This May, Republican strategist Ed Rogers noted with a mixture of ideological alarm and partisan glee that Democrats were flirting with socialism. In the Washington Post, he alleged that they “are in fact a lot like the old socialists.” As evidence, he cited their support for “free college, free cash, free health care, new mandates for this and that, and so on.”
Republicans have been charging Democrats with the sin of socialism at least since the advent of the New Deal. (Before then, they had to content themselves with the more accurate allegation that the Democrats were rife with Catholics and Jews.) But Rogers, at least, could adduce a few particulars, even if the positions leading Democrats are now taking fall distinctly short of seizing the means of production.
Over the past year, for instance, Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill won the co-sponsorship of sixteen of his Democratic Senate colleagues. Some, like Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, were already on the party’s left, but others, like New Jersey’s Cory Booker and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, were working hard to erase their relatively centrist pasts. Just how hard they’re working became clear a few months later, when they again joined Sanders in calling for a government guarantee of full employment (in Booker’s case, to begin with pilot jobs programs in fifteen urban and rural locales). This May, Booker signed on as a co-sponsor to a fairly radical Sanders labor-law reform bill that would repeal vast chunks of the Taft-Hartley Act, which has been crippling unions for the past seventy years. When Sanders had introduced a far milder version of this bill in 2015, Booker’s name was nowhere to be found on the list of co-sponsors.
Booker and Gillibrand aren’t the only Democrats eyeing a presidential run to remake themselves in a more progressive mold. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had pushed through a statewide $15 minimum wage and banned fracking even before Cynthia Nixon launched her primary challenge to him in this year’s gubernatorial election. California Senator Kamala Harris didn’t really have a clear political profile until recently, but as a possible 2020 White House contender, she, too, has endorsed a chunk of Sanders’s agenda.
Perhaps the most telling instance of a Democrat taking a social-democratic stance is that of Senator Tammy Baldwin, a longtime progressive up for re-election this year in the very purple state of Wisconsin, and already under withering attack from the Republican money machine. This spring, Baldwin introduced a bill that would strike down the Reagan-era SEC regulation that greatly facilitated the rise of share buybacks (that is, corporations buying back their own stock, which raises the value of the reduced number of shares still outstanding, to the delight of major shareholders). But the bill also contained a provision that broke new ground in Congress’s legislative history by requiring every publicly traded corporation to change the structure of its board of directors so that one-third of the board’s members would be elected not by shareholders, but by the company’s employees.
There’s no evidence that this scaled-back version of German co-determination (in which corporate boards are required to be divided fifty-fifty) is sweeping the country, Wisconsin, or the Senate Democratic caucus. Nonetheless, Baldwin chose to include it, despite Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin, a heavily white, working-class state. Clearly, she and her advisors believe that advocating for worker power won’t hurt her with those white swing voters she needs to win in November.
All of which suggests that Rogers may have a point. Not that Democrats have turned into socialists, but that they are indeed moving left—whether toward a neo-New Deal or a twenty-first-century semi-social democracy I leave to historians to decide. And they are moving left in response to the promptings not just of the Democratic base, but that of swing voters as well.
What much of the Democratic establishment has been compelled to realize is that the astonishing level of support that Bernie Sanders garnered while running for president as an avowed democratic socialist was no fluke. The fact no other progressive leader (such as Elizabeth Warren) opted to run against Hillary Clinton from the left surely played a role in Sanders’s successes, but the evidence of the party’s shift leftward was already plainly visible to any who chose to see. This spring, Clinton noted it was no wonder Sanders ran essentially even with her in the first of the 2016 contests, the Iowa caucuses, since pre-caucus polling showed that 43 percent of likely caucus attendees considered themselves socialists. The fire bell in the night for Democrats in the Bill Clinton mold, that is, should have been ringing even before 2016.
An exhaustive survey from the Pew Research Center, released this March, quantifies this remaking of the Democratic Party. Between 2000 and 2017, Pew reported, the share of Democrats who consider themselves liberal rose from 28 percent to 46 percent.
