No, the ‘far left’ hasn’t hijacked the Democratic Party — but real progressives are finally being heard
In 2019, there is a common narrative in the United States’ right-wing media that goes like this: the “far left” has hijacked the Democratic Party, which no longer has any room for moderation. And it isn’t hard to get devotees of Fox News, AM talk radio and websites like Breitbart and Townhall to buy into that narrative if they live in the right-wing bubble, speak English exclusively, don’t own a passport and have never traveled outside the United States. But the reality of the Democratic Party in 2019 is much different from how it is depicted on Fox News, and what the right-wing media depicts as a hijacking is actually an example of liberals and progressives finally getting a larger seat at the table.
The 2018 midterms brought a lot of Democratic gains, including victories in the House of Representatives (where Democrats enjoyed a net gain of 40 seats). But not everyone who benefitted from 2018’s blue wave is a hardcore liberal or progressive. The Democratic Party is still a big tent, and last year’s winners ranged from centrists like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger (a former CIA officer) to left-of-center House members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. Sen. Joe Manchin, easily the most pro-President Donald Trump Democrat in the Senate, was reelected in West Virginia—and is proud of the fact that he voted for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But while the victories of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar don’t signal the Democratic Party on the whole moving far to the left, they do show issues like Medicare for All, a $15-per-hour national minimum wage and higher taxes for the 1 percent are at least receiving more discussion among Democrats after years of Clintonian centrism. The far-right media is full of hysterical extremists claiming that if Ocasio-Cortez has her way, the U.S. will end up like Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro—which ignores the fact that in European capitalist democracies like Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland and Germany (all of which have low unemployment rates in early 2019), her ideas are downright mainstream.
By European standards, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, John Fetterman (Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor) and other Democratic admirers of Sen. Bernie Sanders are not considered the “far left”; they’re regarded as typical run-of-the-mill liberals. Among actual Marxists (who are hard to find these days), Sanders and AOC are dismissed as petit-bourgeois capitalists. Ocasio-Cortez advocates a 70% marginal tax rate on the 1%, but in Spain and Austria, one encounters the occasional leftist politician who believes that all income over €100,000 should be taxed at a rate of 100%. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez (and the vast majority of European liberals and progressives, for that matter) aren’t nearly that hardcore—not by a longshot. They call themselves “democratic socialists,” but they’re essentially New Deal/Great Society liberals who believe in capitalism with a strong social safety net.
Believing that millionaires shouldn’t exist at all is hardcore Marxism. Believing that they should pay their fair share of taxes and that capitalism needs a strong middle class that can afford to buy their products is common sense. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and automotive giant Henry Ford as well—famously asserted that capitalist manufacturers aren’t going to make money if people cannot afford to buy their products. And in 2019, Ocasio-Cortez is smart enough to realize that Apple is going to sell more iPhones and laptops if there are more middle-class Americans who can afford to buy them.
If Sinema had been born in London or Manchester instead of Tucson, she would probably fit right in with the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party and be accepted as a Tory. And Manchin is to the right of most Tories. But in the AM talk radio bubble, the political conservation is so far to the right that insanely, even Republicans like CNN’s Ana Navarro and the late Sen. John McCain have occasionally been called leftists. McCain was a self-described “Goldwater Republican”; he was no leftist.
But to understand why Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Fetterman, Omar and Tlaib are so shocking to modern-day Republicans—and neoliberal corporatist Democrats as well—one needs to examine history. FDR’s New Deal (which brought about things like Social Security and a national minimum wage) was the Democratic gold standard for decades, and even Republican presidents that included Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon supported elements of the New Deal. But the U.S. took a major hard-right swing in the 1980s, when Democrats lost three presidential elections in a row—and the Democratic National Committee responded with President Bill Clinton’s decidedly centrist campaign in 1992. Barack Obama, for all his populist rhetoric, was a centrist president as well no matter how much far-right media buffoons like Michael Savage, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity laughably tried to paint him as a disciple of Che Guevara. Savage described Obama as a “bald-faced Marxist” even when he was bringing Goldman Sachs alumni into his administration.
Centrism defined the Democratic Party throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but in 2016, there was a shift when the independent Sanders ran for president as a Democrat and pulled in a shocking amount of donations. As journalist Matt Taibbi pointed out in a December 2018 Rolling Stone article, even Sanders himself didn’t expect his 2016 campaign to perform that well. A campaign the Vermont senator expected to be marginal sparked a movement that two years later brought Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and others into Congress.
The Democratic Party of 2019 is not the Green Party, let alone Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos. It’s a big tent, and veteran conservative columnist George Will recently wrote a Washington Post piece explaining why he believes Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would make a strong Democratic presidential candidate for 2020. If a possible Klobuchar campaign gets Mr. Conservative’s stamp of approval, it’s obvious that centrism has hardly disappeared from the Democratic Party.
But after decades of being marginalized by the Democratic establishment, liberals and progressives at least have a larger voice in 2019—and it’s about time.