In late June, a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist – who had called for nationalizing health insurance, guaranteeing public jobs to the unemployed, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — won a primary challenge against a high-ranking House Democrat.
And centrists have been lamenting Team Blue’s imminent self-immolation ever since.
Last week, the center-left’s “radical pragmatists” warned NBC News that if progressive Democrats keep ignoring their preferences, they “will lead the party to disaster in the midterm elections and the 2020 presidential contest.” The moderate reactionaries of the Never Trump movement wholeheartedly agree. Days after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, New York Times columnist (and world-champion concern troll) Bret Stephens wrote that “democratic socialism” was “political hemlock”; “social democracy” was a “dying force”; and “Democrats who aren’t yet sick of all their losing should feel free to embrace them both.” Meanwhile, former Republican James Comey (a man who knows a little something about inadvertently aiding Donald Trump) implored Democrats not to “lose your minds and rush to the socialist left,” since “America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.”
But the Democrats’ ascendant left wing shrugged off these warnings. Since Ocasio-Cortez’s upset, prominent Senate progressives have called for abolishing ICE, ending cash bail, and canceling Puerto Rico’s debt — while the House’s Medicare for All caucus has welcomed (self-styled) moderate Democrats into its ranks.
Now, one month after voters in the South Bronx put “democratic socialism” in the headlines, real America has registered its outrage at the Democrats’ hard-left turn — by giving the party a larger lead in the generic congressional ballot.
Since the Democrats (supposedly) embraced open borders and slow-motion Stalinism, their party’s poll numbers have gone up, while both Donald Trump — and his favorite immigration agency — have seen their own standing decline (the former, only modestly).
To be sure, month-to-month polling changes are typically more noise than signal. And even if Democrats did gain support over the past four weeks, there’s little reason to assume that this constitutes a public endorsement of the party’s leftward lurch. A lot of big, weird news broke in July; Trump’s trade wars, the Helsinki press conference, or the family-separation fiasco could all theoretically explain Team Blue’s polling boost.
Regardless, it remains the case that, over the past month, the Democratic Party became simultaneously more closely associated with “socialism” and more popular.
You might think that this development would make Bret Stephens question his political acumen — or at least, wait for new evidence that the Democrats’ left wing is, in fact, politically toxic before writing another column centered on that claim. If so, then you might be on the committee that awards the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary — because you’ve given Bret Stephens far too much credit.
Instead of waiting for future events to prove his punditry prescient, Stephens has decided to devote his latest column to detailing a fictional future in which Democrats pay a heavy price for betraying his counsel:
Donald J. Trump has been decisively re-elected as president of the United States, winning every state he carried in 2016 and adding Nevada, even as he once again failed, albeit narrowly, to gain a majority of the popular vote. Extraordinary turnout in California, New York, Illinois and other Democratic bastions could not compensate for the president’s abiding popularity in the states that still decide who gets to live in the White House: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
…“Trump succeeded,” lamented one moderate former Democratic lawmaker who asked to speak on background. “He got my party to lose its marbles.” The lawmaker cited calls by party activists to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — calls the Warren campaign did not formally endorse but did little to refute — as emblematic of the party’s broader problems.
“What do Democrats stand for?” he asked. “Lawlessness or liberality? Policymaking or virtue signaling? Gender-neutral pronouns and bathrooms or good jobs and higher wages?”
As is his way, Mr. Trump wasted little time rubbing salt into Democratic wounds. “Democrats used to stand with the Working Man,” he tweeted Wednesday morning. “Now it’s the party of Abortion and Amnesty. All that’s missing is Acid. Sad!”
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik once wrote that the object of all satire is “to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening.” By that metric, Stephens’s satire is an abject failure.
Recent polls haven’t just given Democrats a nearly double-digit national lead — they’ve also shown Donald Trump’s popularity to be anything but “abiding” in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa (i.e. the “states that still decide who gets to live in the White House). In May, Morning Consult found Trump’s approval rating underwater in all of those midwestern battlegrounds.
And newly released surveys from NBC News and Marist suggest that the president has not gained any ground in the heartland in recent weeks. According to the pollster, more than 50 percent of voters in both Michigan and Wisconsin disapprove of the president. Meanwhile, only 31 percent of Wisconsinites say Trump deserves to be reelected; among Michiganders, that figure is just 28.
Of course, we’re a long way from 2020. Stephens’s dystopia isn’t wholly implausible. It just isn’t substantiated by much beyond his intuition that Democrats will lose unless they adopt more of his policy preferences (at one point, Stephens suggests that Warren might have won in 2020, if only she’d had the courage to stand up for free trade).
Trump entered office a historically unpopular president — and, despite presiding over the peak of an economic expansion and historically low unemployment, he has seen his approval rating fall precipitously since then in the states that matter most. A lot can happen in two years. But there is at least a chance that Trump will be so unpopular by 2020, centrists will be incapable of mounting a credible “electability” argument against progressive presidential candidates.
And that’s a real problem for “the vital center” — because their substantive case against social democracy is even weaker than the political one. Deficit scaremongering rings hollow in an era of persistently low interest rates, and giant, unfunded tax cuts (unilateral fiscal responsibility is political idiocy — Democrats can’t build a lasting majority by force-feeding the electorate medicine after Republicans spend years doling out sugar). And it’s hard to disparage calls for strengthening unions or increasing redistribution as “class warfare” when concentrated capital dominates the economy so thoroughly, wages are falling amid full employment.
To appreciate what a tough spot these conditions put centrists in, observe this passage from Bret Stephens’s substantive indictment of “democratic socialism”:
The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member, believe in economies defined by state-owned enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives. Versions of this have been tried to varying degrees before: Israel in its first decades; post-independence India; Sweden in the 1960s and ’70s.
It always led to crisis: hyperinflation for Israel in 1980s; an I.M.F. bailout for India in 1991; a banking meltdown for Sweden in 1992…People used to know this stuff. That someone like Ocasio-Cortez apparently doesn’t is a fresh reminder that, in politics as in life, the most obvious lessons are the ones you can least afford to stop teaching.
I have never heard a left-wing Democrat cite Israel or post-independence India as a model for the political economy that they wish to build in the United States. Plenty have, however, expressed affinity for the Nordic model. And Stephens’s case against Swedish social democracy is, apparently, that it produces one banking crisis every 50 years or so.
And that is actually a much too generous summation of Stephens’s case. As Matt Bruenig explains:
The link Stephens uses for his citation about Sweden is a slideshow created by the former Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg. Borg is a member of the right-wing Moderate Party and created the slideshow when Sweden was under a right-wing government in 2012. The slideshow does not talk about the 1992 banking meltdown. It is, in fact, completely unrelated.
Stephens omission of any information about the 1992 Swedish banking crisis is curious. That crisis was caused by the popping of a housing bubble that left banks insolvent, which was the exact same thing that blew up the global economy in 2008. In fact, the two events were so similar that the New York Times published a piece in 2008 titled “Stopping a Financial Crisis, the Swedish Way[.]”
Social democracy might allow Sweden to provide its people with longer lives, a lower poverty rate, cheaper health care, more retirement security, better educational outcomes, and higher levels of self-reported happiness than Americans enjoy. But American capitalism provides U.S. citizens with something even better than all that: total immunity from the threat of banking crises produced by housing bubbles.
People used to know this stuff. That someone like Ocasio-Cortez apparently doesn’t is a fresh reminder that, in politics as in life, the least obvious lessons are the ones that conservative Times columnists can least afford to stop teaching.