One of the less noted but no less important aspects of American politics has been the steady leftward swing of the Democratic Party. The party of Andrew Jackson, representing the poor, forgotten man has now become a party focused on income inequality and composed of an up-scale, down-scale coalition that has a predilection to not show up in midterms.
The progressive movement has a rich history in American politics. In the 1890’s it was exemplified by the election of Grover Cleveland despite being a subpar candidate. Recognizing the public opinion shift the GOP got in on the act with Teddy Roosevelt (his was a shortlived GOP progressivm). Following the Laissez-Faire policies of the 1920’s, a new progressive era came to be with FDR, most notably creating Social Security and the foundation for the modern-day alphabet soup of government agencies.
Of course one could call the 60’s an era of progressivism as well. But that extends so far. By the 60’s the progressive coalition was united on racial issues but little else. The Vietnam War split the coalition into different groups (predominately on age) and by the 70’s the Democratic progressive coalition was dead (why else did they pick Jimmy to run in 76?).
Today, Democrats have largely abandoned the centrist pivoting their party undertook in the 90’s under Clinton. Following defeats in the 80’s the party went with a moderate Governor from Arkansas. But a mere two election cycles later the party nominated Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama, all progressives. It is only recently though that the progressive wing of the party has taken control of the party’s nodes of power (fueled by losses in 2010 and 2014). The progressive wing of the party can be exemplified by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and NYC mayor Bill de Blasio.
Founded in 2005 by venture capitalist Rob Stein, the Democracy Alliance is the biggest intellectual and funding contributor to the progressive agenda. Over 75 organizations joined including unions and environmental groups, all attempting to counter the GOP’s intellectual machine. The Alliance did not contribute money persay but ideas and recommended to its donors where they should put their cash. By early 2014 the Alliance had lost its two most moderate Democratic member groups, Third Way and the New Democratic Network. A month after the 2014 midterm debacle in San Francisco the Alliance showed its true colors and adopted a formal plan to combat inequality. Such a plan, entitled “2020 Vision Framework,” included combating GOP domination at the state level and laid out three policy proposals, 1) economic inequality, 2) campaign-finance reform, and 3)climate change.
Such an agenda is geared towards promoting the interests of what progressives view as a dying middle class and the “Rising American Electorate.” According to progressives the middle class has stagnated and is disappearing as almost 100% of wealth goes towards the elite few. Such a view appeals to many on the left who feel the party has left behind their middle class base of unions and urban centers.
The “Rising American Electorate” is a term coined by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenburg. The electorate, composed predominately of young voters, single women and voters of color is projected to compose a whopping 54% of the electorate and 2/3rds of them plan to vote for Hillary (in case you are wondering that means Hill Dog has a base of 36% of the vote). According to Greenburg a campaign to target inequality and tackle climate change is geared to appeal to them and usher in a new era of Democratic domination. The recorded rise in American’s calling themselves socially liberal only fuels their views.
But American electoral history points to the failure of the progressive ideas if they do not moderate. For example, many progressives champion the idea of Medicare for all, Immigration Reform and Paid Sick Leave. On the surface many Americans might agree with these ideas but the devil is in the details. How will they be paid for? Who will pay for it? And will Americans continue to support higher taxes even if they favor government helping more than in the past.
Modern progressives tend to look past these questions because they see an electorate divided along the top 10% vs. the 90% or the top 1% vs. the 99%. To them the only reason the 99% does not vote Democratic is because they have been duped by the wealthy elite and the GOP that their interests are best served through a more free-market system.
Such a view does not jibe with the America of today. True, those with only a High School degree will struggle to make a living and many industrial jobs are dying but they are being replaced with white-collar, middle class jobs. This middle class is the fiscally conservative group most likely to vote and most likely to reject progressive policy prescriptions far out of the mainstream.
Secondly, the electoral map and policy map of today is far changed from that of the 30’s, before Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid gave people a security net and provided something to the poor. The greatest progressive successes of the 20th century also proved to be its greatest struggle by providing some voters with the chance to view more governmental intervention as equaling higher taxes. This same situation applies today. Consider the example of the ACA. Most voters support providing free contraception and covering those with preexisting conditions but they oppose the individual mandate (forced to buy a product or pay a tax penalty).
