A New Political Scale For Democrats

[ Posted Wednesday, February 13th, 2019 – 18:00 UTC ]

Do we need new labels to adequately describe the Democratic Party's ever-widening 2020 presidential field -- and, beyond, to more accurately describe the factions currently at play within the party at large? Because when most everyone agrees on the goals but differs mainly on the tactics that should be used to get there (or how fast we should try to get there), this doesn't really fit the old "leftist-versus-centrist" political scale at all anymore.

It's an interesting question to ask, but I hadn't given it much thought until now. I was recently directed by a reader to an interesting New York Times article written by Jamelle Bouie, which made the case for looking at the party through a new political lens. He makes the point that calling some Democrats "liberal" versus those who are "moderate" or "centrist" doesn't really capture the nuances of their very real differences about what direction the country should go in next. Or, to be even more accurate, the differences in how we should go about moving towards goals that most Democrats actually agree upon.

He talks about some people now labelled "centrist" or "moderate" -- Michael Bloomberg, Terry McAuliffe, and Howard Schultz. Schultz isn't even technically a Democrat anymore, but all three of them have been (to some degree or another) critical of the most progressive Democrats' ideas for change. Then he speaks about Joe Biden, where he really makes his case:

[Joe] Biden hasn't endorsed a "Medicare for all" plan, but if he runs [for president], he won't be running on deficit reduction or modest tweaks to existing programs. He supports free college and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. He wants to triple the earned-income tax credit, give workers more leverage and raise taxes on the rich. This is a liberal agenda. And yet Biden is understood as a "moderate" like [Michael] Bloomberg, [Terry] McAuliffe and [Howard] Schultz.

In other words, the whole party has shifted in a more progressive direction, but some Democrats see themselves as more realistic about how long it'll take to achieve these goals. But then Bouie makes a further argument, that we should see the new divide as being class warriors as opposed to corporatists. You could change those labels a bit, but the scale to measure politicians on, according to Bouie, basically boils down to how much they want to tax the rich:

What connects them (and similar politicians) is a belief that meaningful progress is possible without a fundamental challenge to those who hold most of the wealth and power in our society. For Biden, you don't need to demonize the richest Americans or their Republican supporters to reduce income inequality; you can find a mutually beneficial solution. Bloomberg, a billionaire, may have a personal reason for rejecting wealth taxes, but he may also see them as unnecessary and antagonistic if the goal is winning powerful interests over to your side. McAuliffe governed Virginia with an eye toward the business community. Sweeping social programs might be popular, but they might alienate that powerful constituency. And Schultz wants a Democratic Party less hostile to those he calls "people of means," who otherwise back goals like gun control.

But this is a faulty view of how progress happens. Struggle against the powerful, not accommodation of their interests, is how Americans produced the conditions for its greatest social accomplishments like the creation of the welfare state and the toppling of Jim Crow. Without radical labor activism that identifies capitalism -- and the bosses -- as the vector for oppression and disadvantage, there is no New Deal. Without a confrontational (and at times militant) black freedom movement, there is no Civil Rights Act. If one of the central problems of the present is an elite economic class that hoards resources and opportunity at the expense of the public as a whole, then it's naïve and ahistoric to believe the beneficiaries of that arrangement will willingly relinquish their power and privilege.

If there's a major division within Democratic politics, it's between those who confront and those who seek to accommodate. Because we lack a varied vocabulary in mainstream political discourse, we call the latter "moderates" or "centrists," which doesn't capture the dynamic at work.

He's definitely on to something about the language pundits and politicians use, but I still think he misses the mark a bit. While there is indeed a "pro-wealth" or "pro-big-business" wing of the Democratic Party, I think what animates activists within the party is harder to pin down than just wanting to tax the rich. Bouie doesn't offer up his own terminology, but his case might be seen as "Occupy Democrats" versus "Wall Street Democrats." Different labels could convey the same meaning, but those will do for now.

But I think he is making a much bigger point that should be a lot more generic than just where people fall on the "tax the rich" argument. His main thesis statement holds even when you look beyond that split: "If there's a major division within Democratic politics, it's between those who confront and those who seek to accommodate."

That is true. But "confrontationalists" and "accomodarians" don't really roll off the tongue. We need better labels than this.

The way I see it, on one side of the divide are people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are (mostly) young and eager to see big structural changes made to the system. They know what they want, and they want to shoot for the moon right away. Some might want to use the label "progressive," but that isn't strictly accurate. If two Democratic politicians want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but one wants to do it over 10 years and one wants to do it in two years, then they're both advocating progressive goals, just with a different timeline.

