Is passing bolder policies worth holding slimmer majorities?
First, great writing, Milan. Really impressive.
I share your concern about the movement in the median Democratic position on a number of policy fronts and how that movement can result in more Republican wins. It would be nice if you would point to specific policies that should be either changed or dropped, though.
For me, it is around law-and-order policies that favor criminals more than victims and a toleration for disorder more broadly. These are mostly state or local policies, though, so national Democratic politicians still get my votes. But at some point, that might change if trends continue.
What policies are like that for you?
"But if you’re aware of Betteridge’s law of headlines...."
Are Slow Boring Readers Unaware of Betteridge's Law?
I think that 'openness to new experiences' is a characteristic of being young. Not all young people feel this way, but most people's lives go through a -- move away from home and parental control -- try a whole bunch of new things -- decide for yourself that some of these things are great and some are lousy -- and make a life for yourself in the light of this knowledge'. As you get older you are less interested in novelty and change because, at least if your life is working out for you, you've already got what you want.
People become more conservative when, in their own lives, they find good things they want to conserve.
A desire for change, especially radical change, always appeals to those who are dissatisfied.
Looking from overseas at the USA, I see a distinct lack of conservatives. Both Democrats and Republicans are selling themselves as the party of the disenfranchised and unhappy -- they just disagree as to who gets to wear those labels. What if modern politics has stopped being about giving people solutions, however imperfect to their problems and just about managing unhappiness, unhappiness you can create should people ever stop being unhappy enough to vote for you?
Good article. Two things I would make a point of is
1. it's not really all that clear how much party leadership can actually control the direction of political parties and the makeup of the coalition. Now I think it's conventional wisdom among people who are "shor-pilled" that Obama was actually relatively moderate compared to what came next but this was definitely not the perception at the time. I don't actually know what can be done to slow or reverse educational polarization, given it seems to be a trend across basically all developed countries no matter what the local party dynamics are.
2. We should also consider that in a system where you need a trifecta it might be better to pass sweeping legislation then lose, policy is not precisely thermostatic... you don't lose what you gained just because you lose some popularity. If you pass sweeping legislation the opposing party has to win a countervailing trifecta AND prioritize rolling back your agenda AND keep all their factions unified. If not, you can lose the election but still have your policies persist.
I would argue that the problem is not “bold” policies but instead silly policies. These policies are more about feeling good than doing good. Legalizing gay marriage, enacting civil rights legislation, working to improve policing are all bold but just policies. Arguing that former men should compete with females, that letting kids experiment with gender when the science is (at best) insufficient, defunding the police, supporting armed gunmen taking over parts of Seattle and Portland and believing (and enacting via policy) that “the only remedy to current racism is future racism” are not bold. They are silly and immature.
The gains of the past hundred and fifty or so years were built on bold but just policies. The current crop of ideas that we are expending so much energy on risk undoing some of those gains.
Another good post!!
I wouldn’t lean as heavily on the “openness to experience” thing. It’s a Haidtian perspective that gets way overstated.
RE governing with slimmer majorities, my main objection isn’t that Democrats aren’t being *left* enough, it’s that they’re barely even trying to move the playing field left. PR and DC statehood at a minimum would rebalance the Senate map. Expanding the House would dilute the power of gerrymandering, such as it is. Legalizing MMD might ultimately dilute the party’s power, but would also create a long-term avenue towards building up third parties that could challenge Republicans on their own turf where the Democratic brand is too toxic to be competitive. Or maybe just abolish the freaking filibuster!!
I honestly don’t give a shit about wealth taxes or encoding Roe. We need to start playing for the actual marbles that are on the table, not obsessing about picking up every marble that Republicans have tossed on the floor in the last 50 years.
Is this a good place to argue about how dumb that posited "conservative vs liberal" axis is? Even if I try not to get hung up on the terrible American political maldefinition of "liberal", I don't even know what the hell that chart is showing, or thinks it's showing which are probably not the same thing. Especially given that it's "conservative" vs "liberal" within the D party and the outer wings of that party are neither conservative nor liberal, so... does the rise in liberal ID imply... moderation? Maybe. Or maybe the axis is less economic and more accurately described as the Identitarian Social Justice vs Trad horseshoe where pluralist liberals occupy the center bulge. Either way I agree with the general conclusion that reading the trend towards a more "liberal" Democrat party as an endorsement of more outlier policy positions is a huge mistake.
If you're a progressive, I see being optimistic about the Democratic coalition becoming more liberal. The one word of caution I'd issue is that coalitions are like portfolios, and it can help to have some diversity. As the Democratic Party becomes more educated, it drops some people with retrograde views on race and gender. However, some of the "open-minded" people who remain are so open-minded their brains may fall out. The goofiest stuff on the left right now is coming from the highly educated. Support for puberty blockers for minors is mostly a highly educated phenomenon. A working class former Democrat who flipped to Trump may be more open to bs conspiracy theories, buy they tend to be better at pointing out when the emperor has no clothes. Not to mention that of education polarization spreads to racial polarization, the Democratic Party may more and more resemble Portlandia, which I'd not a good thing.
TLDR; the Democrats need working class voters as a check on their worst impulses.
I think there is a large and growing cohort of socially liberal (or more liberal than we used to be) but remain pro-capitalism. We don’t really like either the MAGA folks who took over the Republican Party or the coastal elites who have taken over the Democratic Party. My hope that when I divorced myself from the Republicans because of Trump, I would find a home in being a Democrat. However, I feel the only thing we completely agree on is that we hate Trump. I’ll vote for Biden in 2024, but eventually there will be some sort of moderate revolt. You can’t leave so many people feel unrepresented and unheard. The saddest thing of all is the death of meaningful debate in this country. You are either red or blue, and both colors are getting brighter.
