Will Our Progressive New Wave Re-elect Trump?

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Mar 15, 2019 .  9 min read

The Democrats’ identity is undergoing the kind of once-in-a-generation makeover

In case you’ve been too busy rating Captain Marvel or posthumously berating Michael Jackson to notice, “Three Blind Mice” has acquired a new set of lyrics since the Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterms. Among the party’s worrywarts and the punditocracy’s most reliable experts, the chorus goes like this: “Too far left, too far left.” Could OD’ing on progressive zeal end up re-electing Donald Trump?

Note that this is the trending narrative just two months after Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the Speaker’s gavel and almost a year before Iowa and New Hampshire get busy thinning out the Democrats’ unbelievably cluttered presidential field. There’s only one big drawback, which is that nobody making the case can point to any real evidence that the party’s leftward tilt is alienating potential 2020 voters. So far as bread-and-butter policy issues go, the opposite seems to be true.

It’s not just that, except on Fox News, “socialism” isn’t the dynamite scare -word it used to be, especially among Americans too young to remember the Cold War. The progressive agenda whose goodies Hillary Clinton used to airily dismiss as so much pie in the sky—Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, tax hikes on the rich, free college tuition—currently enjoys solid majority support from Americans in virtually every poll. (That includes a sizeable fraction of Republicans, by the way.) The Democratic presidential candidates attracting the most early-bird enthusiasm are embracing ideas that would have sounded like out-of-the-mainstream kookery not many years ago.

Granted, that’s not necessarily predictive. Joe Biden hasn’t announced yet, after all. It’s also true that primary voters tend to be a lot more ideologically motivated than the rest of the electorate, even minus the added oomph of Trump-era activism bringing a slew of energized newbies into the process. But right now, they’re the ones in the saddle, and as far as we can tell, they’re in a mood to go for broke. Even Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who might have seemed ideally positioned to bridge the gap—he’s a moderate’s idea of a progressive they can feel comfortable with, and vice-versa—pulled the plug on a 2020 White House run last week, probably because he’s smart enough to know that generating insurrectionary excitement isn’t one of his skills.

The Democrats’ identity is undergoing the kind of once-in-a-generation makeover that guarantees a comforting return to business as usual won’t be in the cards.

Oh, well, maybe Kamala Harris will pick him for Veep. That this doesn’t seem like a totally implausible scenario tells you how much (and how fast) things have changed. Of course, they could change right back, but only up to a point. The only thing we can be sure of is that the Democrats’ identity is undergoing the kind of once-in-a-generation makeover that guarantees a comforting return to business as usual won’t be in the cards.

Because Trump is no longer the only player in this unprecedented political landscape who’s upending knee-jerk categories and conventional thinking, the “too far left” chorus has all the earmarks of being a pretty hypothetical menace – one largely invented by the Establishment centrists who have the most reason to feel menaced by it. Their fear that an even semi-radicalized Democratic party will end up handing Trump a victory next year is undoubtedly genuine, but it’s also reflexive. That is, it suits their preconceptions of how things work, which may very well be outdated.

However, it also suits their prejudices, because anything that smacks of even halfway militant progressivism is anathema to their world-view. Cautious liberals inside the D.C. political/media bubble have conditioned themselves for decades to believe that unrepentant leftism is always a recipe for defeat, but by now they’d be just as unhappy if it turned out to be a formula for victory. Nobody likes waking up to discover they’re a dinosaur just as the first meteors start zeroing in, as any middle-of-the-road Republican could have told you back before the Tea Party made them as extinct as pterodactyls.

No wonder they’re also the ones who pine the most for good old, safe Joe Biden to jump in and rescue them from this lunacy. Nevermind the likelihood that any 2016 Trump defectors in the Rust Belt he might bring back to the Democratic fold will be more than offset by the legions of millennials, women, and minority voters reduced to abject despair by the prospect of having to vote for a 77-year-old white dude and Washington lifer. Needless to say, those are the constituencies the Democrats most need to keep fired up if they want the White House back.

On top of that, Biden’s record on the issues that matter most to the newbies is more compromised than he likes to pretend, from Anita Hill (not a great look in the age of #MeToo) to his career-long obeisance to corporate interests (not a great look when most of his rivals have already rejected taking PAC money). Lately, hardly a day has gone by without one or another media outlet digging up a vintage quote that’s bound to haunt him, whether the topic is abortion—he once said it shouldn’t be the woman’s decision alone—or the “predators” he called “beyond the pale” in a 1993 speech defending a harsh Senate crime bill. Everyone at the time understood that his terminology was primarily aimed at demonizing scary, urban African American youths for threatening decent white people’s peace of mind.