We need a whole new scale of measurement that gets away from the left-right frame, in other words. This new scale is really all about the tactics, not the goals. The differences between the Democratic presidential candidates so far mostly boil down to how eager they are to push for fundamental change and what tactics they think should be used to get there. On the one side, we have those who think that confrontational activism is the only way to effect such large change in a short period of time, so that's the road they see as most viable. Call it the "activist" wing of the party (which sounds more positive than "confrontationalists" anyway).

What to call the other side of this new political measurement tool is a bit tougher, because "moderate" and "centrist" aren't going to work, for the reasons Bouie lays out. The terms are already in use on the traditional left-right scale, and the whole point is to create another sliding-scale way of looking at Democratic politics. So, with activists on one end of the scale, what should we call the other end?

There are two good choices I could think of (in other words: there may be others that are better, these are just the ones I brainstormed): "pragmatists" and "incrementalists." The former is more positive-sounding than the latter, I will admit. But "incrementalist" would probably be more accurate. Nancy Pelosi, for instance, is the ultimate pragmatist -- she will support a bill that moves left to precisely the degree that she thinks she can get through her own caucus. She doesn't want to waste time with bills that won't even pass the House, in other words. So she listens to both sides, does a lot of vote counting, and comes up with a compromise that will pass the House. Her own political beliefs don't really enter into it all that much, because she is operating as a leader and thus is forced to be as pragmatic as possible. But I wouldn't exactly call this "incrementalism," because at times she manages to get some major steps forward in the bills she does pass.

But incrementalism still has obvious negative connotations, and political labels only really work if people accept them. So perhaps activists-versus-pragmatists is the way to go. [I should note that I'm still not totally sold on these particular labels, so if anyone has any better ones to suggest down in the comments, please do.]

On one side of this divide are Democrats who have spent time in the congressional-minority wilderness, and those who were frustrated with the pace of change Democrats managed under the first few years of Barack Obama's term. Sure, Obamacare got enacted, but there were so many other things that could have been simultaneously accomplished, the activist Democrats argue. The new Democratic House should be leading the way forward, and showing the American public exactly what Democrats could achieve if they only held the White House and the Senate -- which is central to their 2020 campaign argument. Dream big! Shoot for the stars! If it doesn't happen right away, then at least we will have moved the political conversation a lot further forward than we would have by being too timid.

The pragmatists, on the other hand, are always fearful of blowback from the voters. They buy into the pundits' thinking that if Democrats go "too far left" then independent and middle-of-the-road voters will abandon them and they'll lose the House majority they fought so hard for. The pundits -- and the pragmatist wing of the Democrats -- usually vastly underestimate the popularity of much of the progressive platform when shrinking away from it, though. Raising the minimum wage polls extraordinarily high, but the pragmatists worry about losing the support of business owners.

What's interesting is that while this way of looking at the split in the party is a new one that might be necessary in today's Democratic Party, we've actually already had a big election cycle where this dynamic was prominent. Because Bernie Sanders has been the most successful activist Democrat so far, when measured by how far he personally moved the debate within the Democratic Party. While Hillary Clinton was the ultimate incrementalist, billing herself as a "progressive who knows how to get things done." Her campaign was ridiculed by some (myself included) as being nothing more than: "Dream small!" She cautioned pragmatism and baby steps, while Bernie wanted to shake the whole system down at the foundation.

The Sanders-Clinton 2016 primary contest was about more than just an activist-pragmatist split, of course. Clinton and Sanders actually did disagree on many items on their agendas -- it wasn't merely a question of how fast the goals should (or could be expected to) be achieved. There were real ideological differences.

But Clinton's loss set up the situation the Democrats are now in. Most of the party has come around (to one degree or another) on most of the progressive issues championed by Sanders. Most of what Clinton denigrated as too radical has now become core planks in the party platform. And almost all of the 2020 candidates buy into the platform (again, to some degree or another). The ideological differences have shrunk, and in some cases, disappeared altogether. The big factional split within the party now is how hard Democrats should push for these shared goals, and how fundamental the changes need to be to get there. It's going to be hard enough to differentiate between all the 2020 Democratic candidates, but this could be a very useful tool to do so.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


23 Comments on “A New Political Scale For Democrats”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Credit where it's due -- thanks and a hat-tip to Paula:

    for suggesting I read this article in the first place.



  2. [2] 
    Paula wrote:

    CW: Yep, it was a good article!

    The big factional split within the party now is how hard Democrats should push for these shared goals, and how fundamental the changes need to be to get there.

    Having watched the rollouts of Warren, Harris and Klobuchar so far, I think they illustrate this continuum rather well.

    Warren was the most specific and explicit about the need for structural change - she starts from the premise that over time the wealthiest people and largest corporations have been able to cause alterations to our rules/laws until they benefit them (the richest ppl/corps, hereby referred to as the 1% for short) and either don't impact or actively harm everyone else.

