This is a time of immense opportunity for progressives — but they risk wasting it

This is a time of immense opportunity for progressives — but they risk wasting it
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez // Senate Democrats, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Jacobin published an article entitled "The Democratic Party's Real War in 2020 Was Against Bernie Sanders." It argued that Democrats' primary fear in 2020 was not that Trump might be reelected, but that the party would be lost to "socialism."

The piece gave little evidence for this point, but rather offered familiar tropes about imagined tensions that proliferate in modern discourse. In reality, the rift between the center-left and far-left is more practical than ideological. Center-left Democrats and the far-left agree, overwhelmingly, that the state should do more to promote social welfare; they disagree about how. If we misdiagnose this disagreement, we risk losing out on the present opportunity to meaningfully advance the progressive agenda.

There are ideological divisions in US politics, to be sure, but they serve primarily to separate the parties. The modern GOP gleefully parrots Ronald Reagan's line, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." This quote is beloved by Republicans because they fundamentally believe the government shouldn't help. Such a deep commitment to limited government is shared by few within the left-of-center spectrum. That the Democratic Party has an appetite for social expenditures is easily confirmed. One needs to look no further than the American Rescue Plan, one of the most aggressive spending bills in modern history. On the fundamental questions, the far-left and center-left agree with one another: the government can do a lot of good. The disagreements that persist are therefore not so much deeply ideological, but rather about what is politically feasible.

Consider healthcare. Perhaps more than any other issue, exaggerated claims of ideological division abound. Both the far-left and the center-left are committed to the universal provision of healthcare. Sure, many on the far-left advocate for a single-payer system that excludes private insurance while the center-left favors a hybrid model wherein the government competes alongside private providers. These differences are not trivial. But they aren't purely ideological either. The goal of achieving universal healthcare is shared. It is the means of achieving the goal that's a matter of dispute.

Consider education. Here, too, practical disagreements are often interpreted as reflecting intractable differences. No serious person within the left-of-center spectrum believes individuals should suffer under crushing debt or that anyone should be denied higher education for financial reasons. There is in fact significant consensus among friends on the left, such that so-called socialists and liberals agree: the government can help. What is unresolved is how this help can be best actualized through policy. Do we, for example, eliminate all student debt in one fell swoop, or do we target debt relief towards those with greatest need? After addressing the current debt crisis, what can be done to prevent the next one? How much should be allocated for K-12 education? What other measures are needed to maximize social welfare and the common good?

The tendency to portray debates within the left-of-center spectrum as deep and ideological, rather than instrumental, is also apparent in the portrayal of major political figures. The ideological differences between the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and the Democratic Party's leftmost member (US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are easily and often exaggerated. This is no less true of the differences between Joe Biden and United States Senator Bernie Sanders. These figures, like most in the left-of-center, agree that the government can and should improve citizen's lives.

Correctly diagnosing the disagreements within the left-of-center spectrum is not merely an academic matter of political taxonomy. We need to understand which of our differences are matters of value and which are matters of expediency. The latter, but not the former, are amenable to compromise. Those who gleefully quote Reagan will resist any expansion of the welfare state. The rest of us waste time catering to such uncompromising requests. But, in contrast, members of the far-left and center-left actually share an ideological space and should be optimistic about the prospects of collaboration. Their primary differences do not constitute a cavernous divide between values; instead, they span the more negotiable domain of instrumentation.

My contention is not that there are absolutely no ideological differences within the left-of-center, nor do I wish to suggest that all differences are merely cosmetic. Rather, my claim is that, if you objectively quantify debates between the far-left and center-left, pragmatic disagreements over means are far more significant than ideological differences over ends. And this, I should stress, is of practical import.

First, instead of caricaturing Democrats as rapacious capitalists opposed in principle to government expansion, the far-left would benefit from delineating shared goals with the center-left. Second, and relatedly, far-left activism would be most usefully directed at issues of political feasibility, which, again, is often the primary point of disagreement. In the context of healthcare, for example, progressives might advocate for auto-enrollment to a public option. This would measurably increase access to healthcare without introducing obstacles the center-left fears. Even if the far-left considers a hybrid system as non-ideal, provisions like auto-enrollment would universalize the Democratic proposal. Or, to take another example, progressives could pursue increased taxation on the wealthy to reduce co-pays. Proposals like these are both politically feasible and worth pursuing. Here, progressive change is possible.

Overall, this is a time of immense opportunity for American progressives. The Democratic Party has moved left on both social and economic policies since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. There is little evidence that this trajectory has a defined endpoint, given the expansive government spending in The American Rescue Plan (2021) and other policy proposals. The question now is how to continue to target government resources through specific policies. The far-left has a real chance to shape the agenda. This opportunity will be squandered if attention is focused on ideological disputes like those imagined in Jacobin. In recognizing that the primary forces dividing the left-of-center spectrum pertain to instrumentalization, rather than ideology, we may sooner arrive at policies that do a lot of good for millions of Americans.

Liberals and leftists are united in this: Reagan was wrong. There is nothing terrifying about a government invested in helping citizens. The government can and should help. The question we should debate among ourselves is: how can it help the most?

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