The latest transfixing document for our time is a public-relations video for the Central Intelligence Agency. It features an unidentified 36-year-old Latina officer who speaks of her ascent through the ranks of the Company in a hybrid language, partly the traditional American narrative of immigrant success, partly something more contemporary and ideological: “I’m a woman of color. … I’m a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise. … I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”
Thus is a career in service to the American imperium, at an institution dedicated to spycraft, drone strikes and the occasional coup d’état, now packaged as the fulfillment of a certain kind of cultural leftism and sold with buzzwords that almost nobody outside the academy would have recognized in the first term of Barack Obama. Whatever this change ultimately means for left-wing politics — the death of the antiwar left? the completion of progressivism’s march through the institutions? just the usual C.I.A. tricks? — it’s pretty remarkable to watch.
In my weekend column I wrote about the political challenges that the rise of so-called wokeness poses for the Democratic Party: the surmountable challenge created by its academic style of rhetoric, and the more substantial challenge should the new progressivism preside over policy disasters in the cities where it rules.
But it would take more than just an electoral setback to reverse the ideological shifts that have given us the intersectional, anti-patriarchal, cisgender-and-all-genders Central Intelligence Agency video. Indeed, the striking thing about the new progressivism’s advance is that it was seemingly accelerated by electoral defeat — the shocking defeat of 2016, specifically, which by making Donald Trump president made a progressive revolution possible.
Or at least that’s the implication of an analysis that made the rounds a little while after the “woke C.I.A.” ad first appeared, in which Richard Hanania, who runs the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, tried to explain why “everything” — meaning institutions that used to be seen as neutral or conservative, from corporate America to the intelligence bureaucracy — has recently become so much more progressive in positioning and rhetoric.
Hanania argues that it’s not simply that the millennials and Gen Z are more liberal, or that the Democrats are the professional-class party and so liberalism dominates the professional spheres. These tilts are real, but there are still enough conservative-leaning consumers, enough young and wealthy and well-educated Republicans, to create incentives for institutions to be apolitical or politically neutral.
The key difference, he argues, isn’t sheer numbers but engagement, intensity and zeal. Liberals lately seem to just care a lot more about politics: They donate more, they protest more, they agitate more, in ways that change the incentives for public-facing institutions. Some of these gaps are longstanding, but others have opened only recently, with 2016 as the crucial turning point. That was the year when “the mobilization gap exploded,” creating irresistible pressure “from both within and outside corporations for them to take a stand on almost all hot button issues.”
Why 2016? Well, probably because of Donald Trump: In Hanania’s data, his nomination and election looks like the great accelerant, with anti-Trump backlash driving liberal hyper-investment in politics to new heights, enabling progressives to achieve “true mass mobilization in a way conservatives never have in the modern era.” That mobilization has consolidated progressive norms in almost every institution susceptible to pressure from activists (or activist-employees), and it’s pulled the entire American establishment leftward, so that conservatives are suddenly at war with Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola instead of just Harvard and the Ford Foundation, and the custodians of the national security state are eager to prove their enlightenment by speaking in the argot of the academic left.
To some extent this is an obvious point to anyone who watched the Trump era unfold, but, as a Trump-skeptical conservative, I like the sharpened emphasis in Hanania’s analysis because it seems to vindicate a point I made myself: that the many conservatives who hoped to find in Trump a bulwark against progressivism were fundamentally deceived.
Instead, his administration’s mix of haplessness and menace was a great gift to progressivism, inspiring an anti-conservative reaction that extended through every walk of elite life, turning centrists into liberals and remaking liberalism into exactly the kind of progressive orthodoxy that conservatives most fear. Republicans got control of the Supreme Court out of the bargain, but in almost every other institution that matters, from Langley to the corporate boardroom, their position got much worse.
And yet I also wonder if this narrative is a little bit too pat in its anti-Trumpism, and if it gives too little credit to the specific ideas currently showing up in C.I.A. public-relations videos. That the rise of wokeness was accelerated by Trump I have no doubt. But if you look at public opinion data, the liberal shift leftward, on social issues and especially race, begins midway through Obama’s second term, meaning that when Trump kicked off his campaign the Great Awokening was already taking shape.