Lastly, political parties adapt. They don’t sit still and wait to die. Much as Democrats did in the 90’s the GOP is doing today in the states. The 2010 election was fueled by a true grassroots, middle class movement known as the Tea Party. Progressives have long been unable to replicate the Tea Party. The Republican wave only crested in California.
Following 2012 many GOP candidates and the national party made a conscious choice to shift course. That year, GOP gubernatorial candidates in blue Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland avoided controversial social issues (abortion and gay marriage), toned down their rhetoric on poor people and focused on making arguments based on what individuals were getting out of governmental programs. In predominately white-collar Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts these arguments were devastatingly effective among white-collar, middle class professionals. They also proved effective among single men, a demographic often forgotten by both political parties. In the Iowa and Colorado Senate races the GOP’s approach also netted them a greater share of the both the blue-collar and white-collar middle class vote since Reagan.
This would seem to give the GOP a dramatic edge on fiscal issues and it does. A recent Gallup poll found 39% of voters identify as fiscally conservative while only 26% identify as fiscally liberal. But Republicans have their own struggles with Tea Party candidates hinting at taking away popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Still, progressives have yet to find a way to mediate their goals with those of the public. True, they have scored victories in places such as Seattle, NYC, San Francisco and Berkeley with the minimum wage being raised to $15. In numerous red states last year the minimum wage was hiked statewide and Republicans were brought along to support such hikes. For example, in Arkansas the state voted to hike the minimum wage to $6.25 to $7.50 per hour on January 1, 2015; to $8 on January 1, 2016; and to $8.50 per hour on January 1, 2017. The measure passed with 65% and then GOP Senatorial candidate Tom Cotton publicly supported the effort. But in many progressives minds these victories are much to small and gradual. Much larger changes must occur on Climate Change, tax policy, spending, welfare programs and education.
However, whether the kind of changes seen in places like NYC and Seattle can be replicated in middle America and suburban cities is unclear. Take the case of Chicago. Progressives solidly backed City Councilman Chuy Garcia over incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, who cut his teeth in the Clinton White House, knew moderation and centrism worked. Indeed, his 2011 election largely focused on conservative principles like streamlining government and creating tax incentives for business to come to the city. While the race did go into a run-off the contest was never in doubt because ultimately Emanuel was right. He knew the city was largely upper and lower middle class and his agenda focusing on streamlining government, closing poor performing schools and raising revenue appealed. Garcia, on the other hand, did not win a single ward with an average income above $75,000K.
Such a defeat in Chicago is ominous for another reason, it threatens to split the modern Democratic coalition. The Democratic coalition is increasingly young and diverse but this tends to mask its upscale, down-scale aspect. It’s upscale wing, composed of affluent suburbanites which hold the keys to power in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, etc. are the individuals most likely to vote and break from their partisan leaning preferences. Especially if they don’t see very many results from the programs they pay for.
The Democratic Party suffered much the same fate in the 1980’s when a rising affluent, suburban population recoiled against an increasing liberal Democratic Party. If not for their conservative, Southern contingent, the party would have been locked out of any power in the 80’s.
This creates the modern-day quandary for the movement. How do they rectify their policy positions with the electorate? Or do they try to keep ideological purity paramount over winning? These are questions creating the needle Clinton is trying to thread.
Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition (Rising American Electorate) being a permanent coalition galvanized purely on ideology. Her open policy positions including debt free college, Immigration Reform and opposing TPP are geared towards appealing to the party faithful. But lacking serious primary competition (nope, Bernie is not serious competition) it is notable she is having to move to the Left just to secure her party’s support (see Mitt Romney 2012 for the GOP version). It may be a miscalculation on her part. It might motivate the party’s base but the middle and upper class suburbanites that have trended Democratic in recent cycles might not find it so endearing. Plus, the cultural issues Democrats hurt Republicans with in 08 and 012 might be less prominent this election making the campaign focus more on policy ideas and economic performance.
Ultimately, the progressive movement has a right to feel emboldened but also significant reason to be cautious. True, they have scored successes at the ballot box and legislatively. They certainly aided in getting Obama elected. But now they face a crossroads. The 2014 midterm showed the very middle class voters the movement needs support from are unlikely to support their expansive agenda. So what do they do? Moderate? Or go all in? The 2016 elections will tell us a lot about their decision.