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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

More Factional De-Labelling

Yesterday James Vega made a compelling case for retiring “the left” and “centrists” in intra-party Democratic discourse, since both terms have widely variable meanings and are usually deployed as expressions of contempt.
I’d add a few other terms to the hit list, at least when it comes to the labelling of alleged party factions.
“Populist” is a useful adjective for describing a certain kind of rhetoric and message, and perhaps even a stance on clusters of specific issues (e.g., wealth concentration and progressive taxation, and maybe international trade). But “populism” is notoriously slippery as an ideological marker, since today’s self-styled “populists” aren’t calling for a revival of the platform of the People’s Party of the 1890s, with publicly-owned grain elevators and milleage of silver at a 16-to-1 ratio. There are also obviously left-of-center and right-of-center versions of “populism,” and the promiscuous use of the word suggests affinities between, say, Bernie Sanders and Mike Huckabee that are far less important than their differences.
“Social democratic” has a rich international pedigree, particularly in Europe, where it emerged as a common term for the non-Marxist left. It is often used in this country to denote the strain of public-sector activism introduced by the New Deal to shape post-World-War II liberalism. But like “populist,” the “social democratic” label is most useful in specific contexts, such as the perennial debate between universal and means-tested forms of social safety-net programs; it’s less evocative as a term for any comprehensive ideology or party faction.
Some–if you will temporarily excuse the expression–Democratic “centrists” are still using the term New Democrats, a monikker invented by the DLC around 1990 to underline the claim that it was applying traditional progressive principles to new social and circumstances. The predecessor to the “New Democratic” label was “neoliberalism,” associated with party reformers like Gary Hart in the 1980s who didn’t want to get confused with moderate-to-conservative dissenters from liberal orthodoxy. Like “liberalism” itself, “neoliberalism” suffered from a very different international usage, where it described the Reagan-Thatcher laissez-faire ascendancy in modern conservatism. Any “neo” or “new” label, of course, doesn’t have a very long shelf life, and is best consigned to history after a decade or two.
The relatively low utility of intra-party factional terms these days isn’t terribly unique. I’ve recently been doing some reading about American politics in the 1920s; that was a time when the word “progressive” was claimed as a primary self-identifier by elements of both national political parties, including Western isolationist Republicans and the Bryan faction of the Democratic Party, which was culturally conservative and often aligned with the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, in 1920 one potential presidential candidate invariably described as “progressive” had significant support in both major parties: Herbert Hoover.
For all the terminological confusion, then, we should be pleased that “progressive” (or “progressive/liberal”) and “conservative” have found general acceptance as terms applicable to most people in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, as explained by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira in their recent research for the Center for American Progress.
And ironically, though Vega is right in suggesting that “left” and “center” need to be retired as terms Democrats apply to each other, the term “center-left” remains a pretty good positioning marker for progressives and Democrats generally, denoting “left of center” within the distinctively American context of liberal egalitarianism.
I’m afraid for the time being that we’re all going to have to get by without the big broad factional labels of the recent past, sticking to specific and identifiable groupings of Democrats (e.g., congressional caucuses), specific issue positions, and even specific politicians. If the party continues to grow as it seems to be doing at present, we’ll eventually have enough variation in views and backgrounds that stable factions, and a vocabulary to match them, will re-emerge.

One comment on “More Factional De-Labelling

  1. James Vega on

    Ed is right, terms like “center-left” and “center-right” are still useful because they are describing either broad political coalitions or ideological positions on a “right-center-left” opinion scale.
    The problem arises when the words “the left”, “the right” or “centrists” are used as a shorthand way of describing a collection of specific groups. The groups within each of these broad categories are simply too diverse to be usefully analyzed and discussed as a coherent unit. Their differences are more significant than their similarities.
    “The left” might include anything from the Weather Underground to the AFL-CIO. “The right” might include anything from the Chamber of Commerce to the Michigan militia. Exactly what then, do these words actually mean?

    Reply

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