So if the consolidation of the new progressivism was Trump-driven, its original appeal was not. Instead, you need to analyze that appeal on its own terms. Just as the reactionary turn among conservatives is understandable given the loss of things that the right was supposed to be conserving, the new progressivism is understandable as a response to previous trends in elite liberalism, to failures and successes both.
Thus the zeal of the new antiracism is a response to the longstanding failure of liberal policymaking to actually close racial gaps. The moralism of #MeToo feminism, the desire to rethink or redefine the contours of consent, reflects a sense that in championing sexual individualism liberalism had ended up enabling predation. The spiritualizing side of wokeness, from the martyrology of police-shooting victims to the confessions of privilege and the zealous witch hunts, seems like an attempt to restore a sense of the sacred that a secularized liberalism sorely lacks. And the progressive skepticism of old-fashioned liberal appeals to free speech and free debate, the sense that certain arguments (whether on immigration, race or gender identity) should be simply ended once an activist consensus is established, seems to treat the swift and sweeping success of the movement for same-sex marriage as a model for how to win on more controverted issues.
In many of these impulses, but especially the last one, there’s an embedded promise that progressive change can happen as a kind of moral awakening within elite institutions rather than through any kind of dramatic revolt against them. (Neither Harvard nor Coca-Cola nor the C.I.A. had to give up anything when Obergefell v. Hodges was handed down.) Which explains, in turn, why this cluster of ideas has advanced so fast within the key precincts of American power. Even though the new progressivism takes a dire view of our great institutions’ history, it also seems to promise that those same institutions can endure unchallenged in their power, if only they confess, repent and convert — and recruit their new members more intersectionally than before.
The tension between this institutionalism and the promised radical change may eventually be the new progressivism’s undoing. (Can Ibram X. Kendi permanently sustain his radical chic while being an academic recipient of Silicon Valley largess?) Or alternatively, as I suggested in my last column, the actual application of radical ideas outside the protected spaces of the elite, to issues of crime and policing especially, may lead to breakdowns that cost progressives not just an election but their commanding position within the establishment as well.
But for now, the story Hanania tells shouldn’t be seen as just a story of Trumpism radicalizing liberalism, as important as that story is. When an ideology carries all before it so successfully that the C.I.A. decides it’s time to start cribbing from its script, even its enemies should acknowledge that it’s winning, in some sense, on the merits: not just from good fortune or from backlash, but because its gospel persuades people to convert.
Left-wing candidates have been shut out in Democratic Senate primaries thus far in 2020.
If Democrats win back the Senate this fall, don’t expect a rush to pass the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.
The left wing has been wiped out in Senate primaries or failed to recruit at all in states across the map this year, leaving a slate of centrist candidates more in the ideological mold of Joe Biden than Bernie Sanders. Liberal insurgents on the ballot over the coming weeks in states like Kentucky and Colorado aren’t favored to fare any better, failing to gain significant traction thus far against more moderate favorites.
A Senate shutout would be an embarrassment for the progressive movement, which a few months ago looked ascendant. If Biden wins the presidency, and Democrats take back the Senate, it would likely result in a more incremental approach to legislating despite Biden’s public overtures to the left since he clinched the Democratic nomination.
The failure of left-wing candidates in their primaries has prompted soul-searching among many progressive leaders who now believe that they neglected the task of organizing and building a downballot bench as they were caught in the thrall of Sanders’ candidacy. It is also a victory for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who recruited most of the primary victors, viewing them as more likely to win general elections.
“We have seen that the left doesn’t really have the coordinated infrastructure to compete on a statewide level,” acknowledged Evan Weber, co-founder and political director of the climate group Sunrise Movement, which is backing underdog candidates in Senate primaries this month in Kentucky and Colorado.
“Schumer works really hard to get a candidate and then effectively pushes others to coalesce behind them,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, an activist who made her first run for office this year, narrowly lost Texas’ Senate primary in March running on a more liberal platform. She missed the second spot in a runoff by about 27,000 votes after receiving little investment from national organizations.
