The progressives are coming!: Why the latest attempt to “save” Democrats from populism is so pathetic

Center-right Democrats finally face a formidable challenge -- and that has them terrified

Published October 10, 2014 10:33PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

Last December, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler of the Wall Street-funded think tank Third Way penned a widely-discussed op-ed for the Wall Street Journal warning Democrats of the perils of economic populism, which Cowan and Kessler called a “dead end” for the party. The piece lambasted prominent progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, asserting that their focus on income inequality and their unwillingness to back savage cuts to social insurance programs was both irresponsible and politically foolish.

The piece triggered a fierce backlash against Third Way, and even two co-chairs of the organization disavowed Cowan and Kessler’s anti-populist screed. But the plutocratic wing of the Democratic Party hasn’t breathed its last, and the latest centrist attack on progressive populism is a real doozy.

It comes courtesy of a Politico Magazine essay by Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall. A co-founder of the now-shuttered center right group the Democratic Leadership Council and a onetime aide to former Sen. Joe Lieberman, Marshall has long been a leading agitator on behalf of a more right-leaning Democratic Party. Aggressively hawkish on foreign affairs – Marshall was associated with the erstwhile neoconservative group the Project for a New American Century and was a big booster of the Iraq War – Marshall also harbors distinctly center-right views on economic issues, joining deficit scolds in railing against so-called “’borrow and spend’ policies” and championing “entitlement reform” and corporate tax cuts.

Marshall’s central thesis is that to win power, Democrats must capture the loyalties of moderate voters. Given the high number of Americans who tell pollsters that they’re “moderate” in their political orientation, it sounds sensible enough. But Marshall proceeds to simply ascribe to rank-and-file moderates the center-right views of the Beltway punditocracy, the better to make his case that progressive populism is a losing prospect. To win moderate voters, Marshall writes, Democrats must shun “leftish orthodoxy” on by “supporting trade agreements, real accountability in education, changes in entitlements, development of America’s shale-gas windfall and efforts to lower regulatory obstacles to entrepreneurship.” The party must refocus its efforts toward reducing the budget deficit and national debt, and it must place a higher priority on “economic growth,” not “redistribution to achieve equality.”

From a purely political standpoint – the vantage from which Marshall is primarily writing – this is nothing short of bunk. Most recent polling, for instance, shows Americans are skeptical of “free trade agreements” and support expanding Social Security. Moreover, while the way a poll frames choices may lead Americans to say growth should be a higher priority than reducing inequality, surveys indicate that Americans see inequality as a dire problem and want to raise taxes to solve it. Asked to chart an ideal distribution of wealth for society, a majority of Americans show preferences for a far more egalitarian society than we have now.

The policies Marshall advocates are no better than the politics. Reducing economic inequality, for instance, is essential to economic growth, while spikes in inequality contribute to financial crises. As economist Thomas Piketty points out, "One consequence of increasing inequality was virtual stagnation of the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes in the United States, which inevitably made it more likely that modest households would take on debt, especially since unscrupulous banks and financial intermediaries ... offered credit on increasingly generous terms." Meanwhile, phrases like “real accountability in education” are meaningless sloganeering, designed to obfuscate an anti-union agenda and push education “reforms” that don’t actually work. On climate change, Marshall is being nothing short of disingenuous when he suggests that pouring resources into natural gas production is compatible with a sustainable environmental policy. While natural gas itself may be cleaner than other fossil fuels, fracking for natural gas leaks methane, which is 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

When it comes to foreign policy, Marshall shows no signs of having learned the lessons of the disastrous militaristic policies he enthusiastically backed in the Bush administration. “U.S. foreign policy can’t simply be a series of belated, ad hoc reactions to crises,”he argues, as if progressives were advocating a “belated, ad hoc” foreign policy. “We need a new strategy for weakening Islamist extremism in whatever form it takes, for revitalizing NATO as a bulwark against Russian expansion, and for creating a balance of power in East Asia that protects the region’s free and open societies.” Marshall doesn’t explain what achieving these sweeping goals would entail, but it’s clear that the Iraq War cheerleader is fearful that progressive Democrats aren’t as keen on American interventionism and chest-thumping as he’d like.

While Cowan and Kessler at least had the courtesy to name high-profile adherents of the ideology they were castigating, Marshall’s piece doesn’t name-check a single soul; the closest he comes is a general swipe at “self-appointed ideological minders like MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.” It’s possible that Marshall genuinely believes, despite evidence to the contrary, that these unnamed leftist villains’ policies are politically perilous. But it’s hard to escape the sense that what really terrifies Marshall and his ilk is the realization that their brain-dead centrism finally faces a robust challenge.

By Luke Brinker

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