By Adam Chaikof
Americans are becoming increasingly concerned with the extreme concentrations in political and economic power.
While most public attention has focused upon the GOP’s internal divisions, the recent scuffle between the Third Way and Elizabeth Warren proves that there is an equally bitter struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul being waged just beneath the surface. To provide some context, the Third Way is self-described centrist Democratic think-tank that recently generated much controversy after it publicly attacked Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, and other progressives for pushing the Democratic Party to embrace a more populist economic agenda. In the Third Way’s view, Bill Clinton saved the party in the 1990s by moving it to the center and making it more “business-friendly,” but now it’s threatening to repeat the supposed mistakes of the 1980s thanks to progressive-populists like Warren and de Blasio. Only by sticking to the same Clintonian formula of what is best described as “neoliberalism with a human face” can the Democrats ever hope to retain power.
While the Third Way claims to be a voice of pragmatism, its recent actions have only shown that it is completely detached from the real world. Even if you accept its historical narrative, there’s no denying that the Democrats currently face a radically different set of political and economic circumstances than those of the 80s and 90s. For better or worse, the Democrats moved to the center under Clinton in order to appeal to the suburban middle-class. Today, however, not only is the American middle class poorer and less numerous, but poverty and economic insecurity have also moved from the margins of American society into the mainstream. A recent Oxford University study, for instance, showed that 40% American adults are currently at serious risk of spending at least one year in poverty. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 80% of Americans are currently at risk of economic insecurity, which Oxford defines “as experiencing unemployment at some point in their working lives, or a year or more of reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line.” A recent study from the Hamilton Project also revealed that 54% of American families make only $60,000 a year (which is only 250% above the poverty line) or less. What the decline of the middle class and the rise of the working poor indicate is that the Third Way’s agenda of watered-down neoliberalism and austerity measures is a political dead-end for Democrats as it does not address the American electorate’s most pressing concerns.
Recent election results also indicate that the American electorate is by and large open to a more aggressively populist, if not outright social democratic agenda. In 2013, for instance, left-leaning candidates swept local elections in Charlotte, N.C., Ashville, N.C., Dayton, OH, Phoenix, AZ, and Missoula, MT. This is to say nothing of larger populist victories in recent years such as Sherrod Brown’s election in Ohio, Brian Schweitzer’s in Montana, Jim Webb in Virginia, and Jeff Merkley in Oregon. In other words, the rise of economic populism is not, as the Third Way suggests, limited to solidly Democratic states such as NY and MA, but rather is a national phenomenon.
None of this is to say that Democrats didn’t accomplish anything substantial in the 1990s. What I am saying, however, is that Third Way has yet to realize that America is far different place politically today. As various political commentators have been pointing out since 2006, the American general public has become increasingly concerned with the extreme concentrations in political and economic power along with this country’s great disparities in wealth and opportunity. If we, as Democrats, fail to adequately address these concerns and harness America’s growing populist sentiment, then we risk giving someone like Rand Paul on the extreme right or Kshama Sawant on the extreme left the opportunity to fill that political void. This is a scenario that I imagine most would rather avoid at this point.