Tzintzún Ramirez said the left should learn lessons from failing to invest early in the cycle to promote candidates in primaries.
“No progressive is going to be at the top of the ticket in a general if we don’t have a slug-out, all fight in a primary,” she said. “We need to be willing to have those fights in the primary and fight harder than we did, I think, in 2020.”
In addition to Senate races, progressives have also come up short against many of the incumbent House Democrats they’ve targeted — though some prospects remain, including possibly toppling Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) later this month.
“Everyone wants the sh–posters. No one wants the legislators,” said McElwee, who believes the left has failed in its recruitment strategy.
Still, some take heart that at least many of the candidates in swing states are more liberal than their counterparts just a decade ago. Every Senate candidate in a major race, from Mark Kelly in Arizona to Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, supports a public option to compete with private health insurance plans. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock supports repealing the Senate filibuster so that legislation can pass with a simple majority.
Even if Democrats win control of the chamber and eliminate the filibuster from Senate rules, their majority would be slim — meaning any big ticket agenda items would need the support of more moderate incumbent senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Synema and the incoming moderates.
Party strategists argue their recruited candidates have won or are poised to win because of their fundraising power, in-state political networks and voters’ desire to back the candidate seen as most likely to unseat the incumbent Republicans.
Many, like Bullock, John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Sara Gideon in Maine have established brands and name recognition in their home states. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Amy McGrath in Kentucky have also created small-dollar fundraising machines akin to those that powered Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns. A half-dozen Democrats outraised incumbent GOP senators in the first quarter this year, thanks largely to online donors.
“Democrats are laser-focused on flipping the Senate and ending Mitch McConnell’s majority, which is why we’re seeing tremendous grassroots support for candidates across the country and continuing to expand the map into more battleground states that Republicans can no longer take for granted,” Stewart Boss, a DSCC spokesman, said in a statement.
In the hopes of scoring a primary upset, some left-wing activists have belatedly turned their attention to Colorado and Kentucky with their late June primaries.
The DSCC has thrown its weight behind Hickenlooper, the former two-term governor, and McGrath.
Andrew Romanoff, who is running to Hickenlooper’s left, called the June 30 Colorado primary “one of the last beachheads for progressives in the country.“
“I believe I have the best chance to beat Cory Gardner. I think [Hickenlooper] is going to struggle to explain why voters should hire him for a job he said he didn’t want and would be terrible at,” Romanoff said, referencing Hickenlooper’s dismissal of a possible Senate campaign while he was running for president.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, a black first-term representative from Louisville, has seen some momentum behind his primary campaign this week amid protests over police brutality in the state. He raised more than $300,000 in five days, according to his campaign, similar to his haul for the entire first quarter of this year.
Betsy Sweet, a liberal candidate in Maine’s Senate race who was endorsed by Justice Democrats but is being dramatically outspent by Gideon, acknowledged the tough odds. But she argued that the crises of the last few months may make voters more open to a different sort of candidate.
“I think it leaves a bigger lane open for us progressives who are left,” said Sweet. “That said, I think progressive organizations are reluctant to take a stand, and it’s really hard.”
Left-leaning groups and the party aren’t always at odds. Democracy For America has endorsed candidates ranging from Sweet in Maine to Theresa Greenfield, the national party’s pick who won the Iowa primary last week. Yvette Simpson, the CEO of DFA, said they view it as a long game, supporting left-leaning candidates while also prioritizing winning back the chamber.
“In a state where a progressive should win, we support, strongly, progressives to win,” she said. “Some of these seats we know are going to be more difficult. So we endorse a candidate who agrees with progressive principles but may not be the quote-unquote traditional, what people think of as progressive, because we need to win these seats.”
Karthik Ganapathy, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign, questioned why more groups that spent resources in the presidential primary didn’t line up behind progressive Senate candidates. He said he hoped the left wing of the party took that approach in 2022.
“It’s important not to ignore national politics. But we need to do a better job at fielding and supporting candidates further down the ballot, where there isn’t as much excitement or buzzy media coverage, from Senate primaries down to state House races,” Ganapathy said. “Especially because a dollar from a progressive group or donor in a Senate primary that no one’s paying attention to goes way farther than it does trying to buy space on Des Moines TV two weeks before [Iowa] caucus day.”
