The Democratic Party, Centrism, and 2018

‍Tuesday, November 6 — Election Day — was not even over before pundits rushed to chisel the narrative into stone. The stakes were high. The leadership of the Democratic Party needed to convince the public that the results showed they were providing a robust opposition to the white nationalism–tinged, classist policies of the Republicans, while everyone else needed only have a memory of the past two years of tepid, half-hearted opposition. Over this period, Democrats have consistently trucked in a narrative of capturing purple districts from Republicans and thus remained singularly incapable of any robust action against the Trump agenda. This is why, despite the proclamations of a Blue Wave, the performance of the Democrats was modest in historical perspective (although it was also unusually difficult). The past two years should have given the leadership a time to pause and reconsider how they might broaden their appeal. The elections, equally, give us an opportunity to contrast the narrative of the Democrats with reality, particularly on crucial issues like healthcare.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once famously remarked, "The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events." By this assessment, the fact that a worldview consistently finds itself repudiated by the real unfolding of events should disqualify it from serious consideration. By this account, if a strategy is not able to deliver lasting electoral success, the party should abandon it because it is not a successful strategy.

But vested interests do not work so rationally. Socialist and author Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is quite hard to get a man to understand something when his salary relies on his not understanding it." This is the position of the core of the Democratic Party leadership, which, until the midterms, had been locked out of control of the House for almost a decade. Among the Democratic Party leadership a fever dream persists that resists any and all appeals to recent history, such as the last eight years of Republican control of the House. For this elevated faction, the "solution" to their electoral woes has consisted of hewing as closely to the middle road as possible, skimming off a comfortable margin of voters deemed "median," "middle," "independent," or "undecided." There lies the path to victory, they argue, and it is usually embodied in a sort of technocratic gradualism that is as gray in its emotional appeal as it is unable to inspire confidence. A few tax credits, subsidies, and tightened regulation are all that stand between the status quo and the rebirth of the American Dream.

But the psychology of this outlook is betrayed by the very words used. Take "middle." To the average onlooker, saying that a party needs to capture "middle" voters would imply that the party should stake out position between the two major parties: therein lies the mythic "middle."

But this middle is just that, a myth. The average American voter, taken to reflect a middle position, can indeed be wooed, but not by what substitutes for the middle in the discourse of the Democratic Party. Why is this? Simple. Among the American electorate, the middle position is staked firmly to the left of the Democratic Party on many crucial issues.

Take healthcare, an issue that a plurality of Americans, fully 40%, declared to be their number one election issue. The Republican Party outraged voters by threatening to revoke protections for those with preexisting conditions, protections that have historically been favored by almost 70% of the American electorate. All the while, they blamed Democrats and did their best to confuse the issue. Punishing this dishonesty was a significant part—indeed, perhaps the single largest—that brought Democrats success on Tuesday.

Democratic moderates call this success. But it is only success in the way that avoiding an obvious path towards outright failure can be classed as a success. Protecting the vulnerable from the greed of insurance companies is always going to be a winning strategy. But is this the same as the Democrats actively working to engage voters on the issues they value most? Hardly.

What would a popular strategy entail? The narrative of appealing to the "moderates" cannot possibly find it. Despite the cautionary tales of pundits like Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns at the New York Times, 2018 is not a clear-cut example of a winning electoral strategy in which victorious House candidates "largely hailed from the political center, running on clean-government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the healthcare system rather than transformational social change." To these pundits, as well as Nicholas Kristof, the take-away of 2018 is that moderate Clintonite centrism is the path to victory, despite the fact that the most significant performances of the Democrats (for example, the Senate race between Beto O’Rourke Ted Cruzand in Texas, where a competitive race hasn’t existed for decades) sharply broke with the center and ran openly on progressive reforms like gun control and raising the minimum wage. Indeed, it is hard to explain how the Times justifies a worldview in which the lukewarm performance of the leadership elsewhere in light of history is at the same time an affirmation of the most uninspired elements of the status quo. But justify it they do.

Let’s look more closely at the case of healthcare. When one looks to the spectacle of political commentary around the issue, what Americans want might seem uncertain. Thankfully, however, we have access to a resource that goes to them directly: polls. And what do the polls tell us is the single most popular remedy to spiraling healthcare costs and poor access to healthcare services? Some form of government-backed universal healthcare system. And yet, such a system has been unrelentingly described as "politically unpopular" or "economically irrational" by talking heads both liberal and conservative for decades. All of this despite the fact that universal healthcare exists in every industrialized country in the world and would be instrumental in healing America’s horrendous class divide in life expectancy, potentially at a lower cost than the status quo even by the muted admission of its detractors. Best of all, implementing a universal healthcare program would heighten the pressure to iron out costly inefficiencies in price bargaining that bleed the US Treasury of hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The result is a policymaker’s dream: healthcare access for 29 million more Americans, possibly for even less than the cost of the status quo.

Yet all of this remains outside the realm of acceptable opinion for the donor class—embodied by insurance companies and the healthcare industry—that backstops the Democratic Party to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Because these powerful vested interests bankroll both major political parties, neither political party has an incentive to compete meaningfully over the issue (those who consider Obamacare an exception to this general rule would benefit from considering both its history and supporters – the model came from the Heritage Foundation). This "principle of non-competition," as the political scientist Thomas Ferguson calls it, helps to explain the divide between what the Democrats insist is the "moderate" path towards electoral success and the obvious options, like campaigning for universal healthcare, that the public wants. If neither part of the investor class wants it, no one will campaign on it. It really is as simple as that.

It’s clear, then, that the divide between how the liberal commentariat has chosen to conceive of this election and how the public does is traceable to the limitations of the Democratic Party. No serious analysis of public opinion ought to start with how the public expresses their preferences among the major parties or their candidates(?). They should begin with polling of what the public actually wants. Until the Democratic Party is forced to change how it finances elections, and pressure is brought to bear on their rank and file’s chosen source of donations, its platform will continue to do little but reflect the whims of their donors.

C. Wright Mills, the famous American sociologist, once wrote, "Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them — and then, the opportunity to choose." This is the root of the problem. American democracy is a forum in which the available options are not chosen by the public themselves. Until it is, myopic, self-serving commentaries like those that surround 2018 will continue to proliferate.

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