Is America Really Moving Left?

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Elephant and donkey touching faces together
Photo: John Lund/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Excessive faith in the inevitability of progress is one of the hazards of being a “progressive.” At The Atlantic, Peter Beinart has written an election-year table-setter that political people left of center will be forwarding to one another to ward off fears of a Ted Cruz presidency or worse. Its title is “Why America Is Moving Left.” I wish I were sure he is right. 

Beinart’s jumping-0ff point is his belief that though conditions might seem right for an old-fashioned law-and-order backlash to phenomena like #blacklivesmatter, liberalizing forces in both parties will prevent that from happening. Again, I’d feel better about that prediction if it rang true a few years from now.

One big factor preventing a shift to the right, says Beinart, is that the "centrist" forces in the Democratic Party, which in the ‘80s and ‘90s pushed for accommodation of conservative ideology, are largely gone. He speaks as the former editor of one such institution, The New Republic. I feel qualified to respond not only as a fairly substantial contributor to TNR for a while, but also as a former staffer at two other "centrist" institutions he mentions, the Democratic Leadership Council and the Washington Monthly. In Beinart’s view, the center-left discredited itself by enabling George W. Bush’s domestic and international agenda. While his account is oversimplified — the DLC, for example, attacked the Bush tax cuts pretty aggressively, though some of its congressional allies voted for them anyway — I’d say there’s some truth to it. But it’s also true that Democrats absorbed enough "centrist" common sense in the 1990s to make it possible to exploit the implosion of conservatism under Bush. And some of the ideas Beinart writes about as "centrist," such as the neoliberal advocacy of means-testing big social programs (associated with WaMo), were not accommodations of conservatism but rather efforts to make more funds and political energy available for the truly needy. Unlike the kind of split-the-differences "centrism" that really has expired, there could be a future for means-testing, as suggested by Hillary Clinton’s habit of looking in that direction for new social initiatives like pre-K and paid family leave.  

As for the greater support among Democrats for phenomena like Occupy, #blacklivesmatter, and of course gay rights, what we are probably seeing is nothing more nor less than the amputation of any truly conservative impulses and constituencies in the Donkey Party. With minorities now being near- or actual-majorities in the Democratic coalition in most parts of the country, greater sensitivity to the particular concerns of African-Americans and Latinos has become a no-brainer. No profound intellectual transition was necessary.

All quibbling aside, Beinart is obviously right that the Democratic Party is more consistently liberal than it has ever been. But the idea that it’s all part of a leftward trend that is invincible even within the Republican Party is much more problematic. 

Yes, ultimately, the more progressive views of millennials mean that a GOP that has been trending pretty steadily rightward for four decades will have to adjust to reality, at least on cultural issues. And yes, the fact that many of the conservative movement’s most fervent causes — such as fighting universal health coverage or same-sex marriage or any sort of gun regulation — are not exactly sweeping the country means they will not have a cakewalk in presidential contests where the electorate is not skewed in their favor. 

But that’s an influence, not a trend. Beinart believes any GOP general election candidate this next year will smell the coffee and appeal to millennials and minority voters by repudiating the hard-core conservatism that’s characterized the nominating process for so long. You sure would not guess that from the electability theories of candidates and analysts alike, who believe a supercharged turnout by the same old conservative coalition could prevail if reinforced by natural fatigue with a two-term president, a sluggish economy, and terrorist fears. Beinart also believes a Republican president would turn the page to the left. Yet the most profound reality the country faces is that a GOP president with a GOP Congress could, via the budget reconciliation process, repeal almost all of Obama’s accomplishments. The nascent and in many respects faint progressive impulses of the Reformicons are to a considerable extent just too little and too early.

Yes, in the long run there are forces that will build a wind to the back of progressives. But today’s conservative-movement-dominated GOP is too radical and too close to total power for anyone to take that to the bank. Some very reactionary days could be just ahead.