieLand” and of having unfair ideological “purity” standards when they insist that only Democratic primary candidates who endorse Medicare for All or the Green New Deal are vote-worthy.
But numbers don’t lie. Policies that the Democratic Party depicts as marginal are, in reality, hugely popular among both Democratic and Republican voters. If the Democratic Party hopes to inspire its base to turn out in record numbers in 2020 — and if it wants to win over a substantial number of Republican voters as well — instead of moving further to the right, it must move to the left and begin to close the gap between its policies and public opinion.