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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.