Nice article Milan.
I mean the question as to whether Democrats should moderate on policy honestly depends on the policy right? $15 minimum wage, decriminalizing marijuana possession and codifying gay marriage are all the left of where the Democratic Party was in 2012. However, they are also three issues with pretty sizable majority support. The big enchilada of course now is abortion rights. The Democratic position is now probably now closer to the centrist position than it was in 2012.
Also, good to keep in mind the “Tory Men Whig Measures” aphorism. Not on everything of course, but in general Democratic policy positions are more popular than Republican ones. Proof is in the pudding with Ron DeSantis Presidential run. In addition, see Matt’s posts about an under-discussed reason for Trump’s ability to win was being to the left (at least rhetorically) of GOP on economic policy.
My favorite political quote, possibly apocryphal, is the man who got up a town hall in 2009 and said “keep government out of my Medicare”. A true “chef’s kiss” perfect quote that encapsulates a huge percentage of Americans schizophrenic political attitudes. But also suggests there is a lot of room for Democrats to be pretty bold on policy if it can be couched and marketed with moderate rhetoric and if the message is given by someone that the public trusts as more moderate; you know like Joe Biden. It’s a hope that I have for 2024 (a “god please pull this off” hope). But also a real blueprint I hope Democrats follow rhetorically going forward.
I think as a matter of history it is important to remember that LBJ was wrong. Twelve years after he signed the civil rights act, Jimmy Carter won both the black vote and the entire South.
In a very large sense it is maybe true that civil rights cost the Democrats the South, but the plenty of the people who voted for Wallace voted for Clinton and Carter and for liberal senators like Sam Nunn or Al Gore. It is their children and grandchildren - people who will tell pollsters they approve of interracial marriage - who won't vote for Democrats. It wasn't written in the stars that Democrats would lose the South as completely as they have.
The “openness to experience” point I have always thought tells us more about the psychologists designing the survey than the studied population. If you had right wingers design the survey, the main fact about political liberals might be labeled “prone to heresy“ instead
I struggle with this:
“I’m very averse to the risk of losing elections to Republicans who will take us backward on policy, so I’m more inclined toward strategically moderating on salient issues to keep the GOP out of power.”
I am also very averse to the risk of losing elections, but at the national level it doesn’t strike me as remotely plausible that we could have one-party rule for any sustained period of time. There will be a Republican President again some day.
If your primary goal is “don’t lose the next election” and you never set out to solve any of the hard problems we face, at some point you’ll lose anyway and then you’ll have failed at your only governing objective.
Like all things, it’s a trade off. Winning elections is really important! But at some point we will lose. Governing with this in mind seems prudent.
A major limitation and drawback of this excellent post and comments it elicited lies in the muddled and fuzzy terms "liberal", "conservative", "left" and "right." All these terms are historically problematic, and have morphed so many times since 1789 that it's unclear what we're even talking about. We've all become really lazy and are using these terms as shorthand for a wide range of attitudes and beliefs that often lack all coherence. Why is supporting the medical gender transition of children "liberal?" Why is supporting fracking and oil drilling in national forests "conservative?"
I'm as guilty as anyone else, and I don't know what the solution is, except possible to define and specify as we go along.
"My read of things is that Biden is a party man through and through — he tracked the Democratic Party’s tack to the right under Bill Clinton and then followed the party left post-Obama. It’s true that as president, Biden has signed bigger, bolder bills than Obama did ..."
I'm actually not so sure this is true. A rough comparison:
- The Affordable Care Act was the biggest deal of any Democratic bill in 50 years and blazed a new frontier for America's social insurance system. One could argue that the Inflation Reduction Act was perhaps more left wing than the ACA as a matter of coalitional politics, but substantively its social spending piece built on the ACA and its clean energy piece built on the Obama-era R&D successes.
- The 2021 ARP was larger and more immediately effective as a result, but the 2009 Recovery Act had more elements that left lasting legacies - and at a time when lots of people around the world were going all-in on austerity, fiscal stimulus bigger than the New Deal was an underrated achievement!
- Dodd-Frank is the most significant reform of the financial sector since the 1930s and I'm not sure there are any comparably important regulatory reforms (certainly not progressive ones) in recent history.
- Biden's legislative record features some really impressive bipartisan infrastructure funding and industrial policy. Obama's record included some bipartisan budget deals that made permanent some important non-ACA social program expansions, as well as the auto industry rescue and the aforementioned clean energy R&D.
My overall view is that both Obama and Biden have impressive policy legacies, and to some extent what is happening here reflects changing baselines of public policy. In other words, a big part of why the Democratic Party has moved to the left and expanded its ambitions since Obama was elected is because Obama accomplished a lot of stuff that moved the American policy baseline durably to the left! It stands to reason that the party would want to continue building on that stuff, and in many ways that's exactly what they have done in the Biden era. By contrast, Bill Clinton did not accomplish as much stuff to move the policy baseline to the left - for example, health care reform was still on the agenda in 2010 because the Dems failed to get it done in 1993.
Milan still makes a good overall point that there are tradeoffs between how big of a coalition Dems can build and how ambitious we can be about moving to the left on policy. And perhaps "bigger and bolder" just means "more left coded" in which case I might agree.
It's worth adopting bolder policies ONLY if those policies won't be immediately reversed should Republicans come to power. For example, the Affordable Care Act was worth it because the GOP failed to dislodge it under Trump. But, the Clean Power Plan, adopted through executive order, was easily reversed by Trump.
My thought is that bolder policies are worth it if they are achieved through legislation. Once a law is adopted, it becomes the status quo and the status quo is hard to dislodge because of the multiplicity of veto points that characterize the legislative process.