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Could America’s Democrats be ‘Corbynised’?

Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

October 8, 2018   4 mins

The Left in America is on the rise. There’s no question of it. Signs of the tilt within the Democratic party can be seen in the resolutely progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member – who ousted Joe Crowley, a longtime member of the Democratic leadership in the House, in a shock primary upset. It is also there in the two African-American Left-wing Democrats, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, who are predicted to win two former slaveholding, Southern states – Georgia and Florida – that have never before elected black governors.

Democrats contesting offices in areas where the party is not dominant (as it is in Ocasio-Cortez’ district) are running substantially more Left-wing campaigns than previous Democratic aspirants. And Abrahams and Gillum both put emphasis on mobilising the most Left-wing constituencies in their states—minorities and the young—with platforms to match on social and economic issues.

But how far Left is this surge? And what does it stand for? Can it really be compared with the hard Left radicalism seen elsewhere across the globe?

Rhetorically, this new Leftism rejects ‘business as usual’ and involves a sweeping indictment of the economic and political system for generating inequality and doing little to help ordinary people in the wake of the great financial crisis. Substantively, Democrats today – in particular aspirants for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination – are far more willing to entertain and endorse ‘big ideas’, such as going beyond the ACA, aka Obamacare (which is now vigorously defended) to ‘Medicare for all’, free college education, universal pre-kindergarten provision, vastly expanded infrastructure spending and even a guaranteed jobs programme. Taxing the rich is ‘in’ and worrying about the deficit is ‘out’.

Democrats are also highly unified on core social issues such as opposing racism, defending immigrants, promoting LGBT and gender equality and criminal justice reform. In short, the centre of gravity of the Democratic party has decisively shifted from trying to assure voters of fiscal and social moderation, to forthrightly promising active government in a wide range of areas.

But this hardly means the Democrats are in any danger of becoming a radical party. Far from it. As Leftism goes, the current Democratic iteration is of a fairly modest variety, approaching, at most, mild European social democracy. Those who call themselves ‘socialist’ (as Ocasio-Cortez does) are few and far between.

Nor is it the case that incumbents and moderates are being thrown out wholesale and replaced with candidates much farther to their Left. Across the country, only two Democratic incumbents in the House lost primaries, and none in the Senate did. A Brookings study found that self-described “progressive Democrats” did well in primaries this election season but establishment Democrats actually did somewhat better. Thus, the change in the party is less a Leftward surge featuring new politicians (though this is happening to some extent) and more a steady party-wide movement to the Left.

So what caused the shift? This is, after all, a party that was dominated by aggressively moderate ‘New Democrats’ in the 1990s and, even under Barack Obama (after a spurt of major legislation early in his first term), shied away from big programmes and repeatedly tried to broker deals with Republicans to bring down the deficit and reform ‘entitlement programmes’ – Medicare and Social Security, America’s names for government-subsidised health care for the aged and pensions. Many, many Democrats were still scared of the ‘tax-and-spend’ label Republicans were only too happy to pin on them.

One thing that did happen is time. As Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary for Obama and Harvard economics professor, noted, the last 15 years of economic, social and political developments, with the fissures and unsolved problems they have revealed in American society, should have moved open-minded people to the Left. These challenges are simply too big to be solved by mild, ameliorative steps. This is a widely shared view within the Democratic party, including most fervently among some of its strongest supporters – minority and younger generation voters. But increased movement to the Left is not confined to these groups; Democrats as a whole, including leading intellectual lights like Summers, are simply becoming more, and more consistently, centre-Left.

Indeed, we even see former President Obama in a recent speech urging Democrats to go beyond “good old ideas like a higher minimum wage” and embrace “good new ideas like Medicare-for-all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate”.

And, from the heart of “Hillaryland”, as the cluster of operatives around Hillary Clinton is termed, comes this robust call from Jake Sullivan, her campaign’s senior policy advisor, for going big:

“Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving Left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing… We Democrats do need to embrace a big, bold policy agenda. We do need to heed the calls of Franklin Roosevelt, who asked us to save capitalism from its excesses, and Lyndon Johnson, who asked us to think ambitiously about how government – and yes, government programmes – can help do that.”

Strong words coming from a fully-paid-up member of the Democratic establishment! But of course the real progenitor of ‘big ideas’, Left-wing politics in the Democratic party was Bernie Sanders. His insurgent campaign, which featured multiple large-scale policy proposals and fierce denunciations of the “billionaire class”, took the 2016 Democratic primaries by storm, injecting this rhetorical and policy approach into the Democratic mainstream. He particularly captured the imaginations of young voters, who gave him gave outsized majorities in most states.

Given Sanders’ success, particularly with young voters, and his continuing influence within the party (even though he is not formally a member), it is fair to ask whether the Democrats’ future lies in continuing to move Left to the point where the Democrats really become his party – or, at any rate, a party dominated by his ‘democratic socialist’ politics. In other words, could there be a “Corbynisation” of the Democratic party?

I am sceptical. Leaving aside structural-political differences between the UK and US – the Democratic party is not a parliamentary party and does not elect a ‘leader’ in the manner of the British Labour party – the Democrats are likely to remain a big tent party, in which the preponderance of voters and elected officials subscribe to a more moderate brand of Leftism than that espoused by Sanders. Think Elizabeth Warren, who combines big proposals with savvy-bridge building within the party and forthright support for capitalism (albeit of a reformed variety).

If there is a wild card here, it is less likely Sanders than an increasing Leftism on ‘identity politics’ issues around race, gender, LGBT issues and so on. It is possible that the Democrats could embrace these issues so thoroughly that it would come to define the party to the exclusion of economic and policy issues, however big. My sense is that Democratic politicians are aware of this possibility and will strenuously seek to avoid it out of sheer electoral self-interest. But we shall see.

Ruy Teixeira is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author The Optimistic Leftist. His forthcoming book, co-authored with John Judis, is Where have all the Democrats gone?

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