Are Today's Democrats The Party Of Moderation In America?

          My blog partner recently published an article on these pages entitled: "Tribalism: opportunity and challenge". He makes some interesting observations in this commentary, and even a few with which I would agree. However,  in what comes across as almost a throw-away assumption at the beginning, he states that our modern-day Democrats have become somehow "more moderate" in recent years, in contrast to the supposedly "radical" Republicans. Reflecting as it does a distortive meme that Democratic strategists are seeking to plant in the public imagination in the midst of the current presidential campaign, the notion needs to be addressed.

          Let me start first with supposed radicalization of the Republican party. The problem with the Republicans currently is not that they are becoming more radical, but that they are in a state of ideological disarray. There is no "mainstream" remaining  capable of being identified accurately as conservative, moderate or anything else.

         Any political party, and particularly one functioning in a two-party system like ours, represents a coalition of interest groups that, beneath the surface, often are simply allied with one another rather that sharing much in the way of real common ground. It's the job of party politicians  in such a system to establish a rhetorical line that satisfies enough of the factions to bring them together in some semblance of unity. For the Republicans, Ronald Reagan forged such a consensus in the 1980's. More recently, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama have done it for the Democrats. The problem for the Republicans is that they currently have no effective leader and no unifying ideological agenda. Their candidates hearken back to decades-old Reaganism at every opportunity, but this is sounding increasingly antiquated and out-of touch. As a result, the party's factions are becoming naked as factions for all to see.

          The media, of course, loves this state of affairs and will tend to boost the faction offering the most sensational coverage opportunities. Currently, the "nativist" faction, which has always been a subdued element in the Republican base, fits this bill for them. It's serendipity for the media that someone like Donald Trump, more of a showboat than a serious politician, has come along to take up the nativist standard, even though in my judgment he doesn't personally believe in their ideology any more than he believes in  anything else outside of his own playpen. The hapless Republican party, lacking a rudder, is floating along in his wake and has become defenseless against disparaging caricatures.

          As for the Democrats, my friend Keith must be living in a time warp to
claim they've become more moderate. The party had its own period of debilitating disarray during the 1960's and 70's, when its feckless foreign policy and dangerously inflationary domestic policies almost brought the country to its knees, paving the way for Ronald  Reagan's election in 1980. Paradoxically, this period also facilitated the rise of Bill Clinton, who helped steer the Democrats  away from the leftish rhetoric and policies that by the 1970's had tagged them as the party of disorder, stagflation, rationing,  and retreat. Without ever abandoning the Democrats' traditional base, Clinton urged and later adopted policies that his left-wing enemies at the time derided as Republican-lite. He thereby rescued the party and did in fact make it more moderate.

          But that was a long time ago, and whatever Bill might be saying nowadays, his party of that bygone era is not the party of Barak Obama today. We only have to go back to 2008 to understand what our modern-day Democrats  are really about. That the financial crisis struck in what happened to be an election year gifted the Democrats with landslide sweep that included the White House and both houses of Congress. Giddy with success, they pulled out all the stops to ram through as much leftish legislation as they could while the stars were still aligned in their favor, driving government spending, budget deficits and debt, as a percent of GDP, to the highest levels seen since WWII. All this was done, of course, in the name of stimulating an imperiled economy, but in what was in fact a Trojan Horse strategy, Obama and his cohorts were enacting as much government expansion as they could get away with in the time available to them. And to hear the party strategists tell their own story at the time, they were really just getting started. They were obsessed with the heroic romance FDR's "first 100 days" and determined finally to grasp hold of what the great man had initiated and carry it to a new level.

          Unfortunately for them they overplayed their hand, and did so in full view of the voting public. The Affordable Care Act, the most visible portion of their legislative program,  was implemented with an incompetence born of indecent haste and signaled to the public that something rotten was afoot. The Dodd-Frank Act, which was supposed to reform the broken financial system, did succeed in greatly expanding the scope of federal regulatory agencies, but without giving much reason to believe the banks would become safer as a result. The grab-bag of stimulus programs passed soon began looking like little more than the usual assortment of pork-barrel projects and giveaways to pet constituencies. All of this left a bad aroma in the nostrils of the voting public, and the Democrats soon saw part of their prize taken away from them as they lost control first of the House of Representatives, then the Senate. Since then, the budget deficit and national debt problems have receded somewhat. However, this does not reflect any new "moderation" on the part of our Democrats, only the fact that they no longer possess untrammeled power to follow their native instincts.

           Which brings me to the current election campaign. Due to the supine state  of the Republican party at the present time, it seems virtually certain that, barring a crash of the heavens, Hillary Clinton will be our next President. She has the luxury of calmly taking the political lay of the land right now and considering her options for the kind of administration she will lead.

          In this regard, Bernie Sanders is playing a highly useful role for her. He, first of all, is providing at least the illusion of competition in the race,  which will allow her to enter office with the air of some competitive momentum behind her. The American people like that sort of thing. More importantly, however, he is acting as a stalking horse for leftwing policies in this country. By opening calling himself a Socialist, Sanders is trying to de-stigmatize the term and hopefully the kind of policies it represents. This is not simply a harmless "nod to youthful radicalism" as Keith has characterized it. We should not patronize Mr. Sanders, and we should definitely take him at his word. He is essentially doubling and tripling down on everything Obama tried to start, offering Medicare for all, free college education for all, and no doubt before long free anything else that might appear to have political resonance, all of it financed, of course, by taxes on the "very rich". It's as though Hugo Chavez has been reincarnated here to operate right in the belly of the beast.

          Hillary obviously likes Bernie and is watching him closely. We have to remember that her husband's successful tilt to the right always reflected political opportunism more than conviction. Similarly opportunistic, Hillary herself is fully capable of taking a hard turn to the left if she judges it politically expedient. If she determines that Americans perhaps are still balking at hard socialism, she can back gingerly away from it. If, on the other hand,  it starts looking like people maybe are finally ready to abandon their old-fashioned hang-ups and embrace the idea of free stuff for everybody, she could go that way too.

          If you admire the kinds of policies our modern-day Democrats seem to be gravitating towards, you can bath them in whatever laudatory light you choose. Just don't call them the party of moderation.


  1. Mark writes beautifully, and I agree with some of his thoughts here. But his main dispute seems to be a mistaken one with my use of the term "moderate." By that term I mean supporting the free enterprise system and working for reforms that make it better, not overturning it. Let's leave Bernie aside for the moment, although the admiring article about him in this week's Bloomberg Businessweek might be seen as supporting my use of this label even for him. The most likely Democratic candidate is Hillary, and if she's not moderate in the sense I am describing, I can't imagine who is. The Democrats are not supporting a Gene McCarthy or George McGovern, much less a Norman Thomas or Eugene Debs. They have no plans to take over the factories like Truman did, and no need to revolutionize any social systems.

  2. Semantical issues inevitably creep into any discussion of political principles. This problem gets worse whenever we attempt to project contemporary debates into the past. Both Debs and Thomas considered themselves "moderate" too within the context of a political environment in which the standard for "radical" was defined by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.
    "Socialism" is, of course, another term that's subject to vague and changing definitions. One might define it in terms of working class living standards relative to a subsistence-level existence as Debs would have recognized it. We might also define socialism in terms of the percentage of economic output that government controls. By either of these definitions, we're already further down the road towards socialism than probably either Debs or Thomas would have dreamed of, yet Bernie Sanders wants to take it much further and do it soon.
    I believe that Sanders is a decent man and that he honestly has no interest in political violence as the means to his end. So, by that standard, I suppose he's moderate, but by any other standard I have a hard time squeezing him down to fit the label.