Between the 2010 midterms and President Obama’s re-election in 2012, the conventional understanding of political polarization was that Republicans had shifted sharply to the right, while Democrats had remained essentially where they were, or maybe edged ever-so-slightly leftward. The argument that polarization is largely a Republican-driven phenomenon—that the two poles are drifting apart, but that the red pole is moving much faster than the blue one—looked weaker after the 2012 election, when Obama came out swinging for an ambitious liberal agenda in his inaugural address. Now, as the 2016 election gets underway, this narrative will likely need to be scrapped entirely. The New York Times recently reported on the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch, and how frontrunner Hillary Clinton is adapting to it:
Nearly 20 years after President Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” Hillary Rodham Clinton is proposing muscular federal policies that would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending and markedly expand Washington’s influence in a host of areas, from universal prekindergarten to Alzheimer’s disease research…
Against the sweep of Democratic Party history, Mrs. Clinton’s proposals reflect a decided return to vibrant liberalism.
The government programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt – whose presidency Mrs. Clinton regularly invokes – and Lyndon B. Johnson aimed to transform the lives of poor and elderly Americans with jobs, health care, and retirement benefits. But the consecutive electoral losses of Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale, and Michael S. Dukakis in the 1980s – as well as President Ronald Reagan’s framing of government as “the problem” – gave rise to centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton who envisioned federal programs as safety nets rather than solutions to every social ill.
During the 2012 election, Barack Obama memorably attacked the Republicans’ rightward shift, saying that Ronald Reagan could not win a modern Republican presidential nomination. That may be true, but it’s also true that Bill Clinton could not win a modern Democratic presidential nomination—as evidenced by the fact that Hillary Clinton has had to renounce the majority of her husband’s positions in order to be competitive.
This left-populist resurgence comes even as the nation might be poised to drift rightward, for two reasons. The big challenge—and opportunity—facing America today is the decline of the postwar welfare and managerial state beginning in the 1970s (what we call the “blue model”). The Democratic party’s orthodox response to this trend is to try to shore up what’s left of that model, and rebuild some of what’s been lost. But as Walter Russell Mead has documented at length, the blue decline traces, at least in part, to economic and demographic factors like globalization, technological change, and the aging of the population that simply can’t be put back in the genie’s bottle.
And it’s not clear that the majority of the American public wants policies aimed at reviving the blue model anyway. As John Judis has argued at length, the conventional wisdom about the “emerging Democratic majority” has been challenged by new evidence that key demographics—especially, Hispanics, Asians, and millennials—might not always be as solidly Democratic as the party has come to believe. The middle class is not suffering as much as the blue modelers tend to assume, and polls show a public wary of dramatically expanded government programs. If that’s the case, the Democratic party might soon find itself more out of sync with the electorate than it currently seems to expect.