Democrats Agree that ’90s Centrism Is Dead—but How Far Left Is Enough?

Young people are pulling the party left, and it’s easy to see why. Let’s go there—but let’s go there smartly, without rancor and divisive litmus tests.


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New developments on the #demsindisarray front as The New York Times ran a long story over the weekend under the dramatic headline “Democrats Brace as Storm Brews Far to Their Left… Fiercely Liberal Voices… Young Voters Urge Party to ‘Wake Up and Pay Attention.’”

“Storm”? “Far” to their left? I’d like to interview that headline writer. Also, “brace,” for that matter, because the article itself doesn’t really quote anybody doing any bracing, in the sense of preparing themselves for arduous battle. It quotes a couple people—Martin O’Malley, oddly, and the state party chairman in Michigan—reminding Times readers that the party still has moderate voices, and voters, too. But it doesn’t have anyone screaming to the heavens that this is suicide.

And it doesn’t have anyone screaming that because I don’t think many people really think that. Democrats disagree, and in some cases strongly, on how far left they believe the party ought to go, but the ones I talk to accept that this is happening and understand why it’s happening.

The Times article refers mostly to young people, and it’s mostly young people who are pulling the party left. And it’s easy to see why. If you’re 27 and not right wing or rich or both, you’ve grown up in a country that in most fundamental ways has gotten worse and worse since you were of an age to start paying attention to things. Inequality is worse. Opportunity is worse. Wage growth is worse. Benefit structures are worse. Job stability is far worse. If you live in a small town, your town is probably dying, and half the people you know are on drugs.

If you’re around that age and you call yourself a socialist, well, who can blame you? The capitalism that we’ve been practicing in this country for certainly the last 18 years has failed everyone except the top 10 or so percent. Barack Obama softened some of this around the edges, and with Obamacare, he did more than that. But for most people—for eight or nine out of 10 Americans—our right-wing version of capitalism has narrowed their opportunities instead of expanding them. It’s been a criminal failure (in some cases literally, even though Obama chose not to prosecute anybody).

So I think everybody understands why this is happening. And I don’t think I know a single Democrat who believes ’90s-style centrism is the answer. It’s not. Even the centrists are moving left.

Last week, I attended a Third Way conference in Columbus for two days (note: they covered my airfare). To about 200 guests from around the country, the group unveiled its “Social Contract for the Digital Age.”

Yes, Third Way is consciously positioning itself to the right of Sandersismo. In their presentations, Third Wayers said their polling and discussions with voters showed that talking to people about the need for more opportunity does better than talking to them about fighting inequality. I can believe that because it’s easier for most average people to see lack of opportunity in their daily lives than it is to see inequality.

You can’t be a Democrat without being for universal health care in some form or another, or without being for transferring wealth from the rich to the middle class and poor. How to do those things is what Democrats will debate for the next two years.

Even so, I do think they should incorporate some class warfare rhetoric into their spiel. The class war—the rich and their Republican servants versus everybody else—is real and getting realer all the time. Moderates like the folks at Third Way have to reckon with how to acknowledge it.   

The agenda itself, though, is a lot more progressive than the stuff moderates were putting out back in the Clinton days. One idea is for universal private retirement accounts to augment Social Security for workers who don’t have supplemental pensions (speaking of things that have gone down the crapper in the last 20 years, we’ve gone from 35 percent of private-sector workers having pension plans to just 18 percent).

This plan involves real money: Employers would be required to contribute for each worker at least 50 cents for every hour worked, and it would be financed by ending the tax benefits on IRAs and such for wealthy people. It’s pretty soak-the-rich, in other words.

They also want to quadruple the amount the federal government spends to help finance small-business loans. And they have a great idea about vastly increasing what the federal government spends on apprenticeship programs for non-college bound young people, i.e. Trump voters. Three or four of the 12 items are aimed directly at rural and small-town America, which is smart politics, because those places are in terrible shape compared to cities, and they are where the Democrats need to get more votes to win a House majority and capture the presidency.

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No, none of this is single payer. But it’s solid liberal, activist-government stuff. Overall, it’s left of what Obama ran on in 2008, probably well left.

Obviously, it’s not going to be left enough for some people. So let’s have that debate. But please, let’s have it without narrow litmus tests. I mentioned single payer above because it’s the best example of a terrible litmus test. It’s terrible because so far in the real world, it’s a political loser. They passed it in Vermont, only to have the governor shelve it as too expensive. In Vermont. They put a version of it on the ballot in Colorado, which I think it’s fair to call pale blue (Obama carried it twice, and Hillary won it as well), in 2016. It lost. Not by a little. By 80 to 20. It lost 62-38 in Boulder County, for God’s sake.

As I’ve written, I’m for universal health care, but there are other ways to do it. And people who prefer something along the lines of a German or Dutch model to single-payer are not sellouts or whores. Some litmus tests are necessary and fair. You can’t be a Democrat without being for universal health care in some form or another, or without being for transferring wealth from the rich to the middle class and poor. How to do those things is what Democrats will debate for the next two years.

But they’d better do it with a minimum of rancor this time, on both sides. The rancor helped give us one term of Donald Trump. If it contributes to another, every left vs. liberal debate will be rendered about as relevant as debates between Mensheviks and czarists in 1921 Russia. And we know what happened to them.