The capitalist-but-radical Democrats

How the Democratic Party rejected socialism, and still became the most left-wing major party in American history

Stephan Kapustka, Staff Writer

There are two narratives about the current state of the Democratic Party. 

The first depicts a party that has warded off the far-left by nominating former Vice President Joe Biden, a preeminent career politician who has been in public office for nearly 20% of the history of the United States. First elected in 1970, 28 years before I was born, Biden has a history of staking out moderate positions on the issues, including a 1994 crime bill signed into law under President Bill Clinton that increased funding for prisons and broadened the usage of the death penalty. Biden stood alone amongst the major Democratic candidates against the calls for Medicare-for-All. He has distanced himself from some of the more trendy progressive fads like defunding the police. He picked as his vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who has been criticized by progressives for being too tough on crime during her tenure as San Francisco District Attorney.

Photo from Flickr

The second narrative depicts a Democratic Party that has shifted hard to the left over the past few years. A so-called “Great Awokening” that began before President Donald Trump but has accelerated during his presidency. Democratic sentiment on issues ranging from race to immigration to policing has moved beyond what could have been even conceived 10 years ago. 

“Many of the ideas that we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered ‘radical,’ are now mainstream,” Bernie Sanders said at the DNC this August.

It seems hard to argue with him. An atmosphere on the left that was dismissive or even apologetic of rioting across major American cities led the Democrats to not so much as mention the phenomenon during their convention, much less condemn it in the unequivocal terms it deserved. Many in their progressive wing go so far as to call for the defunding or even abolition of police. “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” was the headline of a June opinion article in the New York Times. This is not a fad or rhetorical bluster, it is a serious proposition. It represents a major departure from not just Clinton’s Democratic Party, but President Barack Obama’s as well.

Which of these propositions are accurate? 

Trick question. They both are.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have become radical, but on only some issues.

One of the effects, or consequences if you are so inclined, of the Trump presidency is a shuffling of the party coalitions. Many of the affluent, college-educated, culturally-moderate Republicans that undergirded the campaigns of previous Republicans like President George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney recoiled in horror from the uncouth, inflammatory man that was and is Trump. On the contrary, many lower-class and non-college educated Americans that felt as though the Democratic Party abandoned their Democratic roots to vote for Trump. This push and pull of voters has not had any net effect on the size of the parties. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2019, 36% of voters described themselves as Republicans, essentially unchanged from the 37% registered in previous iterations of the poll in 2018, 2016 and 2012. However, it has changed the constituencies, and thus incentive structures, of both parties. The Republican Party has become more rhetorically hard-edge, downscale and populist. There is much that could be said about that transformation, enough for many articles. But just as significant, arguably more so if the polls predicting a major Democratic victory in November are to be believed, is the opposite transformation within the Democratic Party. The suburban white voters that have fled from Trump to the Democratic Party and replaced the blue-collar workers have a different set of outlooks and priorities. Like the transitional Democratic base, these suburban white voters are progressive on social issues ranging from abortion to guns. But unlike the Democratic base, they tend to be upper-middle class and live in suburban neighborhoods. These are voters who put Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns, but become very upset if their taxes go up.

If you watched the Republican National Convention, you may have been a bit confused by more than one speaker blasting congressional Democrats for wanting to give tax breaks to the wealthy. It’s not a fabricated attack. The 2017 Republican tax bill put a cap on what is known as the state and local tax deduction, or SALT. This policy essentially allows those who pay a large amount of state and local taxes to deduct some of that amount from their federal taxes. In practice, this increases taxes on wealthy Americans in states with high local taxes, these are predominantly blue states. Since retaking the House of Representatives, the Democrats have fought to remove the cap on SALT deductions arguing that it is unfair, while Republicans resisted, calling it regressive and a gift to wealthy people who don’t need a tax break. This might seem backwards, but both parties understand the new dynamics at play, namely that these voters are Democrats now and are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

While this shift has moved the Democratic Party to the right on economics, they are entirely along for the ride on social or cultural issues. The move to the left by Democrats on issues of identity continues apace. While the specter of unprecedented levels of government spending under a President Sanders might repel these new Democrats, the deconstruction of American society and demands for radical social change elicit no such reaction.

The problem with Biden and Harris is not that they subscribe to far-left ideas or to center-left ideas. The problem is that they subscribe to no ideas at all. Both have consistently stayed around the center of opinion in the Democratic Party, wherever it might go, and the Democratic Party is in an increasingly agitated mood. This is not inconsistent with the fact that this same Democratic Party roundly rejected the economics of the hard-left. Trump has slammed Biden as a “Trojan horse for socialism.” He could recalibrate his attack. The Biden-Harris ticket is decidedly not a Trojan horse for socialism. It is a Trojan horse for woke capitalism.