The candidate of plans needs a really good one right now.
On Sunday, Elizabeth Warren said that she would soon release a plan explaining how she intends to pay for “Medicare for all.” Like many policy wonks, I’ll be waiting with bated breath; this could be a make or break moment for her campaign, and possibly for the 2020 election.
There are three things you need to know about Medicare for all, which in the current debate has come to mean a pure single-payer health insurance system, in which the government provides all coverage, with no role for private insurers.
First, single-payer has a lot to recommend it as a way to achieve universal health care. It’s not the only route — every major advanced country besides the United States achieves universal coverage, but many of them get there via regulations and subsidies rather than by relying solely on public insurance. Still, single-payer is clean and simple, and many health economists would support it if we were starting from scratch.
But we aren’t starting from scratch, which is the second thing you need to know. More than half of Americans are covered by private health insurance, mainly through employers.
Not many people love their insurance companies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re eager to trade the coverage they know for a new system they don’t. Most people probably would end up better off under single-payer, but convincing them of that would be a hard sell; polls show much less support for Medicare for all than for a “public option” plan in which people could retain private insurance if they chose to.
Which brings me to the third point: In reality, single-payer won’t happen any time soon. Even if Democrats win in a landslide in 2020, taking control of the Senate as well as the White House, it’s very unlikely that they will have the votes to eliminate private insurance.
Warren, who has made policy seriousness a key part of her political persona — “Warren has a plan for that” — surely knows all of this. And early this year she seemed to recognize the problems with a purist single-payer approach, saying that she was open to different paths toward universal coverage.
Since then, however, she seems to have gone all in for the elimination of private insurance.
I have no inside information about what led her to take that plunge, but my guess is that she was trying to protect her left flank — to avoid alienating supporters of Bernie Sanders, who have made single-payer a kind of purity test one must pass to be considered a true progressive. And I’m not going to criticize her for engaging in a bit of political realism; after all, the case against Medicare for all is itself basically political.
At this point, however, it’s looking as if Warren may have painted herself into a corner.
Part, but only part, of the issue involves cost.
Journalists have been badgering Warren to get specific about how much taxes would have to go up to pay for Medicare for all. She has, with considerable justice, insisted that this is a bad way to frame the discussion, since any additional taxes would be offset by savings on the huge premiums workers and their employers now pay for private insurance — on average, more than $20,000 a year for a family plan.
The right question is whether the overall costs facing U.S. families would go up or down. Warren has been claiming that for most families, they would go down, but she hasn’t offered specifics. And this vagueness, which has started to seem like evasiveness, is more of a problem for her than it might be for other politicians. As I said, Warren has made policy seriousness a key aspect of her political persona, so her fogginess on health care really stands out.
The plan in the works will presumably try to dispel that fog, but doing so will be tricky. An independent estimate from the Urban Institute (which is, for what it’s worth, left-leaning) suggests that a highly comprehensive Medicare-for-all plan, similar to what Sanders is proposing, would substantially increase overall health spending, although a more modest plan wouldn’t.
But cost isn’t the only issue — in fact, I’m not sure how important it really is, given that full abolition of private insurance remains unlikely in practice. Also, let’s get real: If Warren gets the Democratic nomination, the outcome of the general election isn’t going to hinge on dueling think tank estimates.
The election might, however, hinge on the support of people who have good private coverage and would be nervous about making a leap into the unknown, no matter how many facts and figures Warren deploys.
So what I’ll want to see is whether Warren gives herself and her party enough flexibility to assuage these concerns. I’m not sure what form that flexibility might take. Maybe something like an extended transition period, with greatly enhanced Obamacare (which might actually be politically doable) in the interim?
Whatever Warren comes up with, this is a crucial moment. There are many excellent things in her overall policy agenda; but she won’t get a chance to do those things unless she can extricate herself from what looks like a health policy trap.
