Another way to distill the failure is to say that in the last decade or so the center-left attempted a series of policy compromises — Obamacare instead of single-payer, cap-and-trade instead of a Green New Deal, modest upper-bracket tax increases instead of big attempts to soak the rich — and then discovered that the Republican Party was either still too far away ideologically or too much of an internally divided mess to make a lasting deal on any issue. And meanwhile the compromises were often unpopular with swing voters — as Obamacare was at first, as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax probably would be (just ask Emmanuel Macron) — so there was no obvious political advantage to making them pre-emptively.
.. Both of these accounts fit DeLong’s narrative; both make a case for letting the further-left parts of the Democratic coalition try leadership instead, and seeking compromises between socialists and liberals rather than pining for moderate-Republican partners who don’t appear to be in evidence.
But then consider a third distillation, a third narrative, in which the center-left’s signal political failure was that it never really sought to preserve a cultural centrism, which meant over time that its party’s approach to social issues has been dictated more and more completely by the left. In this story the political success of Bill Clinton reflected not only his compromises with Republicans on taxes and spending, his tacit nods to Reaganomics, but also his ability to infuse a centrist liberalism with reassuring nods to various kinds of moderate cultural conservatism — the school uniform and v-chip business and the rhetoric of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion, the easy Baptist religiosity, the tacitly center-right positions on immigration and crime and same-sex marriage.
And in this part of the Democratic coalition’s story, the center-left’s role has been extraordinarily passive, essentially following the cultural left a tiny bit more slowly rather than trying to devise a more moderate approach. You can find hints of what such a moderate approach might look like in intellectual projects like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy, or in the probing, evenhanded culture-war reportage of the magazine writer Jesse Singal (whom I hesitate to even praise because it will do him no favors on the internet). But that cultural moderation has no substantial political form, no important champions within the Democratic Party. It has Joe Manchin and Tulsi Gabbard, maybe, but they are eccentric figures; elsewhere among the Democrats there is little interest in considering all the different ways that cultural extremism costs them votes.
Which means that if the center-left abdicates, DeLong-style, on economic policy, the Democratic Party as a whole will have moved to the left on every front, writing off not only the possibility of compromising with Republican politicians (which, for now, might be understandable) but also the possibility of winning over voters who would almost certainly be Democrats if the party still occupied the cultural terrain that it held in 2000 or even as late as 2008.
Sadly the rest of the DeLong thread didn’t take up that possibility. It degenerated, instead, into a howl against Republican fascism and a post-Protestant sermon about how liberal America can build the true and only heaven, the real shining city on the hill.
Which suggests that to reckon with the possibility that making liberalism a pseudo-church might be a problem, not an aspiration, we need a very different center-left from the one surrendering today.