Magann: A Losing Strategy

Progressive insurgents may act radical, but their partisanship is nothing new.

by Matthew Magann | 3/28/19 2:15am

Tensions are rising within the Democratic Party. Last August, Gallup’s poll of American voters revealed that, for the first time since polls began, more Democrats held a more favorable view of socialism than they did of capitalism. To be fair, respondents approved of “free enterprise” more frequently than “capitalism,” but still: any mainstream Democrat ought to find that result concerning. 

The survey comes as progressive insurgents strive to reshape the Democratic Party, spurred by self-described democratic socialists’ primary wins over mainstream Democrats. With President Trump’s popularity languishing around 40 percent and the country increasingly wracked by division, Democrats have the opportunity to steer U.S. politics back on course. They can’t do that, though, if they succumb to the partisanship advocated by their ascendant left wing. 

Progressive victories often raise alarms, especially when a candidate espouses so-called democratic socialism. We’re right to fear socialism, a discredited economic doctrine that, with seeming inevitability, demolishes civil rights and devolves into authoritarianism. Still, the newly-prominent far left brings little threat of actual socialist governance. Self-professed democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may support bigger government, but they hardly call for collective ownership of the means of production — in reality, they’re social democrats. They call for more social spending and greater government intervention in the economy, not for a truly radical restructuring of the American system. Whatever the merits of those policies, they pale in comparison to true socialism. To suggest that socialism itself now threatens America is inaccurate. 

The true danger presented by a resurgent left wing doesn’t come from polices; it comes from partisanship. For one, democratic-socialist ideology alienates the majority of Americans who simply do not support far-left ideas. Remember, around 40 percent of the country still supports Trump, and a far greater number have no desire for socialism. Those facts don’t mesh well with a commitment to ideological purity, and unsurprisingly, they get swept under the rug. Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent figure among the left wing of the Democratic party, has a favorite line, one frequently-repeated and often followed with cheers. As she proclaimed at a rally in Flint, Michigan, “Our swing voter is not red to blue. Our swing voter is . . . the non-voter to the voter.”

That logic is intensely partisan. It promotes ideological absolutism, even at the cost of alienating the majority of Americans. This presents an electoral problem, and democratic socialists propose a solution: Give up on Republicans and moderates entirely and mobilize an as-yet-nonexistent bloc of progressive non-voters. There’s not much evidence for such a bloc, but the mental gymnastics required to believe in it evidently come easier than reaching out to moderates. It’s that same uncompromising, ideology-first, representation-second mentality that Trump embodies. And that mentality isn’t good for America.

Ultimately, the new far-left insurgents aren’t that far outside the mainstream. In reality, their social-democratic policies prove far less radical than rhetoric might suggest. That’s why this movement is so threatening. It’s yet another partisan group on one extreme of the political spectrum and, like fringe groups left and right, it prefers to sow division rather than bridge divides. The recent surge in combative left-wing candidates isn’t much of a revolution. True resistance to Trump’s divisiveness won’t be extreme, and it will never sink to the president’s level. It will reject partisan crusades and reach out to all Americans, reminding us of those fundamental ideals — ideals like freedom, equality and opportunity — that we all share. The far left is not that principled resistance. It’s just another manifestation of partisan division.

The late Senator John McCain left us with a simple truth. As Americans, he wrote in the Washington Post, “our shared values define us more than our differences.” As a registered Democrat who often disagreed with McCain’s policies, I can affirm that. At the senator’s funeral, Democrats and Republicans alike rose to commend a man who served his country — and that always before his party — with honor and with integrity. That ceremony challenged us to reject division, to seek compromise and to unite across differences. With that in mind, Americans should reject the ideological absolutism of both Trump and the far left. America needs principled, open-minded, bipartisan leadership to guide us through this period of division. However much they speak of change, progressive insurgents do not offer that.