A crisis of legitimacy swept across American politics in the second decade of the 21st century. Many people had the general conviction that the old order was corrupt and incompetent. There was an inchoate desire for some radical transformation. This mood swept the Republican Party in 2016 as Donald Trump eviscerated the G.O.P. establishment and it swept through the Democratic Party in 2020.
In the 2020 primary race Joe Biden stood as the candidate for linear change and Elizabeth Warren stood as the sharp break from the past. Biden was the front-runner, but fragile. Many of the strongest debate performers — Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bennet — couldn’t get any traction because Biden occupied the moderate lane. By the time he faded, it was too late.
Warren triumphed over the other progressive populist, Bernie Sanders, because she had what he lacked — self-awareness. She could run a campaign that mitigated her weaknesses. He could not.
Biden was holding on until Warren took Iowa and New Hampshire. He or some other moderate could have recovered, but the California primary had been moved up to March 3, Super Tuesday. When Warren dominated most of the states that day, it was over. The calendar ensured that the most progressive candidate would win.
Many pundits predicted that Warren was too much the progressive regulator in chief to win a general election. Indeed, her personal favorability remained low. But the election was about Trump — his personal disgraces but also the fact that he told a white ethnic national narrative that appealed only to a shrinking segment of the country.
Warren won convincingly. The Democrats built a bigger majority in the House, and to general surprise, won a slim Senate majority of 52 to 48.
After that election, the Republicans suffered a long, steady decline. Trump was instantly reviled by everyone — he had no loyal defenders. Only 8 percent of young people called themselves conservatives. Republican voters, mostly older, were dying out, and they weren’t making new ones. For the ensuing two decades the party didn’t resonate beyond its white rural base.
The American educated class celebrated the Warren victory with dance-in-the-street euphoria. In staffing her administration, she rejected the experienced Clinton-Obama holdovers and brought in a new cadre from the progressive left.
The euphoria ended when Warren tried to pass her legislative agenda. One by one, her proposals failed in the Senate: Medicare for all, free college, decriminalizing undocumented border crossing, even the wealth tax. Democratic senators from red states, she learned, were still from red states; embracing her agenda would have been suicidal. Warren and her aides didn’t help. Fired by their sense of moral superiority, they were good at condemnation, not coalition-building.
When the recession of 2021 hit, things got ugly. The failure of two consecutive presidencies had a devastating effect on American morale. It became evident that the nation had three political tendencies —
- conservative populism,
- progressive populism and
- moderate liberalism.
None of them could put together a governing majority to get things done.
Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.
Moderate liberals had a basic faith in American institutions and thought they just needed reform. They had basic faith in capitalism and the Constitution and revered the classical liberal philosophy embedded in America’s founding. They inherited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s millennial nationalism, a sense that America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth.
Progressives had much less faith in American institutions — in capitalism, the Constitution, the founding. They called for more structural change to things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the basic structures of the market. Trump’s victory in 2016 had served for them as proof that racism is the dominant note in American history, that the founding was 1619, not 1776. They were willing to step on procedural liberalism in order to get radical change.
With the Republicans powerless and irrelevant, the war within the Democratic Party grew vicious. Progressives detested moderate liberals even more than they did conservatives. The struggle came to a head with another set of Democratic primaries in 2024.
The moderate liberals triumphed easily. It turns out that the immigrant groups, by then a large and organized force in American politics, had not lost faith in the American dream, they had not lost faith in capitalism. They simply wanted more help so they could compete within it.
By 2030, progressive populism burned out as right-wing populism had. The Democrats became the nation’s majority party. This party ran on a one-word platform: unity. After decades of culture, class and demographic warfare, moderate liberals defined America as a universal nation, a pluralistic nation, embracing all and seeking opportunity for all.
In a wildly diverse nation, voters handed power to leaders who were coalition-builders not fighters. The whole tenor of American politics changed.
In a new book, the pollster Stanley Greenberg predicts a blue tidal wave in 2020.
Toward the end of his new book, “R.I.P. G.O.P.,” the renowned Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg makes a thrilling prediction, delivered with the certainty of prophecy. “The year 2020 will produce a second blue wave on at least the scale of the first in 2018 and finally will crash and shatter the Republican Party that was consumed by the ill-begotten battle to stop the New America from governing,” he writes.