The surge that not only works in Democrats’ favor but also propels them to the left is that of millennials, who now outnumber Gen X-ers and the Silent Generation in the population at large, and are projected to overtake Boomers in 2019. For even the most casual students of American exceptionalism, the data on millennials’ politics are breathtaking. In a 2017 YouGov poll of millennials, respondents were asked if they’d prefer to live in a capitalist, socialist, communist, or fascist nation. Fascist and communist were tied for last, with 7 percent each (still cause for some alarm, to be sure). Forty-two percent of millennials said capitalist. But coming in ahead of that, 44 percent said socialist—which, since it was a category distinct from communist, clearly meant some version of democratic socialist or social democratic.
That millennials stand on the left on questions of culture, gender, and race didn’t confound the Democratic establishment, which itself stands on the left on those questions, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign made clear. That millennials responded to the frustrations and deprivations heaped on them by actually existing American capitalism by moving well to the left on economic issues (which became abruptly clear through their 2016 support for Sanders) stunned the establishment. Given the relegation of much of the millennial cohort to the gig economy and the ongoing burden of student debt, however, the leftward turn of millennials should have been no more surprising than young people’s support for the New Deal—and, for some, for parties to the left of the New Deal—during the Great Depression.
The response of the Democratic establishment to this flourishing of an economic left within (and to a lesser degree, without) the party’s ranks isn’t uniform, of course, but neither is it all over the map. In states where the left is ascendant, or close to it, the establishment has embraced its priorities. The frontrunner to succeed Jerry Brown as governor of California—Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom—supports a single-payer healthcare system for the state (though like many other single-payer advocates, he’s provided no detailed plan). Democrats hailing from less liberal climes have moved left, too, though not so far as their California comrades.
This is not to argue that Democrats have moved left on every economic issue. In response to a massive lobbying campaign from regional and local banks (carrying the ball for Wall Street’s mega-banks, which rightly concluded that it was politically easier for Democrats to appear to be rewarding their hometown banks than it was to be rewarding JPMorgan), seventeen Democratic senators recently voted to weaken some crucial regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act. Not all of them came from red states. When the bill came up for final passage, thirty-three House Democrats also voted for the bill. It would likely require the prompting of a progressive Democratic president to push congressional Democrats to support, say, the establishment of postal banking as a public option to private banks (Gillibrand has recently introduced a bill to do just that)—and even with that pressure, it’s not a given that all Democrats would go along.
But more than four decades of wage stagnation and rising economic inequality have already moved even the most centrist Democrats to a place where their forebears didn’t often go. In 1981, when the Reagan administration and congressional Republicans passed a bill cutting taxes by $749 billion, chiefly by reducing the top marginal rate on income from 70 percent to 50 percent, forty-eight House Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for it. Somewhat astonishingly, that version of the bill passed the Senate by a voice vote; more astonishingly still, when the final version came before the Senate, thirty-seven Democrats voted for it while just ten voted no.
Twenty years later, when George W. Bush proposed additional major reductions to the top tax rate, twelve Democratic senators voted for the bill.
Late last year, however, when Trump and Paul Ryan teamed up to pass yet another Republican gift to the plutocracy, not a single Democrat in either house supported it. In 1981, those forty-eight Democratic House members largely represented predominantly white districts in the South that have long since gone Republican. In 2001, most of those twelve Democratic senators came from swing states. Today, however, Democrats are finding that opposition to the tax cut is one of their most potent issues even in white, working-class districts. A recent survey by longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg of 3,100 likely voters in twelve states that will have gubernatorial elections this year found that the most effective message Democrats could campaign on—and one that would increase support not just from the Democratic base but also from white, working-class swing voters—was to attack GOP “politicians and their huge tax giveaways to the big corporations and the richest 1 percent, which will blow up and endanger our future. We need to invest in education and infrastructure, not cut them.”
Indeed, such was the lesson of the revolt of Kansas Republicans last year, when they overrode their own party’s governor’s vetoes of a tax hike to better fund Kansas schools. Such has been the lesson of the red-state teachers strikes this spring, which compelled Republican legislators in four states to break with decades of opposition to tax hikes and increase funding for schools. In a sense, Democrats are merely responding to economic realities—the stratospheric rise of the rich at the expense of education, affordable healthcare, and decent-paying jobs—so obvious that even Republicans, at least when forced to confront the decline of public schools, have been compelled to address them.
Which is why Democrats need to learn the lesson that Tammy Baldwin offers them: Going left on economics not only plays in the Madisons of this nation but also in many of the suburbs and on a number of the farms. It’s the key not just to boosting turnout in cities but also to not getting destroyed when they venture out of town.
