The End of Centrist Liberalism

It is difficult to imagine a better scenario for Hillary Clinton going into the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton’s opponent had numerous clear cases of theft from his own workers, advocated for the internment of a religious group, and was revealed to have admitted to committing felony violence while being recorded. On top of this, Clinton also had large campaign logistical advantages. She had $1.19 billion at her campaign’s disposal, compared to Donald Trump’s $648 million. Furthermore, in August of 2016, Trump had only 10% of Clinton’s staff numbers.

Despite these assets, Hillary not only forfeited states that Barack Obama carried in the South and the West, but she also lost the so-called “firewall” labor-heavy Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin that had been Democratic presidential strongholds since the 1990s.

There have been a myriad of conveniently exculpatory Democratic talking points to explain why Clinton lost what should have been an extraordinarily easy election. The most sinister argument that Democrats have concocted to explain their loss, though, is that working class voters in the Rust Belt are irredeemably racist and/or sexist.

The disdain for the working class is, on its face, surprising for a party believed to support unions, migrant laborers, and workers of all stripes. However, that facade faded years ago from years of unfettered anti-worker corporate-friendly policy and Democrats are acutely feeling the electoral consequences of this transformation.

As documented in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s groundbreaking work, the Democratic Party has moved away from emphasizing its traditional post-WWII egalitarian positions on regulation, taxes, and, more broadly, income inequality. In response to campaign finance challenges in the 1980s, Democrats adopted more accommodating stances on issues that were important for corporate donors, which necessarily precludes many pro-worker policies.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton worked with republicans to pass NAFTA without any clear broad support to help displaced workers. Clinton later signed the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which, among other things, repealed a provision that prevented the merger of investment and commercial banks that created “too big to fail” banks. The next year, Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. That law prevented the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating most over-the-counter derivative contracts, including the credit default swaps that exacerbated the Great Recession.

Shortly after the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, President Bush’s Treasury Secretary chose to leave homeowners insolvent after lying to Congress about the Treasury’s intention to buy out underwater mortgages through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Instead, the bill provided $700 billion to the Treasury, which helped recapitalize investment banks without bailing out struggling homeowners. While President Barack Obama cannot be held accountable for having been misled during his Senate tenure, by the time he was president, Obama only managed to get 1% of TARP funds to actual homeowners.

Now, after facing enormous electoral losses across the board such that the Republican Party controls both chambers of Congress and the Presidency, the Democratic intelligentsia should do nothing other than blame themselves.

Clinton publicly campaigned on not being Donald Trump, on not calling all Mexican immigrants rapists, and on not being racist, as if these things were accomplishments. Instead of thoroughly articulating how she would make people’s lives better, she spun a tale of fear of Donald Trump and showed how much celebrities like her while offering no substantive economic policies. When those in the party asked for a firm, pro-worker economic message, her staff and proxies labeled them unrealistic or sexist.

The anti-worker bend of the Democratic Party and a total lack of a meaningful Democratic platform are not incidental. They are inextricable. By and large, the liberal elite in the DNC concur with Republicans on free trade with countries that have no labor protections, on not materially raising the minimum wage, and, although the mechanism is contested, on corporate welfare for health insurance companies. These policies are not compatible with an agenda designed to help workers and struggling families.

If the Democratic Party elites largely agree with the Republican Party’s positions on the most important economic issues, then there is no significant differentiating factor between the two parties beyond important, but often esoteric, social issues. At the same time, Republicans have provided both a policy agenda they argue will materially improve people’s lives and, in the case of Donald Trump, villains to blame for household economic decline.

Without social pressure to the contrary, the points of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats are now a matter of degree, not type. It is no longer a question of whether or not to cut Social Security and Medicare, nor a question of whether to deregulate Wall Street, so much as to what extent these programs can be changed. Because the Democratic Party has no value set or economic platform geared towards labor, its whole purpose is to be the “reasonable” centrist party on economic policy. In this case, Democratic centrism is designed to moderate both far-right Republicans and its own left-wing constituents, while simultaneously courting “moderate” Republicans by selling out the poor through welfare reform and allowing predatory financial instruments to remain unregulated.

It is time to end centrist liberalism. The very foundation of arguing against policy that could help millions of Americans on behalf of electoral “realism” flies in the face of the Tea Party’s success using a radical platform in 2010. To win, the Democrats cannot simply sit around trying to appear reasonable and mature relative to Republicans. Democrats must articulate a robust, clear, and easily understandable economic policy agenda about what they want.

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