Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Douthat: "What's Left Of The Center-Left?"

Right on target, IMO, and eminently worth a read:
   But then consider a third distillation, a third narrative, in which the center-left’s signal political failure was that it never really sought to preserve a cultural centrism, which meant over time that its party’s approach to social issues has been dictated more and more completely by the left. In this story the political success of Bill Clinton reflected not only his compromises with Republicans on taxes and spending, his tacit nods to Reaganomics, but also his ability to infuse a centrist liberalism with reassuring nods to various kinds of moderate cultural conservatism — the school uniform and v-chip business and the rhetoric of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion, the easy Baptist religiosity, the tacitly center-right positions on immigration and crime and same-sex marriage.

   If Clinton had matched this cultural conservatism with decency in his private life, Al Gore would have won re-election as his heir and the larger story of the center-left might have been entirely different. But instead, from the mid-2000s onward, the leftward flank of the Democratic Party looked at the country’s changing demographics and growing social liberalism and decided that Clinton’s compromises with cultural conservatism weren’t as politically necessary as they had been (which was true), and that therefore they were free to become increasingly ideologically maximalist on everything touching gender or race or sexuality or immigration (which was … not true).

   In this sense the story of the Democrats’ struggles over the last 15 years is a story of a party that has consistently moved leftward faster than the also-changing country, and consistently overread victories — on same-sex marriage above all — as a template for how every cultural battle should play out. It’s a story of a new feminism that’s pushing the party ever-further from the center on abortion, of a new cohort of white liberals who are actually to the left of many African-Americans on racial issues, of an activist base that brands positions that many liberals held only yesterday as not only mistaken but bigoted or racist or beyond-the-pale.

   And in this part of the Democratic coalition’s story, the center-left’s role has been extraordinarily passive, essentially following the cultural left a tiny bit more slowly rather than trying to devise a more moderate approach. You can find hints of what such a moderate approach might look like in intellectual projects like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy, or in the probing, evenhanded culture-war reportage of the magazine writer Jesse Singal (whom I hesitate to even praise because it will do him no favors on the internet). But that cultural moderation has no substantial political form, no important champions within the Democratic Party. It has Joe Manchin and Tulsi Gabbard, maybe, but they are eccentric figures; elsewhere among the Democrats there is little interest in considering all the different ways that cultural extremism costs them votes.


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