Some leading Democrats seem to have a love-hate relationship with the left. Sure, progressives seem to have more influence than ever in the party this year, at least rhetorically. But it doesn’t look like the friction will be going away any time soon.
President Obama has been escalating his war of words with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and her allies, reigniting a burning resentment he last let slip in 2010. Hillary Clinton has adopted more progressive rhetoric, but her unwillingness to fight for specific policies has left activists frustrated.
Clearly, the left matters. Why, then, is it so difficult for progressives to get a seat at the table?
The Obama White House and the Left
While Obama seems to have targeted Warren for especially intense criticism, some of his barbs were aimed at broader targets. “Every single one of the critics … (who) send out e-mails to their fundraising base that they're working to stop a secret deal, could walk over and see the text of the agreement," Obama said. "… I gotta say, it's dishonest.”
Those remarks were aimed, not just at Warren, but Obama's other critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Congress. That includes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), as well as Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
There is no need to relitigate the TPP’s secrecy or the honesty of TPP critics. It’s a matter of tone as well as substance. The president hasn't sounded this piqued since 2010, when he dismissed progressives who criticized his compromises (some would say caves) with Republicans as seeking to "have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.”
That was not long after then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sneered at "the professional left" and mischaracterized progressive positions so that he could say things like "these people ought to be drug tested." And it was the same year that Rahm Emanuel, who seemed to function as the administration’s id, told a roomful of liberal activists that they were “f---ing retarded.”
After the Détente
The administration’s rancor toward the activist left seemed to disappear, or at least go underground, after the dustups of 2010 and 2011. The president tacked rhetorically to the left in response to the Occupy movement and in the run-up to the 2012 election. That boosted his poll numbers and is arguably responsible for his reelection.
In fact, five years after Obama excoriated progressives for rejecting his overtures to the GOP, outgoing White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer essentially acknowledged that Republicans never intended to work with the president and the left had been right all along. “There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it,” said Pfeiffer.
But that realization does not seem to have engendered new appreciation. The president seems unusually determined, not merely to win the TPP battle, but to knock his left-leaning adversaries out of the game altogether.
As for Hillary Clinton, her 2008 campaign was marked by pointed criticisms of what she and her advisers described as “naiveté” – often a stalking horse for principled leftism – on the part of Obama and his supporters, as well as a deeply contemptuous series of attacks on “idealism” from aides and family friends. (I got sucker-punched in the ensuing brawl myself.)
Clinton's campaign is taking a decidedly different tone this time around, which is both judicious and welcome. Secretary Clinton seems to have recognized that idealism and leftist ideals are part of the essential DNA of her party – and of American politics.
Clinton has certainly embraced marriage equality, publicly “evolving" on this issue much as President Obama and former President Clinton have done. There, too, the left laid the groundwork. "I’m not evolving when it comes to gay rights," says Bernie Sanders. "I was there!”
Love Is Not Enough
It is beautiful to see love honored and validated in all its forms. But "love is not all," as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. "It is not meat nor drink nor slumber nor a roof against the rain."
Progressive positions on economic issues – which affect “meat, drink, and a roof against the rain” for families of all social groups and orientations – seem somewhat harder for certain Dems to embrace.
Wall Street, the largest source of mainstream Democratic financial support, is comfortable with socially liberal initiatives like gay marriage. But it is largely opposed to some of the specific measures that would reduce wealth inequality and encourage economic growth, especially in the areas of taxation, stronger regulations and the criminal prosecution of banker fraud.
The Populist Moment
How have the top Democrats responded to growing calls for economic populism? President Obama recently moved to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors, and has increased the hourly minimum wage he endorses. But he has not cracked down on Wall Street fraud and did not move to break up the big banks when he could have done so.
For her part, Secretary Clinton's embrace of economic populism has so far been largely rhetorical. She has taken verbal swipes at hedge funders, for example, but has thus far refused to speak up on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its potential impact on American workers. She has tweeted in support of workers marching for a higher minimum wage, saying she thinks it should be raised, but she has not backed specific minimum-wage proposals or indicated what she thinks that wage should be.
Gratifyingly, Clinton has also spoken out against mass incarceration. That’s one of the major crises of our time, one which was accelerated when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crimes Control Act. (President Clinton has essentially acknowledged as much in recent weeks.)