Nobody likes waking up to discover they’re a dinosaur just as the first meteors start zeroing in, as any middle-of-the-road Republican could have told you back before the Tea Party made them as extinct as pterodactyls.

In its own way, “too far left” is code as well. Part of its subtext is a warning that the Democrats had better not be rash enough to put a woman, a person of color—or, perhaps worst of all, someone who’s both—at the top of the ticket in 2020. Because white backlash against Obama and the sexism that helped do Hillary Clinton in were both key to Trump’s win last time around, the jitters may not be totally misplaced. Then again, they may also amount to fighting the last war. But fighting the last war is what political hacks do best once they’ve been successfully traumatized, something Trump’s victory definitely did.

Even self-proclaimed moderate Amy Klobuchar isn’t exempt from triggering what looks a lot like fear of nominating another woman for the presidency. The stories about what a horrible boss she is that got big media play as soon as she announced would have looked less tendentious if any male candidate in the race had been the subject of a comparable takedown this early on. Even dredging up Biden’s many faux pas isn’t really the same thing as portraying her as an egotistic harpy before most voters have learned how to spell her name.

Specifically, Bernie Sanders—who is not only much further to the left than Klobuchar, but whose 2016 campaign more or less opened up the territory his other 2020 rivals are exploiting—is being treated noticeably gently by comparison. One reason for that is that few people besides hardcore Bernie-istas believe he’s got much chance of becoming the nominee. But another could be that being a cranky old white coot now qualifies him, despite himself, as a relatively traditionalist sort of Democratic candidate.

The fact that Sanders’ positions don’t seem exceptionally radical anymore, not in this progressive field—he probably wishes they did, but that’s life—just goes to show how rapidly the Establishment’s conventional wisdom can become obsolete. Still, there are moments when the “too far left” caricature doesn’t seem wholly inaccurate. If you ask us, Harris went out on an unnecessary limb by endorsing reparations for slavery. That’s a morally admirable idea—heck, even resident New York Times dunderhead David Brooks thinks so—but a politically toxic one. It also risked stereotyping her as an interest-group candidate prioritizing African American concerns, which was the pitfall Barack Obama went out of his way to avoid.

Then Elizabeth Warren, who should really never, ever utter the words “Native American” again, piled on by saying that the surviving descendants of America’s massacred indigenes should be compensated too. Again, the idea’s moral justice would be hard to deny. Especially given the source, though, it played right into the hoary notion that liberals have never found a righteous cause that they don’t think they can improve by adding a kitchen sink to it.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi—in a rare loss of control—was letting the hue and cry over freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial criticism of Congress’s knee-jerk support of Israel get far more attention than it should have. Omar certainly deserved rebuking, since the language she used trafficked in anti-Semitic slurs whose history she may have been unaware of, but which she seemed to be in no hurry to recant.

Politically, however, the real problem was that the brouhaha turned Omar, a Somali immigrant who wears a hijab, into the GOP’s perfect poster gal for the un-American, leftist Other. At least temporarily, taking over that job displaced her good friend Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who’s less fun for Fox News to attack than she once was, mainly because she’s not the loose cannon right-wingers were counting on her to be. But if Pelosi had brought her usual A-game to keeping her caucus corralled, this would have been a one-day story that left Omar duly chastised without becoming notorious in the bargain. The enemies she seems bent on making on the Democratic side of the aisle are very unlikely to stop the GOP from pretending she’s the new face of the party.

Nevertheless, she is one of them, and being one of the first two Muslim women in Congress would make her symptomatic of the party’s transformation even if she were as decorous and temperate as can be. At least in her choice of words, we can’t help hoping that Omar tries on the latter for size, because we don’t think criticizing Israel should be off limits—and neither, for that matter, should criticism of Obama. Going by her constituents’ appalled reaction to the fracas, she’ll be bounced out of Congress after one term anyway if she doesn’t mend a few fences fast. And all things considered, we’d rather she stayed.

Omar probably qualifies as Too Far Left if anyone does, but that’s almost irrelevant to the practical realities of the situation. Even the most prudent (or terrified) Establishment centrists must realize that the Trumpified GOP and its media echo chamber will be doing their damnedest to vilify the Democrats—not only the party’s progressive wing, but the opposition in general—as leftist, un-American, and Other no matter what happens in Congress between now and November 3, 2020, or who emerges as the Democratic nominee next year. If winning the presidency is the goal, getting nervous enough to want to play things safe could wind up as the riskiest—or maybe just the most futile—strategy of them all. Saying the hell with it and swinging for the fences instead has never had any appeal for party stalwarts, but they might want to remember that Trump did just that.

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