Neoliberals in Democratic Party Surrender
Or at least if we mean by that the strenuously centrist, business-friendly, no-big-ideas-please approach to economic policy that dominated Democratic party thinking from the Clinton years onward, there does appear to be some sort of surrender going on. You can see it in the kind of ideas dominating the Democratic policy discourse today, including the pronouncements of Presidential hopefuls. And you can see it in the writings of various economists and policy intellectuals close to the party.
A very clear example of this is recent statements by Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, once Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration. DeLong, who has long insisted on referring to himself as a “neoliberal” (despite, I might add, a tendency to have a pretty left position on a lot of specific issues) said the following on his twitter feed:
“On the center … those like me in what used to proudly call itself the Rubin Wing of the Democratic Party — so-called after former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, and consisting of those of us hoping to use market means to social democratic ends in bipartisan coalition with Republicans seeking technocratic win-wins — have passed the baton to our left. Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition. We blame cynical Republican politicians. We blame corrupt and craven media bosses and princelings. We are right to blame them, but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.”
He followed this up with an interview with Zack Beauchamp on Vox, where he explains the thinking behind his surrender. The conclusion of the interview captures the terms of this surrender well:
“I could be confident in 2005 that [recession] stabilization should be the responsibility of the Federal Reserve. That you look at something like laser-eye surgery or rapid technological progress in hearing aids, you can kind of think that keeping a market in the most innovative parts of health care would be a good thing. So something like an insurance-plus-exchange system would be a good thing to have in America as a whole.
It’s much harder to believe in those things now. That’s one part of it. The world appears to be more like what lefties thought it was than what I thought it was for the last 10 or 15 years.
The other part is that while I would like to be part of a political coalition in the cat seat, able to call for bids from the left and the right about who wants to be part of the governing coalition to actually get things done, that’s simply not possible as of now.
We shouldn’t pretend that it is, or that it’s going to be. We need to find ways to improve left-wing initiatives, rather than demand that they start from our basic position and do minor tweaks to make them more acceptable to their underlying position.”
Very nice Brad. We accept the terms. But I do think that, of all people, Ross Douthat in the Times does put his finger of what could be a problem with this evolving detente within the Democratic party.
“From the mid-2000s onward, the leftward flank of the Democratic Party looked at the country’s changing demographics and growing social liberalism and decided that Clinton’s compromises with cultural conservatism weren’t as politically necessary as they had been (which was true), and that therefore they were free to become increasingly ideologically maximalist on everything touching gender or race or sexuality or immigration (which was … not true).
In this sense the story of the Democrats’ struggles over the last 15 years is a story of a party that has consistently moved leftward faster than the also-changing country, and consistently overread victories — on same-sex marriage above all — as a template for how every cultural battle should play out. It’s a story of a new feminism that’s pushing the party ever-further from the center on abortion, of a new cohort of white liberals who are actually to the left of many African-Americans on racial issues, of an activist base that brands positions that many liberals held only yesterday as not only mistaken but bigoted or racist or beyond-the-pale….[T]he Democratic Party as a whole…[has written off] the possibility of winning over voters who would almost certainly be Democrats if the party still occupied the cultural terrain that it held in 2000 or even as late as 2008.
Because the country as a whole has also shifted left since 2000, that kind of writing-off will not prevent the Democrats from winning elections; it probably won’t prevent them from beating Donald Trump. But it will stand in the way of any dramatic left-of-center consolidation, any kind of more-than-temporary Democratic governance. And if the center-left feels itself irrelevant in an age of socialist ambition, then taking up the task of rebuilding a cultural center, and a Democratic Party capable of claiming it, seems like the task that might actually be suited to the times.”
Douthat has a point. The winds are shifting to the left on economics, but handling culture and tradition intelligently will still be key to the left’s future. Leave no votes behind!