It sounds almost messianic: the Republican Party, that foul agglomeration of bigotry and avarice that has turned American politics into a dystopian farce, not just defeated but destroyed. The inexorable force of demography bringing us a new, enlightened political dispensation. Greenberg foresees “the death of the Republican Party as we’ve known it,” and a Democratic Party “liberated from the nation’s suffocating polarization to use government to advance the public good.” I’d like to believe it, and maybe you would too. But should we?
This is not the first time that experts have predicted the inevitable triumph of progressive politics. Seventeen years ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which argued that the country was on the cusp of a liberal political realignment driven by growing diversity, urbanization and gender equality. In sheer numerical terms they were right; between then and now the Republican Party won the presidential popular vote only once, in 2004. But Republicans still have more power than Democrats, and in 2017, Judis disavowed his book’s thesis, arguing that only populist economics could deliver Democratic victories.
As it happens, Greenberg, who became famous as Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1992 and consulted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, told me he used to “shudder” at the “Emerging Democratic Majority” analysis. “I’m used to campaigns in which you impact what’s going to happen,” he said. “The idea that it’s just going to happen because of trends is dangerous. And it was dangerous with Hillary.”
There’s a fascinating tension in “R.I.P. G.O.P.” Greenberg is scathing about the failures of the Hillary Clinton campaign, accusing it of “malpractice.” Yet he believes that at least some of the political assumptions that were mistaken in 2016 will be sound in 2020.
Greenberg suggests that Clinton erred by focusing too much on multiculturalism at the expense of class, and by trying to discredit Donald Trump as a vulgarian rather than a plutocrat. As Clinton wrote in “What Happened,” her post mortem of her shattering loss, Greenberg “thought my campaign was too upbeat on the economy, too liberal on immigration, and not vocal enough about trade.”
Yet going into 2020, Greenberg believes that what he calls the “rising American electorate” — including millennials, people of color and single women — will ensure Democratic victory, almost regardless of whom the party nominates. “We’re dealing with demographic and cultural trends, but we’re also dealing with people that are organizing and talking to one and another and becoming much more conscious of their values,” he said.
In his polling and focus groups, he’s seeing that the reaction to Trump is changing people. “The Trump presidency so invaded the public’s consciousness that it was hard to talk to previously disengaged and unregistered unmarried women, people of color and millennials without them going right to Trump,” he writes. A few months after the election, he realized he could no longer put Clinton and Trump voters in focus groups together because indignant Clinton voters, particularly women, so dominated the conversations. “This turned out to be an unintended test of the strength of their views and resolve to resist,” he wrote.
That resolve to resist has led many voters to define their own beliefs in opposition to Trump’s. On immigration, for example, “every Trump outrage increased the proportion of Americans who said, ‘We are an immigrant country,’” writes Greenberg. Indeed, according to recent Pew data, 62 percent of Americans say that immigrants strengthen the country, while 28 percent, a near record low, see them as a burden.
Yet rather than modulating their anti-immigrant politics in response, Republicans have little choice but to double down, because so many of their voters are driven by nativism. In this way, Greenberg sees an omen for the Republican Party in California. It’s hard to remember now, but the state was once the heartland of conservatism, nurturing the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. From 1968 to 1988, it voted Republican in every presidential election, and regularly elected Republican governors.
But in 1994, California Republicans, fearful of changing demography, campaigned for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative meant to make life miserable for undocumented immigrants. It won — though courts blocked its implementation — but it also turned expanding constituencies in California against Republicans. Today the party has been reduced to an irrelevant rump faction in state politics.
The specter of California haunts the modern right; many conservatives see it as a portent of what demographic change will do to Republican power nationally. But California can just as easily be seen as a sign of how a political party can drive itself to ruin by making a cruel, doomed stand against the coming generation. If Greenberg is right, national Republicans, fearful of going the way of those in California, may have ensured precisely that fate.
But is he right? Unlike in California, you can’t win power in the United States just by getting the most votes. The political analyst David Wasserman has argued that Trump could lose the popular vote by as much as five million and still prevail in the Electoral College. Greenberg, however, is convinced that the 2018 midterms prove that mass turnout can overcome the Democrats’ structural disadvantages. “Every piece of data I have, the trends have moved to be more Democratic since 2018,” he said.
