Democratic Party

The Democratic Shift to the Left

The Democratic Party is torn between a liberal establishment that wants more government, and an even more liberal wing that wants the same thing squared.

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Rachel librarian

It would take a heart of stone, as the fellow said, not to laugh out loud at President Barack Obama's recent comparison between the two major political parties.

"Ideological extremism," he told The New York Times, "is much more prominent right now in the Republican Party than the Democrats. Democrats have problems, but overall if you look at the Democratic consensus, it's a pretty commonsense, mainstream consensus. It's not a lot of wacky ideological nonsense, the way it is generally fact-based and reason-based."

Spoken like a true partisan: My Side is calm and reasonable, and Your Side is full of raving lunatics.

It's true that many Republicans let their hearts overrule their heads on issues such as climate change—where conceding the facts would require admitting the other team might, possibly, have a point. Moreover, the tea party movement has indeed created a rift on the right between a somewhat conservative establishment and a viscerally conservative insurgency. The struggle between those two factions has provided the grist for roughly 2.3 gajillion news stories over the past few years.

But as Commentary magazine's Seth Mandel put it so nicely a few months ago, "complaints over the last few years about the GOP being pulled to the right by conservatives were not about liberals' desire to meet in the middle and compromise, no matter how much they might decry the supposed extremist drift of the right. What they wanted was their very own Tea Party."

The judgment is, as the president would say, fact-based. You can see that in the fawning adulation that greeted the Occupy protests, which amounted to one long primal scream against capitalism. Whatever the protests lacked in coherence (which was a lot), they made up for in passion. And for a while, the most dangerous place to stand in America was between a microphone and the cadre of Democratic politicians racing to express their proud solidarity with that inspiring movement of starry-eyed young dreamers.

You can see the desire for a Democratic tea party in the cheers that greet Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Tribune of the Proletariat, whose angry tirades against the moneyed interests draw standing ovations and chants of "Run, Liz, run!"

And you can see it in the polls: Two decades ago, 35 percent of active Democrats said their views were mostly or always liberal. Now 70 percent say so. The Democratic Party's mainstream consensus, as the president calls it, has moved decidedly to the left. (Granted, Democrats do not all think alike, any more than Republicans do; generalizations are vexing. But if the president employs them, so can we.)

Just as the Republican Party now has many big-government conservatives—those who think Washington should export democracy abroad and impose virtue here at home—the Democratic Party once had what might be called small-government liberals: those who thought government could make some things better, yet still leave other things alone.

Where is the small-government liberal today? He or she is not to be found in the economic realm, where the mainstream Democratic consensus supports a higher minimum wage, more regulation of business, systemic government control of certain sectors (e.g., education and health care) and massive government intervention in the rest.

Likewise, there is scant dispute on the left regarding the welfare state.

The biggest fight over social programs in the past few years dealt with health care, and it concerned whether to settle for Obamacare or push for single-payer. Liberals who argue that the country might have too many social-welfare programs and spend too much on them are mostly unheard from. To paraphrase conservative author William Voegeli: Democrats do not want the social-welfare state to grow indefinitely—they just want it to be bigger than it is right now.

One might think the small-government liberal shows up in the realm of personal choice. And it is true that on one very narrow band of issues—sex and abortion—liberals agree government should butt out. Yet this is where the butting-out largely ends.

For while liberals largely support, say, the legalization of marijuana, that is not owing to any broader sense that people own their bodies and should be free to do as they like with them—such as ride a motorcycle without a helmet, or engage in sex for profit, or drink a 64-ounce sugary soft drink, or forgo health insurance.

Rather, the contemporary mainstream liberal view of such things holds that individual choices affect the collective good. And since government's job is to safeguard the collective good, government should therefore regulate individual choices. If it allows people to smoke marijuana, that is because it has decided a little reefer now and then causes less collective harm than the harm caused by prohibition.

In other words, the mainstream Democratic view asks how much personal freedom smart public policy should permit. It has little room for the notion that some personal freedom should lie beyond the reach of public policy in the first place.

Does that seem too strong? Then consider the campaign to eviscerate the First Amendment. Democratic leaders such as John Kerry, Sen. Patrick Leahy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and many others—including countless grass-roots activists—want to amend the Constitution to nullify the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, so the government can once again dictate what people can and cannot say about politicians in the weeks leading up to an election. Tellingly, the proposals include provisions stipulating that the press would still be allowed to speak freely about political candidates.

This is a tacit concession that everyone else would not. In that event, rights are no longer trumps; they are simply one more consideration to be balanced against all the rest. Which means they are not really rights at all.

In short, the Democratic Party is torn between a liberal establishment that wants more government, and an even more liberal wing that wants the same thing squared. At bottom, both wings believe the formula for perfection is simple: Put the government in charge of everything, and put the right people in charge of the government. Then just sit back and wait for Shangri-La.

History has falsified that premise time after time. But to the president, it's just plain common sense. Now who's peddling wacky ideological nonsense?