I sometimes hear from lefties (both in my life and online) who insist that the Democratic base isn’t nearly as far to the left as the unhinged rhetoric on cable news and social media would suggest. Believe it or not, I’m sometimes even inclined to believe them.
Most of my Democratic friends, after all, are self-made people who aren’t out there advocating for socialist policies. Also, Joe Biden (who most people consider to be a traditional Democrat) took a significant lead in the polls over his more liberal competitors the moment he entered the 2020 race.
But one only has to have watched last week’s Democratic primaries, and listened to the words of almost all 20 candidates on stage, to derive that the crowd those individuals are speaking to is indeed very far-left.
Public funding of abortion (including late-term)? Government health insurance for all (including non-citizens)? Decriminalizing illegal border crossings? Free college tuition for all? Amnesty on student loans? These would have been considered fringe positions just a few years ago. Now, they’re right at the heart of the Democratic party.
So what happened, exactly? What drove the party so far to the left in a relatively short period of time?
And while we’re at it, what’s behind the similarly stark transformation of the Republican party?
Just a few short years ago, fiscal conservatism, free markets, stern foreign policy, government accountability, and personal responsibility were core beliefs of the Republican base. Now, Republicans shrug their shoulders at even higher levels of government spending than under Obama. They defend unprecedented trade intervention in foreign markets, along with the taxpayer bailouts spawned from it. They make excuses for our president’s fawning over murderous dictators, his diminishing of the work of our intelligence agencies, and pretty much everything else that comes out of his mouth. And they do all of this largely in the interest of tribal cohesiveness.
Democrats and Republicans have embraced populism to an extent not seen in my lifetime. And in a rather brilliant piece the other day, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg identified a single political figure who was instrumental in pushing both of the parties in the directions they’ve taken.
No, it wasn’t Donald Trump. Nor was it Barack Obama or even Bernie Sanders.
According to Goldberg, it was Hillary Clinton. And he lays out a very good case for her historical significance in this respect.
Goldberg points out that most people on the right agree that Donald Trump’s 2016 victory had a lot to do with Hillary Clinton. Where they disagree is how.
Always quick to point out the losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, Trump fans tend to believe that only someone as bombastic and unscrupulous as Trump could have taken back the presidency from the Democrats and the Democratic establishment (including the mainstream media). And because Trump was victorious, these folks view him as a savior of sorts, worthy of their unconditional loyalty.
Others (including me) have a different view — one that Goldberg described in his column:
“It wasn’t so much that Trump was the one person who could beat Hillary, but that she was the one candidate he could beat. In other words, it was only thanks to the fact that she was so unpopular that Trump had a chance. Trump-reluctant Republicans and independents could be persuaded by the fact that he was better than Hillary when presented with a binary choice.”
It’s worth remembering that poll after poll during the election (the same national polls that predicted the actual voting outcome months later) showed that both Clinton and Trump were very unpopular with the American people. Their main competitors in their respective primaries were viewed more favorably among the general electorate. In fact, a number of polls showed that Trump was one of the few Republican candidates that Hillary could actually beat.
Goldberg explains that “Trump didn’t have to convince those voters that Clinton was unlikable and a little scary; he simply had to exploit their preexisting opinion of her. Indeed, Trump’s continued obsession with bashing Hillary points to how central she is to his identity.”
I think he’s right, and this also explains the conservative media’s continued obsession with Hillary, years after her political relevance expired.
The Left hasn’t forgotten about Hillary either, though they’re much less vocal about it. Liberals look back at her in much the same way that many Republicans do McCain and Romney: as an acceptable choice at the time, but an unenthusiastic and ultimately ineffective candidate.
There were of course additional problems with Hillary, and not just her aforementioned unlikability. She was perceived (with good reason) as corrupt, and she commanded a sense of entitlement in regard to her White House aspirations.
Goldberg describes why these were significant factors in the election:
“[Bernie Sanders] came way closer to beating Clinton in the primaries than most people thought he would by tapping into the passion of the base and the frustrations of other Democrats who didn’t relish a Clinton dynasty and disliked both Hillary personally and the corrupt practices of the establishment she represented. She ran on the implied claim that it was simply her ‘turn’ to be president — a poisonous framing in a populist moment (just ask Jeb Bush). In retrospect, not being Hillary was almost as big a boon to Sanders as it was for Trump.
If the Clinton machine had not scared away more talented and resourceful politicians from running in 2016, it’s possible that someone other than Sanders would have captured the passion of the party — just as Obama did when he toppled Hillary as the inevitable nominee in 2008.”
Goldberg argues that because Clinton lost to Trump, the Democratic base got the message that “Sanders-style socialist populism was the key to success just as the GOP has concluded that Trump-style nationalist populism is the future of the right.”
Again, I think he’s right. And this is important because it illustrates just how reliant our politics have become on personalities and personas, and how disconnected they are from serious issues and common sensibilities. Desperation hatched from defeat has compelled both parties to conflate personal identity with political proclivity.
It’s like a domino effect of perpetual misreadings and misunderstandings — the kind that could have given the writers of Three’s Company a few extra seasons worth of material.
But this isn’t a sitcom, where the characters straighten things out by the end of the episode. It’s today’s politics… where identity itself is the script. And for that reason, the script will continue to be followed, no matter how absurd the story becomes.