A recent headline in the Hartford Courant, the biggest newspaper in my home state of Connecticut, was stark: “Corporate Tax Cuts And $350 Million In Spending Reductions Coming In Special Session.” The spending cuts in question included essential funding for Medicaid recipients, schools, and other social services–all negotiated and agreed to by a Democratic governor and Democratic legislatures. The budget deal is not yet final, with more wrangling and negotiating yet to come. But as a statement of party principles, it makes clear that governor Dan Malloy and Democrats in Connecticut’s state legislature are more than willing to cut against the traditional liberal values that are popular in deep-blue Connecticut.
Democratic politicians agreeing to a deal that reduces the social safety net and slashes taxes on wealthy corporations is disappointing, for those on the left, but not surprising. Fifteen years since the end of the triangulating Bill Clinton administration, Democrats still maintain their dogged pursuit of the center, matching the ever-deeper extremism of conservative Republicans with attempts to define themselves as the sensible middle. There are plenty of examples of Democrats acting against the interests of their liberal base, at all levels of government. Look at Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, and his opposition to the local teachers’ unions, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coziness with Wall Street, or Barack Obama’s drone war for examples of policies that run counter to the typical commitments of liberal Democrats. And while it’s easy to think of many examples of prominent Democrats cutting to the right, it’s much harder to find equivalent examples of Republicans angering their base through compromising to the left. Conservatives have a stranglehold on the Republican policy apparatus that liberals simply don’t have over Democrats.
What’s striking is not just the difference in politics and priorities between the two parties, but the social and emotional difference in how extremists are treated.
The question is, why? Why have conservatives been able to maintain message and policy discipline over the GOP for so long, particularly when so many influential observers in the political media have insisted that the party’s long-term future is endangered by its extreme conservatism? And why have Democrats not pushed left with the same fervor that Republicans have pushed right, given how extremist conservative tactics have undoubtedly moved policy to the right?
A common response is to argue that the arch-conservatism of the GOP and the moderate progressivism of the Democrats simply reflects the underlying ideological realities of the United States. You will often hear it said that “America is a center-right country,” suggesting that the difference in each party’s orientation to its extremist is a strategic reaction to the public’s attitudes towards politics. But this reading is flawed, for several reasons. First, it suggests that the American public has a coherent ideological position at all. Polling and research have frequently found that Americans have a schizophrenic attitude towards the political spectrum. The way that poll questions are phrased have a huge impact on outcomes; individual respondents will often identify themselves as being conservatism but support specific policies that are consistent with progressivism. Second, that notion clashes with the frequently-expressed opinion that Democrats hold a demographic advantage in national elections, especially presidential elections, given that the country looks to become less white, more urban, and better educated with time. It’s difficult to see how the country could simultaneously be center-right in its bones and yet headed for a permanent Democratic majority, nor how the Democrats could have won the popular vote in five out of the past six presidential elections were that true.
I would argue that the lack of leftward push from within the Democratic party is not so much a matter of national politics as personal politics: the bizarre hostility mainstream Dems often show towards those to their left, a phenomenon which simply has no analog in the Republican party.
Moderate Democrats don’t need to vote for left-wing candidates like Bernie Sanders. They don’t need to support them publicly. But they do need to nurture the left-wing tendency, in order to balance a Republican Party that shows no sign of slowing its right-wing tilt
What’s striking is not just the difference in politics and priorities between the two parties, but the social and emotional difference in how extremists are treated. Republicans, with few exceptions, support arch-conservatives; even moderate Republicans frequently go out of their way to woo those to their right. One of the worst insults in conservatism is “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only. This epithet is used against those in the party who are perceived as being too far to the left. Republicans work hard to demonstrate to their base that they are sufficiently conservative. In marked contrast, Democratic partisans frequently react with revulsion and anger towards left-wing critics. There’s a well-known term for the phenomenon: “hippie punching.” There’s no similar phenomenon at all in Republican circles. I’ve been arguing politics for years, with people all over the political spectrum, including with conservatives whose views are diametrically opposed to mine. But I’m often shocked by the vitriol that partisan Democrats display towards left-wing critics. It’s often intensely personal.
This social resistance drives potential left-wing reformers in the party out, contributing to the sense that the party has no place for them. And this has real-world political consequences: in a county split into two dominant parties, the extremes define the center.
In 2012, I broke a promise to myself: I voted for a pro-life candidate, out of strategic political need. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic candidate for Senator in my current resident state of Indiana, was a conservative in many ways, most disturbingly when it came to abortion. In fact, Donnelly received a 0 percent rating from NARAL, a major national abortion-rights group. Yet I felt compelled to vote for Donnelly, despite long ago swearing that I would never vote for a pro-life politician, as the balance of the Senate was up for grabs in 2012, with Republicans hankering to repeal the newly-passed Obamacare law. Donnelly’s eventual victory was seen as a classic example of conservative overreach. Donnelly’s opponent was Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party Republican who had ousted long-time establishment Republican Dick Lugar in a shocking primary campaign. Donnelly’s campaign made much of Mourdock’s extremism, and he went on to a comfortable general election victory.
This story would seem to suggest the folly of extremism in partisan politics. And yet if we pull out and look more deeply, we can see that the reality is more complex. It’s true that the election was a costly loss for Republicans. But Mourdock’s primary win sent a clear message to Indiana Republicans: ignore the right-wing at your own peril. Many of my friends from the East coast assume that Indiana has always been deeply conservative, but in fact the state has a long history of being “purple,” sending its electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2008 and being the site of historic labor organizing and American socialism. But in the hyper-partisan Obama years, the state has moved steadily to the right, with campaigns like that of Mourdock helping to drag the state GOP, and thus the political conversation in general, further to the right. This in turn has led state leaders like governor Mike Pence to adopt more fiery conservative rhetoric and to work feverishly to appease their more conservative supporters. In this way, even though Mourdock lost the election, the contest helped solidify Republican power in the state, and dragged the perceived middle to the right. This is a strategy that has worked for conservative activists again and again.
But there is hope. A similar strategy can be adopted by Democrats, if they only have the courage to try. A prominent primary campaign like that of Bernie Sanders helps to move the conversation left, but only if that campaign is treated by mainstream Democrats as a legitimate challenger. Sanders is by no means my ideal candidate, but he moves the conversation to the left in precisely the way that Tea Party conservatives have moved the Republican conversation to the right. Moderate Democrats don’t need to vote for left-wing candidates like Sanders. They don’t need to support them publicly. But they do need to nurture the left-wing tendency to balance a Republican Party that shows no sign of slowing its right-wing tilt. If Democrats can nurture their own extremists in the way Republicans can, we may reach a world where we no longer have to compromise with the Donnellys of the world.