None of this is to argue that the Democratic Party’s commitment to gender and racial equality, to immigrant naturalization and cultural liberalization, should be relegated to the margins of its agenda. But the party has already demonstrated its understanding that not every Democrat can run on that platform—and that it’s okay if they don’t. In his special-election campaign in a Pennsylvania district that Trump had carried by 20 percentage points, Democrat Conor Lamb attacked the GOP’s tax cut as relief for the rich, and deviated from most Democrats’ positions on issues like gun control without provoking anything resembling an uproar on the party’s left.
Should the Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress in 2018, their majorities will surely contain enough legislators from swing states and districts to make the enactment of some of the progressive economic agenda impossible. (Postal banking, maybe; single-payer, no.) But the Democrats’ leftward movement is producing any number of proposals for less radical but still significant economic reforms—from party moderates and from progressives who believe such measures are both more achievable and can still be transformative.
Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, for instance, is the only senator to have supported Sanders in 2016, and is one of the sixteen co-sponsors of Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. But he also has co-authored a different bill, with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, that would allow individuals and employers to buy into Medicare, offering subsidies to purchasers up to 600 percent of the poverty level, and that would empower Medicare to bargain with drug companies to set—and bring down—the price of medications. Every member of the Senate Democratic caucus, Merkley recently told me, at minimum supports this version of an expanded public option. Should the Democrats retake Congress in 2018, it’s likely they could and would move such a bill—or perhaps, one incorporating my American Prospect colleague Paul Starr’s proposal to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to fifty-five or fifty, not as a buy-in but as a taxpayer-supported entitlement—through the House. Alas, they would surely lack the required sixty votes to move it through the Senate.
As Lamb’s campaign made clear, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the potential of a progressive economic outreach to the white working class, at least outside the South. Perhaps the most remarkable data that came out of the Republicans’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was that fully 80 percent of Americans opposed efforts to slash Medicaid—the government’s program of medical assistance to the poor. For decades, Republicans had railed against, and when in power, reduced, Medicaid allotments, since they assumed that doing so stirred white resentment against blacks, who were popularly viewed as the main Medicaid recipients. Politically, that attack had worked when the white working class was doing well enough that having to rely on Medicaid to help pay doctor bills wasn’t a plausible option. Those days had long since passed, however, when the Republicans targeted Medicaid in their efforts to repeal the ACA. It’s precisely that kind of shift among white, working-class voters that makes the Democrats’ outreach to them on progressive economics possible—and necessary.
As pollster Guy Molyneux has reported, roughly one-third of white, working-class voters are moderates whose votes are up for grabs at election time—if the Democrats know how to reach out to them. Defending Medicaid, lowering the age threshold for Medicare, perhaps even putting workers on corporate boards are all causes Democrats can plausibly embrace.
But how the Democrats will reach those voters remains a question. In rural America, in white, working-class suburbs, the Democratic infrastructure has largely vanished. The near disappearance of unions from most of the American landscape has created a void that Republicans have filled, not just ideologically but in terms of precinct walkers, too. The movement of West Virginia from among the most Democratic states to among the most Republican can’t be explained without recognizing the effect of the decline of the United Mine Workers—from hundreds of thousands of members in the state to fewer than ten thousand—and the rise of conservative churches.
Since Trump’s election, the Democrats have seen the emergence of a number of mass or semi-mass organizations like, most prominently, Indivisible. Activists in such groups are largely middle class, white, and female—populations shaken into activism by the rise of Trump and Trumpism. They constitute a major addition to the Democrats’ activist universe, but few have the capacity to reach working-class people of any color. The Democrats’ transformation into a party with a higher share of upper-middle-class members than at any time, perhaps, in its history, is one reason why the party has moved left on cultural issues. Nor does it yet seem to pose an insuperable obstacle to the party’s move leftward on economic issues. But the diminution of a working-class presence within the party—which is part and parcel of the decline of unions—is a genuine problem when it comes time to walk working-class precincts, both suburban and inner-city, and talk with their residents.
Still, the Democrats are clearly moving toward a more substantive and sellable message. In both the number of their walkers and the merits of their doorstep spiel, they’ve still got a ways to go, but at least the state of the economy has compelled them to mute, partly or fully, the Clinton-era valorization of the market. That’s not a sufficient condition for their retaking power, but it’s an absolutely necessary one.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect and a member of the Dissent editorial board.