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| June 10, 2021 11: 00 PM
After being asked for what must have seemed like the bazillionth time, West Virginia’s beleaguered Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, once again explained that he opposed nuking the filibuster and blowing up the institution of which he is a part. If his party wants to pass its agenda, it’ll have to play by the rules, not change them. Manchin rejected the idea that he has made himself the story by simply refusing to destroy the Senate. “To think I’ve changed my voting pattern because I want to be in a position of being that one person in the middle, that never happened,” Manchin said, getting to the heart of the matter. “Everything changed, I didn’t change.”
Progressives are pounding the table. After Manchin wrote an op-ed explaining his desire for any sweeping overhaul of the country’s voting system to be bipartisan, Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York tweeted: “Manchin’s op-ed might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow.’” His fellow New York congressman, Jamaal Bowman, told CNN that Manchin “is doing everything in his power to stop democracy.”
Why are Democrats so frustrated? They have slim majorities, yes, but majorities nonetheless, in both houses of Congress, plus control of the presidency. And President Joe Biden is amenable to pretty much any of the progressives’ legislative goals.
In truth, that is part of the problem for the Left. Biden’s agenda is sputtering. Despite perceptions, this has little to do with Mitch McConnell’s recalcitrance or the existence of the Senate filibuster. As of this writing, the GOP hasn’t been able to stand in the way of a single major policy proposal forwarded by the White House. Biden’s slow start is almost entirely a function of his inability to appease both factions of his own party. And while centrists such as Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema are the fixation of our political media, they are not the main drivers of the schism. That would be the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. Manchin is right when he says he wasn’t the one who changed.
Indeed, Manchin’s party is in the midst of a historic ideological transformation. A leftward trajectory that began during the Obama years has now accelerated to a perilous speed. Biden has proposed $6 trillion in new spending in only the first few months of his presidency. To put that in perspective, Barack Obama did everything he could to keep the 10-year cost of the Affordable Care Act under $1 trillion (on paper, at least). On abortion, the border, criminal justice, foreign policy, a slew of culture issues — you name it — the president hasn’t simply adopted more liberal rhetoric; his positions are now considerably to the left of the administration in which he served as vice president. To make matters worse, Biden, once a defender of Senate customs and decorum, now habitually flirts with norm-destroying progressive hobbyhorses, such as ending the filibuster, packing the courts, a federal takeover of state elections, and the creation of new states. Most of these positions would have been unpalatable for most voters only a few years ago. And as Charles Cooke recently explained in the Washington Examiner, Joe Biden’s positions would have been unpalatable to Joe Biden only a few years ago.
Biden has reinvented his political persona so aggressively, in fact, it’s difficult to believe he’s still a tempering force in his party, even though that was a central premise of the dwindling moderate Democrats’ case for nominating him in the first place. Still, nothing Biden does is ever big enough for the progressive wing. In this environment, the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure proposal being discussed, which would still be one of the priciest bills in history, is treated as if it were a pared-down, corner-cutting exercise in austerity. This dynamic might allow Biden to position himself as a centrist deal-maker in the short term, but the expectations he is fostering are altering our politics in dramatic ways.
In 2019, Dan Balz of the Washington Post had already christened New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “the titular leader of a progressive grass-roots movement pushing the party to the left.” And push she does. Yet, it shouldn’t be forgotten that socialist Bernie Sanders could have faced Donald Trump as a nominee for president in 2016 had the Democratic Party instituted, well, more democratic primaries. This, of course, was before Trump’s victory, before the most radical factions of the activist Left would be normalized under the din of “resistance” outrage. The fact is that progressivism is what animates the Left today. And although Biden is president, progressivism is what will animate the Left, and the Democratic Party, tomorrow. Progressives are the ones championed by celebrity academics and the activist class, the darlings of media, which simultaneously work to normalize their ideas and shield voters from their most radical-sounding schemes.
Republicans have long griped, often hyperbolically, about the socialistic turn of the Democratic Party. Yet the lesson of the boy who cried wolf is that the wolf may, in fact, show up, eventually. Today, there is an American political movement that openly embraces 19th-century Marxist ideas, often imbued with a 21st-century identitarian twist, in which class struggle is swapped for race struggle. It is a movement that not only rejects foundational notions of a meritocratic society, of property rights, and of traditional individual liberties, it is a party that treats the American project as a failed experiment.
It is growing not only in strength but in number. Ocasio-Cortez was famously joined by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both of whom won primaries for seats vacated by more moderate Democrats, as well as Ayanna Pressley, who unseated Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’s Democratic primary. Since then, “the Squad,” as they have become known, added the aforementioned Bowman and Jones, plus Missouri’s Cori Bush, Illinois’s Marie Newman, and other allies. More importantly, this wing of the party often dictates our national conversations. Just imagine what they’ll be able to accomplish with a few more seats.
