This diary is a short illustration of why more Democrats should embrace the Left, and cast asunder the notion that they need to appear as sensible serious moderates. I also want to briefly show what the terrible long term consequences are of the Democrats always positioning themselves as the party of sensible moderates.
So, for the sake of argument, let's pretend there is a left-right spectrum of political thought that embraces all positions. (I know it's not the best model, but in the words of Rummy, you go to war with the army you have).
Let's graph this spectrum with L being far-left, C being the center, and R being far-right. Here:
Note that L, C, and R are absolute positions, that aren't defined relative to other positions. In other words, L represents the Plantonic ideal of Leftist thought, not just that you are to the left of the rest of the population's political thinking.
Now, I'm not trying to start a pie fight over where the current party is, or where to pin a particular politician. Let's just mark out 4 different positions on our chart, and I'll explain them afterward:
1: once known as a New Deal Democrat
2: a Democrat who mixes New Deal principles with some conservative philosophy
3: Typical Republican
4: Fundamentalist Republican
Over the fold, see why Democrats win when they run to the left and lose when they run to the right. Just as importantly, see how the entire country suffers when the Democratic party chases mythical moderates ever rightward.
Call me a pragmatist. I like thinking about choices in terms of potential costs and benefits. Now, if you're a Democratic considering positioning yourself in a run for office, you have a choice. Should you run as a New Deal Democrat, tossing out the red meat to your base? Or should you go after those moderate and independent voters everyone keeps talking about, and take some conservative positions?
Let's look at the risks, first. The common wisdom is that running too far to the left can alienate people in the center, and lose votes. I don't necessarily dispute that - see the section on the Overton window below. But! We're in a curious time, politically. The fact is, no matter your actual positions, your Republican opponent is going to brand you as a socialist, leftist, big government, tax and spend liberal. See President Obama, for an example.
By driving home talking points, the Republicans are doing their part to frame the terms of the debate, and make their position appear the more sensible and moderate course. It's the triumph of process over substance - their goal is to win, and to win you minimize your opponent. But there's an unintended consequence to their winning-above-all-else strategy.
Say you ran to the right to attract moderate voters. But at best, you'll get through a mixed message, as you plead how moderate and sensible you are, your opponent says what a radical you are. The media just repeats what you and your opponent says, so that's a wash. So, even though you ran to the right, you're still being portrayed as if you ran to the left. Maybe you manage to get some people who have an aversion to the left to vote for you - but the thing about having an aversion to the left is, they can smell it on you a mile away. Good luck with that strategy.
What about the converse - what happens if you run to the left? Won't your leftism turn off people who have an aversion to the left? Well, since you're going to be painted as a radical leftist anyway, what are you losing? In the words of the Life of Brian, you come from nothing, you go back to nothing. What'd you lose? Nothing!
Enough about costs. Let's talk benefits. Here's the dirty little secret of our "center-right" nation - progressive/liberal ideas are still really popular!
Media Matters has a good summary,which I encourage you to read, but I'll put two good excerpts here:
For the past twenty years, Pew has been tracking support of a government safety net for the poor. With remarkable stability -- though there was a small decline in the 1990s and a small increase in the new century -- it shows that people want a safety net. More than two-thirds (69 percent in 2007) believe the government "should care for those who can't care for themselves." They feel so strongly about it that more than half (54 percent) are willing to incur greater debt to get it done.
GSS polling since 1978 reveals a clear and steady preference for government action to achieve income equality. With the brief exception of 1994, the year of the Republican takeover of Congress, people have expressed a preference for government action to reduce income inequality. As the chart below indicates, the average difference over the study period was more than 14 percentage points.
Blogger Dave Johnson did a recent round up of poll results that show Americans embrace the "liberal" position on a host of issues. See for yourself! Heck, one excerpt:
Hart Research, February 2013:So.
66% say that the richest 2% should pay more in taxes. 64% say large corporations should pay more in taxes.
Only 28% of voters believe that the fiscal cliff bill passed on New Year’s Day raised taxes on the rich enough, while more than twice as many (59%) say that we still need to do more.
66% say close loopholes and limit deductions for wealthy individuals to reduce the budget deficit and make public investments. 23% want to reduce tax rates.
Running to the left?
Costs: Lose voters who have an aversion to the left.
Benefits: Your ideas have broad based popular support. You can win!
Running to the right?
Costs: Lose most voters who have an aversion to the left. People don't like your ideas as much as if you'd run to the left.
Benefits: Pick up some voters who have an aversion to the left.
I'll let Harry Truman have the final word on the cost of running to the right:
I've seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn't believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don't want a phony Democrat. If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don't want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.Now, let's move from individual costs and benefits, to the greater impact of candidates choosing left or right as a campaign strategy.
If you haven't heard of the Overton window yet, click that link now. I'm going to assume you're familiar, to get to the point quickly. Let's go back to our Platonic ideal left/right line:
Remember before when I said that line was based on absolutes? If you were thinking before that's a poor model of how left, right, and moderates are defined in America, I agree with you! Let's introduce some relativity to our model. Let's add the relative middle. Where? Between the positions of the two major parties, of course!
1 is the Democratic position, 2 the Republican, and M is the relative middle. In the above example, the Center and the Middle are at the same spot. Now, the Overton window only goes a little to the left of 1, and a little the right of 2. We can mark it with brackets!
What's been going on in the Republican party? Well, they've been going more and more to the right. The Republicans have taken as extreme a position as they can without themselves going over the Overton window. And, despite the Democrats not changing their positions at all (in this hypothetical example), the Democrats are now further from the relative middle. Let's adjust our graph accordingly:
You can see that, while the Republicans have dragged the middle and the Overton window to the right, the Democrats are anchoring it at the left. So there's still a wide range of debate in this model world.
Now, what happens when the Democrats start moving to the right, in a misguided attempt to win votes? Let's see what happens, over 4 election cycles:
As you can see, by running to the right, the Democrats themselves redefine the acceptable window of the left and the middle. For the next cycle, to run to the right, the Democrats must go even further to the right, because they moved the middle.
You can see where it ends up after four cycles. True center ideas, that once were the relative middle of the political spectrum, are now considered outside the bounds of consideration. The Democrats are advocating positions that once would have made them mainline Republicans. National debates are within a narrow, rightwing framing, with no chance of implementing actual progressive reform. Perhaps most importantly, it wasn't that the people themselves changed - their menu of options just got a lot smaller.
This quick diary took a good bit longer than I thought it would, so no time to interact in comments for now - but don't worry, I shall return.