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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Opinion Biden’s Democratic Party is to the left of Obama’s. Thank a progressive.

Opinion Biden’s Democratic Party is to the left of Obama’s. Thank a progressive.

Democratic members of Congress, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), cheer as President Biden delivers his State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) 

Free lunch for all students. Student loan forgiveness. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending to increase the use of cleaner energy sources and fight climate change. A massive economic stimulus plan that showed little regard for the budget deficit. Specific policies to address the effects of systemic racism. A focus on improving the economy, instead of education reformto increase the earnings of Black and Latino Americans in particularBans on non-compete clausesUniversal tax credits for parentsUnabashed support for abortion rightslabor unions and gender-affirming health care. Opposition to mergers of big corporations. Sharp criticism of companies for imposing complicated and unnecessary fees on customers. The appointments of civil rights lawyers and public defenders to federal judgeships instead of corporate lawyers and prosecutors. The removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and a major rollback in the use of airstrikes abroad as part of antiterrorism efforts.

Those are some of the policies and political stances of President Biden, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, all of whom are generally considered part of the Democratic Party’s center-left wing, as opposed to its more progressive bloc. These views either weren’t pushed hard, or weren’t held at all, by President Barack Obama and the Democratic governors who were in office a decade ago.

Left-wing ideas and policies are more ascendant in American politics today than arguably at any time since the 1960s and certainly since Ronald Reagan won the presidency and pushed U.S. politics — including the Democratic Party — firmly to the right. It’s not that the left’s ideas are always winning, as recent Supreme Court rulings limiting affirmative action in college admissions and college debt forgiveness showed. It’s that progressive ideas are now truly in the mainstream — pushing the United States in a more equal and just direction.

These ideas have gotten traction for two reasons: They were solid on the merits and had a strong political coalition backing them. Over the past decade, labor union organizers, activists campaigning to make the federal minimum wage at least $15 per hour, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, French economist Thomas Piketty and other left-wing scholars, the presidential candidacies of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and other left-wing movements and figures have told a similar story: The rich and major corporations have disproportionate power and wealth in the United States, so sweeping policy changes are necessary to make the country more equitable, particularly along racial lines. This general argument has been bolstered both by data and research and by events, most notably the police killings of Black people that have been captured on video.

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“Progressives who work on economic policy can show in the data that inequality has increased, that markets are more concentrated, and that there have been bailouts for bankers and crisis for everyone else. Advocates for racial justice need only point to Charlottesville and smartphone videos of excessive force. These are facts that are hard to get around,” said Ganesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who was one of Warren’s top advisers during her presidential campaign.

This equity-centered perspective is now widespread within left and center-left circles, including the Democratic Party’s leadership, major philanthropic groups such as the Ford Foundation, academia and much of the news media. So, unlike in 2013, to be a mainstream Democratic politician today means that you use phrases such as “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” and back policies such as protecting transgender rights and trying to limit the size and power of Big Tech companies such as Google.

When Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama were in the White House, Biden generally supported their more moderate policies. But as president, he has been decidedly more left-wing than his Democratic predecessors.

And it’s not just Biden. The average Democratic senator or governor is to the left of the person who previously held their job. A party that was very nervous about being too pro-labor, pro-feminist and pro-Black during the Carter, Clinton and Obama eras isn’t as afraid now. This is great news.

Nor is it just politicians. The news media covers inequality much more than before. Universities and major philanthropic organizations are fully on board with racial-justice initiatives, universally condemning the court’s affirmative action ruling even though opinions of Americans overall are quite divided on the consideration of race in college admissions.

All that said, I don’t mean to suggest that the United States is in the middle of some kind of second New Deal or Great Society, for three reasons. First, neither Biden nor Democratic governors are proposing super-bold policies in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt to dramatically restructure American government. And it’s moderate-turned-more-liberal figures such as Biden who are in charge of the Democratic Party, not progressives such as Warren and Sanders.

There is still serious opposition among Democratic donors, politicians and even voters to some progressive ideas, such as drastically reducing police funding and suspending U.S. foreign aid to Israel until it treats Palestinians better. So the most progressive candidates in Democratic primaries face strong enough intra-party resistance that they usually can’t win. The Democratic left has been much less successful politically than the Trump-aligned right, which not only pushed the Republican Party to the right ideologically, but also largely took formal power from the old-guard Reagan-Bush-McConnell wing.

Second, the right is aggressively contesting this new progressivism. The Supreme Court is controlled by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and other Republicans who are ruling that progressive policies such as suspending evictions and canceling student debt are illegal. The Trump-aligned Republicans who run red states are going much further, aggressively limiting abortion rights, the power of labor unions, and education on LBGTQ+ and racial issues in particular. These rollbacks are a direct reaction to the movements on the left. As a result, in many red states, public policy is to the right of where it was a few years ago.

Finally, voters haven’t wholeheartedly embraced this progressivism. While the Democratic Party is ideologically to the left of its 2012 version, it’s still in basically the same position electorally. Biden in 2020 won all but three of the states Obama carried in 2012 (Florida, Iowa and Ohio) and just two that Obama didn’t (Arizona, Georgia). Americans are voting basically the same way they have since 2000, when Republicans consolidated the South. So while there hasn’t been a backlash to this leftward shift, there hasn’t been a huge electoral boon to Democrats either.

Put all of this together, and you have a good but not great situation if you, like me, agree with these left-wing ideas. The good news is that many great policies are being implemented by the Biden administration, the 17 states run by Democrats and in large cities, which are overwhelmingly Democratic-controlled.

The bad news is that this progressive shift is very tenuous. With Republicans in strong opposition, voters lukewarm and even some Democrats not fully on board, the growing support for progressive ideas from 2013 to 2018 and their implementation from 2019 to 2023 could end up being a blip rather than a permanent change.

America is progressing in a positive direction, but we are still far from a progressive nation in terms of policy.“

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