The economic populism Third Way fears is what works in conservative districts
by David Atkins
DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas and the execrable Third Way are in a minor media tussle at the moment. Markos correctly pointed out that in both the House and Senate, the Democratic caucus has shifted significantly to the left over the last 10 years with the defeats of many conservative Democrats. The usual Third Way flacks Bennett and Kessler were given a megaphone to respond in Politico magazine that those conservative Democrats usually lost seats not to progressives, but to Republicans.
It's a fair point, but Markos has far the better of the argument. The issue is clouded by the specter of the 2010 redistricting and subsequent GOP gerrymandering, which made many House seats held by conservative Democrats unwinnable for either Blue Dogs or progressives. Bennett and Kessler would have readers believe that only an embrace of conservative Democrats and their policies will enable the Party to take the House back from Republicans.
But curiously, Bennett and Kessler also make the contradictory argument that the Conservadems aren't much different from their progressive counterparts:
Democrats across the spectrum agree on far more than we disagree—almost all supported President Obama’s key initiatives, including universal health care and fundamental immigration reform. Most support new gun safety laws, marriage for gay couples and a vigorous federal response to climate change. Yet for some, that’s not pure enough.That seems like a reasonable point. But it isn't. It's not what Kessler and Bennett say that is revealing, but what they leave out.
If the conservadems are such good friends of progressive policy, what then is the difference between them and the dreaded "liberals?" It's clearly not social issues: as they say, most modern conservadems support the Affordable Care Act, gun control efforts, marriage equality and climate change activism.
The difference is on core economics. It's about the attitude toward the economic elites, the top 1%, Wall Street and the other wealth hoarders in corporate America. It's not Elizabeth Warren's or Barbara Boxer's stances on climate change, guns or reproductive choice that cause Third Way so much anguish. It's their stance on who is a producer in today's economy, and who is a parasite.
And this is where the Third Way argument utterly falls apart. Because the thing about Elizabeth Warren's form of economic populism and anti-Wall Street sentiment is that it's the most popular piece of the Democratic agenda.
In the conservative areas of the country where Kessler and Bennett claim to be most concerned about Democratic chances of victory, it isn't the issues that sit underneath their proposed Big Tent that will carry the day, but rather the ones that they fear. In tough-to-win conservative districts there is heavy skepticism of climate change, distrust of the Affordable Care Act, and often outright hostility to immigration reform, gun control and marriage equality. If an "impure" Democrat must be allowed into the Big Tent in order to win enough seats to control Congress, then it should be on one or more of those issues that they should differ with the broader Democratic caucus.
Attacking Wall Street, on the other hand, is excellent politics in conservative districts. Hammering against unrestricted bailouts and cocaine-freebasing, prostitute-expensing billionaire vulture capitalists in Manhattan makes for a compelling argument in rural Missouri. Taking broadsides against outsourcing, Cayman Islands tax havens and corporate welfare queens is a superb strategy in suburban Colorado. It was Democrats who ran on these and similar campaign themes who won against the odds in 2012. Most Americans, including in conservative districts, are strongly in favor of reducing income inequality, raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits. Yes, they're also concerned about deficits in part because the Third Way coalition of Democrats helped the public believe that deficit hysteria is a bipartisan feeling. But if you ask swing voters whether they would rather close the deficit by cutting Social Security and unemployment benefits, or by raising taxes on billionaires and on Wall Street, the answers are clear.
The "liberalism" that Third Way fears is the very economic populist campaign platform that will send Democrats to victory in conservative districts if they embrace it. The issues that Third Way celebrates as uniting the conservadems and progressives in the Big Tent are ironically the ones that, while noble and necessary public policy, could end up costing some of our candidates electoral victory.
One could say that Third Way is simply a victim of the neoliberal propaganda that has poisoned the Democratic Party for the last few decades. But that wouldn't be accurate. In Third Way's case, one need only follow the money:
Economic populism isn't just good policy. It's also good politics--including and especially in conservative districts. Wall Street's enablers in the Third Way are simply blowing smoke to protect the interests of their funders.