How Did Lefties Take Over the Democratic Party So Quickly?

Illustration by Mother Jones

Henry Farrell asks Sam Rosenfeld about the fight between centrists and lefties within the Democratic Party:

What’s notable about the current situation is that the centrists aren’t putting up much of a fight at all — certainly not one with any sense of an underlying vision behind it or a factional esprit de corps. All of the energy, motivation and commitment is coming from the left and has been for several years now.

I think the grass-roots energy powering pols like Bernie Sanders and Alex Ocasio-Cortez belongs to an underappreciated tradition of left-liberal activism within the party that stretches back at least to the labor activists and “amateur” Democrats of the mid-20th century. Across the decades, left-liberal Democrats have argued for a more ideologically cohesive and ambitious agenda and more disciplined and hard-charging partisanship, to make the party into a vehicle for social democracy. The ideological space separating the dueling factions has arguably become much smaller, as the party system has ‘sorted’ liberals into the Democratic Party. If Hillary Clinton or even Henry Cuellar are the intraparty bete noirs of the left, rather than Howard Smith and James Eastland, something’s changed.

The first sentence here is the most important one: there’s really not much of a fight going on at all. Partly this is because the entire party became relatively more liberal as it went through the process of losing a big bloc of southern white conservatives that abandoned it for a new home in the Republican Party. But more recently I think there’s something different going on.

It starts with the observation that there are two fundamentally different kinds of left-wing “centrists.” The first genuinely has pretty moderate views. The second actually has fairly lefty views but doesn’t think there’s any chance of getting them enacted. So they propose moderate programs not because it’s all they want, but because it’s all they think they can get. These folks are best thought of as tactical centrists.

Barack Obama was a genuine centrist in some areas (fiscal policy, for example), but a tactical centrist in others. I don’t have any doubt, for example, that he’s supported true national health care pretty much forever. He just didn’t admit it because he didn’t want to come off as too radical. And once elected, he let Congress take the lead and create the Affordable Care Act because he was keenly aware that it was the most he could get from the Democratic Party at that time.

But what happens to tactical centrists when, suddenly, national health care becomes a mainstream idea again?¹ Well, they were always for it privately, so they’re perfectly happy when it becomes OK to say so publicly. This seems like a shift to the left in the party, but it’s really more of a shift to the left in the nation. There have always been plenty of Democrats who were willing to talk about universal health care, but only recently have they become convinced that the public is ready to hear about universal health care. This explains why “centrists” aren’t fighting back very hard against the new lefties. For a lot of them, the reason is simple: they agree with them and always have.

¹Why “again”? Because it was a mainstream idea in the party for nearly the entire 20th century up through the early 70s. It was only later that it became something of a hot button, and only after the failure of Bill Clinton’s health care program that it became truly off limits.

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