His confidence will not be enough to lessen the insomnia that has plagued me since the cursed night when Trump was elected. But his book should be a corrective to the media’s overweening focus on the mulish devotion of Trump voters. Trump hatred is a much more potent force in this country than Trump love. There is one way, and one way only, that Trump may surpass Barack Obama. Though Obama was a community organizer, Trump could turn out to be much better at mobilizing progressives.
For the past 40 years, the United States and other advanced economies have been pursuing a free-market agenda of low taxes, deregulation, and cuts to social programs. There can no longer be any doubt that this approach has failed spectacularly; the only question is what will – and should – come next.The neoliberal experiment – lower taxes on the rich, deregulation of labor and product markets, financialization, and globalization – has been a spectacular failure. Growth is lower than it was in the quarter-century after World War II, and most of it has accrued to the very top of the income scale. After decades of stagnant or even falling incomes for those below them, neoliberalism must be pronounced dead and buried.Vying to succeed it are at least three major political alternatives:
- far-right nationalism,
- center-left reformism, and the
- progressive left (with the center-right representing the neoliberal failure).
And yet, with the exception of the progressive left, these alternatives remain beholden to some form of the ideology that has (or should have) expired.
The center-left, for example, represents neoliberalism with a human face. Its goal is to bring the policies of former US President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair into the twenty-first century, making only slight revisions to the prevailing modes of financialization and globalization. Meanwhile, the nationalist right disowns globalization, blaming migrants and foreigners for all of today’s problems. Yet as Donald Trump’s presidency has shown, it is no less committed – at least in its American variant – to tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, and shrinking or eliminating social programs.
By contrast, the third camp advocates what I call progressive capitalism, which prescribes a radically different economic agenda, based on four priorities. The first is to
- restore the balance between markets, the state, and civil society. Slow economic growth, rising inequality, financial instability, and environmental degradation are problems born of the market, and thus cannot and will not be overcome by the market on its own. Governments have a duty to limit and shape markets through environmental, health, occupational-safety, and other types of regulation. It is also the government’s job to do what the market cannot or will not do, like actively investing in basic research, technology, education, and the health of its constituents.
- The second priority is to recognize that the “wealth of nations” is the result of scientific inquiry – learning about the world around us – and social organization that allows large groups of people to work together for the common good. Markets still have a crucial role to play in facilitating social cooperation, but they serve this purpose only if they are governed by the rule of law and subject to democratic checks. Otherwise, individuals can get rich by exploiting others, extracting wealth through rent-seeking rather than creating wealth through genuine ingenuity. Many of today’s wealthy took the exploitation route to get where they are. They have been well served by Trump’s policies, which have encouraged rent-seeking while destroying the underlying sources of wealth creation. Progressive capitalism seeks to do precisely the opposite.
- This brings us to the third priority: addressing the growing problem of concentrated market power. By exploiting information advantages, buying up potential competitors, and creating entry barriers, dominant firms are able to engage in large-scale rent-seeking to the detriment of everyone else. The rise in corporate market power, combined with the decline in workers’ bargaining power, goes a long way toward explaining why inequality is so high and growth so tepid. Unless government takes a more active role than neoliberalism prescribes, these problems will likely become much worse, owing to advances in robotization and artificial intelligence.
- The fourth key item on the progressive agenda is to sever the link between economic power and political influence. Economic power and political influence are mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating, especially where, as in the US, wealthy individuals and corporations may spend without limit in elections. As the US moves ever closer to a fundamentally undemocratic system of “one dollar, one vote,” the system of checks and balances so necessary for democracy likely cannot hold: nothing will be able to constrain the power of the wealthy. This is not just a moral and political problem: economies with less inequality actually perform better. Progressive-capitalist reforms thus have to begin by curtailing the influence of money in politics and reducing wealth inequality.3
There is no magic bullet that can reverse the damage done by decades of neoliberalism. But a comprehensive agenda along the lines sketched above absolutely can. Much will depend on whether reformers are as resolute in combating problems like excessive market power and inequality as the private sector is in creating them.