The Left Was Right
Which raises another point: On issue after issue, the left has been prescient in its analysis.
Welfare reform? When Bill Clinton signed the 1996 legislation, it was the left that pointed out that it wouldn't work. “I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America,” said Peter Edelman of the Department of Health and Human Services as he tendered his resignation. “I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction."
Edelman was right, and so were many others on the left. Thanks to a report from the University of Michigan's National Poverty Center, we now know that poverty increased in the United States by 130 percent between 1996 and 2013, and that "welfare reform" was the primary cause.
The invasion of Iraq? Many on the left were marginalized for opposing it, but they stood up when others – including some leading Democrats – did not.
Deregulation? When top Democrats were pushing it, it was the left that warned of fraud and future financial crises.
Gay marriage? The left's early adoption of this issue raises a thought that could make certain minds reel: Liberals may actually have a better feel for the zeitgeist than their triangulating counterparts.
Mass incarceration? When Bill Clinton was emphasizing enforcement, it was the left that warned that social measures were needed to reduce crime. (The The Justice Policy Institute has assembled the evidence.) Hillary Clinton repeated frightening myths about youth crime, saying: “They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel …”
The Left is Popular
The left hasn’t just been right. It has also been popular.
Some centrist Democrats like to say they’d govern more liberally, but the United States is a "center-right" country. There is very little truth in this. It's true that relatively few Americans describe themselves as liberal or progressive (although that number is rising), but Americans hold progressive positions on many issues.
Vox said it best: “Bernie Sanders's ideas are so popular that Hillary Clinton is running on them.” Polls show that, issue after issue, Americans support a leftist agenda of economic populism – that is, as long as is presented to them on an issue-by-issue basis. (See PopulistMajority.org for more.)
The Price of Success
It’s a paradoxical situation: within the Democratic Party, those who have most often been right continue to be held at arm's length by those who – at least in most cases – were so often originally wrong.
Part of it appears to be a genuine feeling of contempt, despite the left's enviable record. There seems to be a belief among some top Dems that ideological progressives are merely less sophisticated versions of themselves. They argue that liberals are “stuck in the 1960s,” not considering the possibility that they remain stuck in the 1990s. "If they knew how the world really works,” they seem to be saying of progressives, “they’d be more like us."
And yet, the left has arguably shown a deeper understanding of how the world really works, one that has been tacitly accepted at times. Centrist Democrats are adopting progressive rhetoric because it works politically. They’re talking about inequality because they know the left’s analysis is correct.
The left's successes may, in fact, may have made it more of a threat. President Obama's resentment towards Warren, for example, is probably only exacerbated by her growing influence and credibility.
Secretary Clinton certainly can’t be enjoying Warren’s “wait and see” posture toward her candidacy. And while she praises Warren to the skies, she has yet to fight for any of Warren’s key initiatives – or defend her from Obama's heated attacks.
Canary in a Coalmine
Democratic Party insiders will sometimes remind independent leftists that they are few in number, and that most Democrats are happy with their leaders. That's missing the point.
The independent left may not be an important voting bloc. But it holds the key to energizing disaffected voters across the political spectrum. They're the voters who believe that neither political party is speaking to their most deeply-felt needs: for a living wage, a secure retirement, a chance to put their kids to college and keep their family healthy.
For economic populists, those views have cohered into a "left" political perspective. For millions of other Americans, they remain little more than a vague and inchoate disaffection. They know that today's political debate isn’t addressing their issues. They’re sick of candidates who eat hotdogs at Iowa barbecues while telling them they know what they're feeling. They’ve heard a lot of rhetoric, but not much in the way of specifics.
(Speaking of specifics: As Sen. Warren said this week, this would be a good time for Hillary Clinton to “weigh in on trade.”)
These voters want answers, and they want change. Since they’re not seeing that, they have concluded that politics is pointless. So they either hunker down in predetermined party preferences or choose not to vote at all.
The activist left isn’t important because of its numbers. It’s important because its members are the canaries in the coalmine for an unresponsive political process. A Democratic Party that patronizes them will also fail to reach the disaffected majority.
The left shares something else with that majority: it’s heard a lot of empty promises. Many (though not all) progressives will vote for the Democrats once again in 2016, even if they’re dissatisfied. But it will take more than rhetoric to win millions of other alienated voters. It will take commitment – and action.
Want to know how to do that? Once again, the left can point the way.