The unexpected victory of the Amerian Left

The unexpected victory of the Amerian Left
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders // US Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the footnotes are worth expounding on. That's what I'm going to do this morning. In Monday's edition of the Editorial Board, I qualified the term "progressives" like so: "Not the same thing as 'liberals,' mind you. Progressives can be quite illiberal."

There are many ways to parse language. For now, I have in mind the widespread view among progressives that the Democrats, for all the gains they have made, are still impure, ideologically. This impurity isn't just academic. It has real-world implications. As long as they compromise their ideals, they can expect little but failure in the future.

This was the subtext of progressive discourse last week during debate in the Senate over a provision in the American Rescue Act that would raise the federal minimum wage from its current $7.50 an hour to $15. In the end, seven Democrats voted against the measure (plus Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats).1 The president vowed to give working-class Americans a raise. Raising the minimum is broadly popular. Yet these so-called "moderate" Democrats found a way to block it.

This was a bad omen for progressives like Elie Mystal, the justice correspondent for The Nation. If the Democratic Party can't deliver for the working class, then working-class voters are going to turn on the Democrats, just as they did in 2016. On Friday, Elie Mystal wrote on Twitter: "We're going to get the shit kicked out of us in '22."

Before I go on, I want to say I am deeply sympathetic to the progressive complaint about the wishy-washy nature of the Democratic Party. I never liked Bill Clinton's embrace of "small government" because all of that was a big lie peddled by frauds.2 Barack Obama's effort at bipartisanship often made me want to pull out what's left of my hair. Joe Biden's recent decision to let Saudi Arabia off the hook for the murder of a Washington Post journalist was equally maddening. I believe, as progressives believe, that raising hell is sometimes the only way to make the Democrats behave morally.

Where I part ways with progressives is assuming performance is linked to reward. It is assumed that raising the minimum wage would be recognized by the working class and that working-class voters would reward the Democrats in the 2022 midterms. That assumption, however, is based on another assumption: that everyone is working with the same set of facts. If there's anything we understand clearly, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, it's that lots of people are not working with the same set. Lots of people, in fact, are hostile to the very notion that there exists an empirical reality.

I'm not saying the performance-reward link is wrong. I'm saying the link is growing unstable. More likely is that the performance-reward link wedges the working class, so that half really do appreciate what the Democrats are trying to do, and rewards them, while the other half believes whatever the hell it wants to believe.3 If the Republicans take one or both chambers of the United States Congress, it won't be because of Democratic failure. It will be because the Republicans succeeded in spreading lies.

The American Rescue Act is the single biggest transfer of wealth since the Great Society programs of the late 1960s.4 As I said Monday, it flips 40 years of economic policy on its head. Pending final passage expected this week, the new law would push more money to the bottom half of American society than at any time in my life. And yet the Democrats could still lose in two years. As Issac J. Bailey wrote today: "Fighting stupid culture wars will matter more to voters than cutting childhood poverty nearly in half, helping the unemployed and uninsured and black farmers and so many others."

If "fighting stupid culture wars" over Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss and Meghan Markle can win the congressional elections, why should the Democrats bother with the American Rescue Act? Well, for one thing, no one knows the future. For another, you probably should not do the right thing in order to win a prize. As I teach my 9-year-old, doing the right thing is its own reward, or should be. The past five spending bills privileged businesses and corporations. The newest one, as Chuck Schumer said, does the polar opposite. "The most important thing is what we delivered for people."

If the Democrats are now doing the right thing, for its own sake, knowing they cannot and should not underestimate the power of the Republican Lie Machine, knowing they could lose in two years despite all the good they are doing, why are some progressives still giving them hell for not being pure enough? Well, it has to do with that footnote.

Some progressives refuse to engage. They refuse to dirty their hands. They refuse to be disappointed. The solution to every problem is ideological, because every problem is one of ideology. It is an article of faith that the Democrats will lose not because the Republicans are so very good at lying, or because they have structural advantages in the form of gerrymandering and such, but because the Democrats "compromised" with themselves when it came to raising the federal minimum wage. (You can literally substitute any policy preference here.) Some progressives do far more than raise hell to make the Democrats act morally. Instead, they go out of their way to smash them.

Illiberalism might not be so bad if it did not obscure what's happening. While Schumer, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin and others are common targets, no progressive has attacked Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the House Progressive Caucus. Yet she said over the weekend that though the provision to raise the minimum wage is missing from the American Rescue Act, that's among "relatively minor concessions" that will not keep the House from passing it and the president from signing it.

In other words, what's happening is this: the progressives, like Jayapal, who have made serious inroads into the Democratic Party over the last decade, are quite liberal in that they are doing the work of political engagement for the sake of doing the right thing even though doing the right thing may not pay off in the end. That's what you want from a progressive party. Whether the party is pure or impure doesn't really matter.

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