A comprehensive agenda must focus on education, research, and the other true sources of wealth. It must protect the environment and fight climate change with the same vigilance as the Green New Dealers in the US and Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom. And it must provide public programs to ensure that no citizen is denied the basic requisites of a decent life. These include economic security, access to work and a living wage, health care and adequate housing, a secure retirement, and a quality education for one’s children.
This agenda is eminently affordable; in fact, we cannot afford not to enact it. The alternatives offered by nationalists and neoliberals would guarantee more stagnation, inequality, environmental degradation, and political acrimony, potentially leading to outcomes we do not even want to imagine.
Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron. Rather, it is the most viable and vibrant alternative to an ideology that has clearly failed. As such, it represents the best chance we have of escaping our current economic and political malaise.
As Democrats move from success in the 2018 midterms to the early stages of picking a 2020 presidential candidate, a narrative is taking root. It holds that the key Democratic voter today is young, liberal and rebellious—in short, a version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old activist who became the youngest congresswoman ever and who appears to be pushing the party to the left.
There is one problem with this narrative. It largely misses the story of the voters who actually delivered success to Democrats last year—and who may determine the outcome of the next presidential race.The disconnect between perception and reality is important because it affects what Democrats do—now that they have a piece of governing power in Washington with their newfound control of the House, and because it affects the way the party views the nascent effort to choose the next presidential contender. In particular, it affects views of the largest name in the party not yet in the 2020 field: former Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s certainly true that there was a lot of energy among young, liberal Democrats in 2018, and that figures to be true again in the new presidential cycle.
Yet the Democratic electorate in 2018—the one that swung House seats and governor’s offices from Republican to Democratic—was neither as young nor as liberal as popularly imagined. AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 115,000 self-identified 2018 midterm voters, found that just 15% of those who voted Democratic last November were aged 18 through 29. The largest contingent of Democratic voters—36%—actually were ages 45 through 64.
All told, 60% of Democratic voters were aged 45 or older.
In ideological terms, there is no doubt that the party is moving to the left. An increasing share of Democrats are identifying themselves as liberal. Yet that movement also can be overstated. While half of Democratic voters last year identified themselves as liberal, 48% called themselves moderate or conservative. And moderates outnumbered “very liberal” Democratic voters by two to one.
Their switch is why many of those moderate Republicans washed out to sea; their fate was sealed more by moderate women rising up to vote Democratic than because of a left-wing insurrection. Indeed, candidates endorsed by the moderate New Democrat coalition flipped 33 of the 42 House seats that went from Republican to Democrat.
Geographically, the keys to Democrats’ success came not in the party’s coastal enclaves—such as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district, which was held by Democrats long before she arrived—but rather in the industrial upper Midwest swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were won by Mr. Trump in 2016, but Democrats won the popular House vote in those states last fall. Democrats also nominated moderates for governor in all three states—and all three won, by a margin of 1.3 million votes.This reality is important for Democrats as candidates begin drifting onto the 2020 presidential battlefield. The prevailing narrative suggests not only that the advantage goes to a fresh face who excites the party’s young progressives—think former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas or Sen. Kamala Harris of California—but that such a choice has the best chance of success against Mr. Trump.
And maybe that’s the case. But consider the alternative, suggested by the reality of the midterm election results: The votes that will spell the difference for Democrats lie not on the left and on the coasts, but in the center and in the industrial Midwest.
That’s where Mr. Biden enters the picture. Perhaps the 76-year-old former vice president is too old. He certainly doesn’t meet the desire for “new blood” in politics cited last week by former President Obama.
On the other hand, if the Democrats’ key votes in 2020 will lie among centrists in the industrial Midwest, the more moderate profile of the favorite son of Scranton, Pa., will be an attractive one. Moreover, if voters generally are looking for somebody who knows how to get things done rather than simply create controversy, the guy who once prevented a government shutdown by cutting a big budget deal with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell may have some appeal.
It’s too early to know, of course—but there is more than one narrative at work for Democrats.