    She says this happened incrementally in a way I'll describe as a loop wherein rules are weakened that flow $ toward some group or business, then rules or laws are changed so that politicians can get some of the action, then more rules change and lobbyists can offer various "bribes" and politicians can accept them and get more money or access to better jobs and more rules are changed to weaken counter-balances to 1% or pols that favor them (unions busted, oversight agencies gutted, etc.)...the cycle feeds itself - so now the problem is two-fold: the 1% is increasingly able to direct the politicians and politicians are increasingly incentivized to favor the interests of the 1%.

    Meanwhile, Americans at large are shut out of all of this, in part due to all the efforts made by incentivized pols to suppress voters and/or do nothing about voter suppression.

    So to counter all of that she has a range of proposals to break the power/influence of the 1%, remove the incentives from elected officials to serve the 1% and strengthen the power of American citizens and the institutions of our democracy.

    Many of her proposals echo and are echoed by other Dems, but I think her approach is the most holistic, where each part impacts other parts.

    Klobuchar occupies the opposite end of the continuum - she uses the traditional laundry list approach of: here's a problem and how I'll fix it; here's another problem and how I'll fix it...

    The problems she highlights are real. The solutions she offers range in boldness from one to the next, but they are piecemeal and reactive.

    Meanwhile, in the middle there's Harris. She offers a laundry list approach like Klobuchar, but I think she has more of an over-arching theme: justice. That includes social-justice. Both flow authentically from her experiences in criminal justice and as a POC. She is making social-justice issues a centerpiece, saying that how our country treats the marginalized and minorities shows us where the weaknesses in our system are.

    Warren has a description for the disease: the 1% has to much power over our government and indirectly our lives, resulting in income inequality, economic insecurity and abuse of the weakest/poorest, etc. She names the villains and lists the harms done to the 99%.

    Harris says: our system is riddled with injustice - here's how they play out. She names the victims but the villains are more vague.

    Klobuchar says: there's a bunch of things we need to fix. There's lots of victims - villains are mostly unnamed, although both Klobuchar and Harris note some problems they lay directly at the feet of the DJT administration.

    I see Klobuchar (and other accommodaters) as a symptom-treaters; Warren wants to tackle the disease. (Harris lies between the two.)

    I think that's the differentiator between confronters and accommodaters: can you specify the CAUSE (the villains) and do you plan to tackle them, or do you hope simply to mitigate symptoms?

  3. [3] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Okay, figure for a second that desire to defeat Trump leads to Biden being picked as nominee. I see a clear path to that. Of course, to get there, he had to knock off every other candidate, including the left's favorite. They're sore about it, too.

    So what does the left do? Do they pull another sit-in, letting Trump win? Now, I think, is the time to start asking that question.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    He's definitely on to something about the language pundits and politicians use, but I still think he misses the mark a bit.

    I do, too.

    And, perhaps there is a more relevant political spectrum - considering the current state of politics and the increasingly perilous state of the planet and human existence - to characterize political figures, Democrat and Republican.

    I've learned about a past-future political spectrum that runs from the up end (future) to the down (past) end with the futurist end characterized by new technology, creative use of existing technology, and new ways to reinforce shared values and introduce new visions.

    The "up-wing" political leader puts a bold emphasis on "future-oriented and enlightened policies" in order to move the nation forward as a global leader, especially during the kinds of challenging times that would stop a down-wing leader in his or her tracks.

    Is there any candidate amongst the declared candidates for president that could be called an up-wing leader?

  5. [5] 
    neilm wrote:

    This might be a long one. Apologies in advance.

    I think we need leaders who point to a summit and say "Let's get to the top!" - sometimes these summits are fairly easy, and the leader can carry us there on momentum, but sometimes the summit needs serious organization to reach, and the original leader can only take us so far.

    So it is with the visions we have in America. The original vision is outlined early in the Constitution, but it is the interim summits (abolition of slavery, emancipation, civil rights, social security and medicare) that are the real slogs. Johnson achieved a lot - by being pragmatic. FDR led and delivered. Lincoln also.

    I believe (and I've changed my thinking on this based on how much Bernie moved the Overton window) that this is a time for bold leadership.

    I'm hoping the Democrats give us a bold leader.

  6. [6] 
    neilm wrote:

    Well it turned out to be shorter than I thought.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Bold = up-wing.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    This might be a long one. Apologies in advance.

    This is the last place on earth that apologies for lengthy posts are warranted. Heh.

  9. [9] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    "We need a whole new scale of measurement that gets away from the left-right frame, in other words. This new scale is really all about the tactics, not the goals."


    And the labels in your article are all aboot labeling the goals and ignore the only tactic (and label) that matters when it comes to whether or not the candidates will work to achieve the goals or they are just making empty promises- do they finance their campaign with Big Money donors or small-donors?