And it is likely that progressive power will be bolstered over the next few election cycles, even if the Democratic Party loses one or both houses of Congress. In fact, their power is likely to be consolidated by such party setbacks because centrists are vulnerable in competitive districts where “Squad goals” remain toxic. Turns out, the ideas most admired by blue-check Twitterati and journalists in urban newsrooms might not be popular among the hoi polloi. In 2018, the significant gains made by Democrats were predicated largely on suburban voters turning on a Trump-era Republican Party. In 2020, however, Democrats were already underperforming, even with the presence of Trump on the ticket. Republicans barraged markets in Texas and Florida, for instance, with ads highlighting the Democrats’ socialistic contingent. Many Hispanic Americans, whose families had experienced the consequences of collectivist policies, turned on Democrats. Others might, as well.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that while more Democrats approve of socialism than approve of capitalism — half of all Democrats and more than two-thirds of progressives — only 23% of independents and 7% of Republicans viewed the ideology favorably. Most notably, among suburban voters, 61% had a negative view of collectivist economics. It’s not just “socialism.” What happens when Democratic candidates in working-class areas of Pennsylvania or Ohio have to explain why prominent voices in their party support abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement? It is not merely backbenchers in the House who claim the nation has a moral responsibility to shut down the agency that upholds immigration laws, but rather senators such as Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand. It is not merely progressive firebrands shouting into the void about a border wall being evil and racist, but Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who claims it is “an immorality.”
What happens when Democrats in Minnesota or Georgia are compelled to explain to their voters why some of the biggest stars in their party support “defunding the police” in the middle of spiking violent crime? What will millions of voters who either worked and borrowed to pay for a college education or skipped it altogether think about Democrats who support transferring billions of tax dollars to pay the tuitions of wealthier families that can already afford college? How will Democrats in Arizona or Iowa explain their party’s support for phasing out the most affordable, most efficient, and predominant energy source we have? How popular would a giant, coercive, state-run project that would bring unprecedented intrusions into American life be in Texas or Florida during rising energy prices? Supporters of the Green New Deal, a pet project of Ocasio-Cortez and her faction, are eager to test it.
Climate change policies will no longer be merely aspirational goals without political costs. On numerous occasions, Biden has bragged that his plan to achieve “a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions” is based on the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez maintains that she’s secured a commitment from Biden for $2 trillion to fund her climate plan. If this is true, and there is no reason to believe it’s not, Biden’s tab is going to approach $8 trillion soon enough.
But who’s counting? Not the Squad. When NPR asked Ocasio-Cortez how to pay for this wide-ranging statist experiment, she explained: “I think the first thing that we need to do is kind of break the mistaken idea that taxes pay for 100% of government expenditure.”
One of the most radical accomplishments of contemporary progressivism has been mainstreaming modern monetary theory, which is essentially amped-up Keynesian spending with a bottomless well of money. The theory holds that we can spend all we want because we can print more dollars to pay down debt. Both parties, of course, hypocritically indulge in massive deficit spending. Yet, politicians had always had the decency to offer voters some perfunctory rhetoric about our responsibility to “pay” for our “investments.” They might push spending cuts or propose raising revenue by taxing the wealthy or argue that economic growth will make up the difference. Yet, the notion that deficits are wholly irrelevant, and that a nation can perpetually borrow its own currency, not only allows politicians to make endless promises but fuels expectations of wide-ranging dependency.
Antiquated Marxist ideas have infiltrated foreign policy as well. Democrats, who had taken to both-sides-ing Israel under Obama, now have a bloc that vociferously defends Palestinian terrorism while smearing Israel as a racist “apartheid state.” Virtually none of the centrist Democrats, many of whom were not so long ago stalwart defenders of the Jewish state, speak up to oppose them. Biden, to his credit, recently went through with an arms sale to Israel worth around $735 million. But how long before the resistance grows strong enough to turn the Democratic Party against one of our more reliable allies?
At the same time, progressives work to hamper efforts to hold China accountable for its aggression, including, reportedly, by lobbying the Biden administration to pull its punches. It is no surprise that Sanders, a defender of murderous dictators such as Daniel Ortega or Fidel Castro, and the Soviet state itself, would be an apologist for Hamas or China or Venezuela. Such rhetoric, once relegated to Chomsky-reading radicals on college campuses, has been normalized within one of America’s major parties. The only nation other than Israel that progressives seem to disfavor is the United States. Perhaps the most corrosive accomplishment of the modern progressive movement is allowing the idea that the American project is an iniquitous failure to manifest in policy. It is unprecedented.
Then again, when one hears Ocasio-Cortez discuss the “decolonization” of Puerto Rico or propose building fewer jails to fight spiking crime, or breezily endorse the idea of “truth and reconciliation” initiatives to govern speech, it becomes clear that, despite her growing stature, she is dangerously ill-equipped to be in government. The success of this puerile progressivism is predicated on the creeping ideocratic style of American politics.
The dumbing down of rhetoric and ideas is probably the lament of every generation. And, certainly, no party has a monopoly on stupid. Yet many of the most charismatic populists are little more than social media stars — experts at dunking on their foes, navigating the intricacies of Twitter spats, and sloganeering in 280 characters — wholly unprepared, both intellectually and experientially, for governance.
The media pay endless attention to intraparty squabbling in the GOP, as they did with wall-to-wall coverage of the ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney, formerly the third-ranking Republican in House leadership. Yet they largely glide over the genuine schism within the Democratic Party, which isn’t merely about personalities but enduring ideological changes. Outside of Manchin and Sinema, the centrist wing seems to have preemptively surrendered to the radicals. Other than the occasional outburst from Nancy Pelosi, usually when her power is being threatened, Democratic leadership never publicly challenges any of the Squadlings. There is no “Never Socialism” movement. Without a major shift in trajectory, Biden may be the last best chance to hold back the progressive flood. But he’s not even trying to build a dam.
David Harsanyi is a senior writer at National Review.
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