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The rise of the New New Left

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In THIS LONGISH ANALYSIS, Peter Beinart says Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York City’s Democratic mayor primary election is “part of a vast shift that could upend three decades of American political thinking.”

Maybe Bill de Blasio got lucky. Maybe he only won because he cut a sweet ad featuring his biracial son. Or because his rivals were either spectacularly boring, spectacularly pathological, or running for Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term. But I don’t think so. The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now.

To understand why that challenge may prove so destabilizing, start with this core truth: For the past two decades, American politics has been largely a contest between Reaganism and Clintonism. In 1981, Ronald Reagan shattered decades of New Deal consensus by seeking to radically scale back government’s role in the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power by accepting that they must live in the world Reagan had made. Located somewhere between Reagan’s anti-government conservatism and the pro-government liberalism that preceded it, Clinton articulated an ideological “third way”: Inclined toward market solutions, not government bureaucracy, focused on economic growth, not economic redistribution, and dedicated to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was lower than it had been when Reagan left office.

For a time, small flocks of pre-Reagan Republicans and pre-Clinton Democrats endured, unaware that their species were marked for extinction. Hard as they tried, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole could never muster much rage against the welfare state. Ted Kennedy never understood why Democrats should declare the era of big government over. But over time, the older generation in both parties passed from the scene and the younger politicians who took their place could scarcely conceive of a Republican Party that did not bear Reagan’s stamp or a Democratic Party that did not bear Clinton’s. These Republican children of Reagan and Democratic children of Clinton comprise America’s reigning political generation.

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If you look at the political biographies of nationally prominent 40-something Republicans—Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz—what they all have in common is Reagan. Jindal has said about growing up in Louisiana, “I grew up in a time when there weren’t a whole lot of Republicans in this state. But I identified with President Reagan.” At age 17, Scott Walker was chosen to represent his home state of Colorado in a Boys Nation trip to Washington. There he met “his hero, Ronald Reagan,” who “played a big role in inspiring me.” At age 21, Paul Ryan interned for Robert Kasten, who had ridden into the Senate in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails. Two years later he took a job with Jack Kemp, whose 1981 Kemp-Roth tax cut had helped usher in Reaganomics. Growing up in a fiercely anti-communist Cuban exile family in Miami, Marco Rubio writes in his autobiography that “Reagan’s election and my grandfather’s allegiance to him were defining influences on me politically.” Ted Cruz is most explicit of all. “I was 10 when Reagan became president,” he told a conservative group earlier this year. “I was 18 when he left the White House … I’ll go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president … and when I look at this new generation of [Republican] leaders I see leaders that are all echoing Reagan.”

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Younger Democratic politicians are less worshipful of Clinton. Yet his influence on their worldview is no less profound. Start with the most famous, still-youngish Democrat, a man who although a decade older than Rubio, Jindal, and Cruz, hails from the same Reagan-Clinton generation: Barack Obama. Because he opposed the Iraq War, and sometimes critiqued the Clintons as too cautious when running against Hillary in 2008, some commentators depicted Obama’s victory as a rejection of Clintonism. But to read The Audacity of Hope—Obama’s most detailed exposition of his political outlook—is to be reminded how much of a Clintonian Obama actually is. At Clintonism’s core was the conviction that to revive their party, Democrats must first acknowledge what Reagan got right.

Obama, in describing his own political evolution, does that again and again: “as disturbed as I might have been by Ronald Reagan’s election … I understood his appeal” (page 31). “Reagan’s central insight … contained a good deal of truth” (page 157). “In arguments with some of my friends on the left, I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview” (page 289). Having given Reagan his due, Obama then sketches out a worldview in between the Reaganite right and unreconstructed, pre-Reagan left. “The explanations of both the right and the left have become mirror images of each other” (page 24), he declares in a chapter in which he derides “either/or thinking” (page 40). “It was Bill Clinton’s singular contribution that he tried to transcend this ideological deadlock” (page 34). Had the term not already been taken, Obama might well have called his intermediary path the “third way.”

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The argument between the children of Reagan and the children of Clinton is fierce, but ideologically, it tilts toward the right. Even after the financial crisis, the Clinton Democrats who lead their party don’t want to nationalize the banks, institute a single-payer health-care system, raise the top tax rate back to its pre-Reagan high, stop negotiating free-trade deals, launch a war on poverty, or appoint labor leaders rather than Wall Streeters to top economic posts. They want to regulate capitalism modestly. Their Reaganite Republican adversaries, by contrast, want to deregulate it radically. By pre-Reagan standards, the economic debate is taking place on the conservative side of the field. But—and this is the key point–there’s reason to believe that America’s next political generation will challenge those limits in ways that cause the leaders of both parties fits.

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