    If they take Big Money, they may promise to be bold during the campaign, but will uses pragmatism, incrementalism or whatever excuse they can come up with to avoid delivering on their promises because they want/need the Big Money to get re-elected.

    That's how fundamental the change needs to be.

    You can drone on aboot the artificial differences in the goals and get nowhere fast or get down to the basic reality of the only tactic that matters and enable citizens to take the bold action that is required to make progress.

  10. [10] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Has Bernie moved the Overton window enough on small-donor campaigns that we can now demand as CW said in a recent article "purely small-donor" campaigns?

  11. [11] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Whe sets the parameters for the "Overton Window"? Appears to me that there is no element of the democratics' political philosopy of forced equalization that is too 'radical' for somebody somewhere to advocate.

  12. [12] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Oops, make that read "Who . . ."

  13. [13] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    The view through the Overton window depends upon the eye of the beholder. We all have our own interpretation of what we see.

    Some people look and make up their own minds and others let the labels and the people assigning labels influence their interpretation.

    But sometimes when something reaches over a ton of support (say 80% of citizens) then it can no longer be ignored.

    The trick is to determine if the attention to the support is designed to placate citizens while preventing and/or delaying what the citizens want or actually addressing the concern in a positive and productive manner.

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Oops, make that read "Who . . ."

    One that should be who and t'other that should be where. But we don't have to worry about these things as I believe the grammar and spelling police have disbanded. :)

  15. [15] 
    neilm wrote:

    Wh[o] sets the parameters for the "Overton Window"?

    I trust Pew Surveys - if the majority of Americans are for something, then it is in the Overton Window - for example "Ref Flag" laws are popular and are being enacted in several states, including Republican ones, however "extremists", for example Republicans in Virginia, are blocking them where they can.

  16. [16] 
    neilm wrote:

    Here is a nice graphic showing the Overton Window concept:

    Again, the window shows what is acceptable the mainstream America, not an individual's viewpoint. We all have our own "Windows" but that isn't the concept.

  17. [17] 
    neilm wrote:

    And, of course, "Ref Flag" should read "Red Flag" :)

  18. [18] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    pie is clearly in the overton window, so the public supports policies to promote pie. however, politicians are all in the pockets of big cake.

  19. [19] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Paula [2]

    I see Klobuchar (and other accommodaters) as a symptom-treaters; Warren wants to tackle the disease. (Harris lies between the two.)

    Spot on! Great article!

  20. [20] 
    Paula wrote:

    [19] Listen: thanks!

  21. [21] 
    Bleyd wrote:

    The two parties already use animal mascots, so why not continue with that theme? The "activists" as CW calls them would be "Hares" while the "pragmatists" or "incrementalists" would be the "Tortoises". The Hares want things done as quickly as possible, which makes them exciting, but they run the risk of getting overextended and losing sight of the goal. The Tortoises go by the motto of "slow and steady wins the race", which, while not especially inspiring, is often true, and allows them to keep focused on the goal. I think the true "Pragmatist" is the one who finds the best compromise between the two, taking leaps when they present themselves, but otherwise maintaining a slow and steady progression forward.

  22. [22] 
    Kick wrote:


    Awesome. :)

  23. [23] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: But incrementalism still has obvious negative connotations, and political labels only really work if people accept them. So perhaps activists-versus-pragmatists is the way to go. [I should note that I'm still not totally sold on these particular labels, so if anyone has any better ones to suggest down in the comments, please do.]

    Why should "incrementalism" have negative connotations when our system of government was set up that way entirely on purpose? The labels "pragmatism" or "incrementalism" could quite easily be defined as "realism" since that's the way our country has generally always functioned... quite intentionally by design of our Founders who had successfully radically altered an entire system and then purposely endeavored to replace it with one that could withstand a similar radical onslaught and thereby escape the same fate as its predecessor.

    Labels!? I hate labels... and labels within a group generally serve to simply divide that group. If you're busy dividing yourself, then you're merely doing the work of your competition for them. This is akin to the press labelling the candidates as "likeable/unlikeable" or "authentic/inauthentic," etc. No, thank you on the labelling.

    Neil is right; the time is now for bold leadership. That's not something you can place a label on either, and you know it when you see it. The candidate who wins the nomination will generally defy all attempts to label him/her as a "radical" or a "realist" or anything but rather will point to the horizon and say: "Here's where we're headed, and we will be getting there. It may not be easy and may take perseverance, but this is where we're going... so join us."

    The message of the Democrats should be something along the lines of: I would vote for a damn inanimate object before I would vote for any of the spineless hypocritical Republicans.

    You want to define somebody? Define your opponent: Vote "D" for Democratic or "R" for Russia.

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