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America Is Not Becoming More Liberal

The public might be moving left, but the Democratic and Republican parties are not.

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In the new issue of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that America is inexorably moving left. Republicans might retain their grip on statehouses and in Congress, and perhaps even win the White House, but when it comes to domestic policy, he writes, “the terms of the national debate will continue tilting to the left. The next Democratic president will be more liberal than Barack Obama. The next Republican president will be more liberal than George W. Bush.”

I sympathize with his argument. But he’s wrong. The next president certainly will not be more liberal than his or her party’s predecessor. 

Granted, the millennial generation does espouse more liberal tendencies than its predecessors, something that may endure (or maybe not; you can find polls showing young Americans as disinterested in politics and open to non-democratic alternatives as ever before). The Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, which are gratefully (and in the case of Occupy, belatedly) being taken seriously by the political press, do offer opportunities for new thinking about race, justice, and the economy. He even misses a more tangible and in some ways more successful movement: the “Fight for 15” to raise the minimum wage to previously unthinkable levels. 

But Beinart employs a kind of cheat code by separating out foreign policy (which is “following a different trajectory, as it often does”) from domestic policy, thereby sidestepping the chief concern of the Republican primary—and increasingly, the country. Just two terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, dwarfed in size by the attacks of September 11, were enough to make terrorism the number one problem facing America, with its highest percentage in a decade, according to Gallup. It’s hard to fully claim that America is moving to the left when the issues animating the public lean strongly to the right. 

Even allowing Beinart to limit the argument to domestic policy, I think it breaks down when he extends his analysis from the general public to the political class.

First of all, the next Republican president will not be more liberal on the domestic front than George W. Bush. His signature domestic law, No Child Left Behind, was just replaced by a Democratic president with something that significantly limits federal intervention on K-12 policy. Bush’s welfare state–expanding prescription drug benefit for Medicare would be met with howls of derision from the current leadership in Congress if introduced today. Post-Tea Party Republicans are as strongly opposed to taxes as Bush, while more strongly opposed to federal spending and government intrusions. And on criminal justice reform, the one area Beinart finds conservatives willing to join with liberals, the effort has been derailed by the insistence on including immunity for corporate crimes in the package.

On the Democratic side, Beinart is perceptive that progressive infrastructure and the failure of the Bush years squeezed out centrist elements of the party. The standard-bearers of the Democratic message, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were kept to the fringes just a few years ago. 

But the overwhelming choice of the Democratic establishment, leading Sanders in endorsements among major elected officials by 195 to 2, is Hillary Clinton. And while Clinton has endorsed an agenda that puts her mildly to the left of where she was in her 2008 presidential run, that has lapsed somewhat as she’s pivoted to the general election. And in one key area, she’s held to a policy vow that leaves her helpless to pursue anything close to a liberal agenda.

This came up in last weekend’s debate. Clinton maintained an important dividing line between her and Sanders, promising “no middle class tax raises,” a promise she also made in 2008. The problem is that, in her version, the middle class includes families making up to $250,000 a year, which encompasses around 97 percent of the population.

The $250,000 dividing line actually goes back to the first Clinton Administration’s demarcation of the top marginal tax rate (inflation has subsequently raised that to $464,000). And Barack Obama used the same vow to prevent tax increases on the so-called middle class. This has caused problems. Obama could barely fund his health care entitlement expansion by solely taxing corporations and the wealthy (the “Cadillac tax,” which dipped down to union worker plans, was delayed last week). By setting the tax bar at $250,000, Obama had to compromise to $400,000 for repealing the Bush tax cuts. 

Because Democrats care more about deficits than Republicans—witness all the boasting about low deficits in the Obama era—opposition to broad-based taxes handcuffs the liberal project. Public investment in roads, schools, and other forms of infrastructure dropped in 2013 to its lowest level since World War II and hasn’t moved appreciably since. The country has advanced in several areas in the Obama years, but on the fundamental issue of the size of government, conservatives have succeeded.

With an aging population, and with the cost of what government buys—health care, education, and defense, mostly—going up at levels above inflation, government spending must rise just to maintain the current inadequate level of services. To do that you must either run larger deficits or raise taxes, and just keeping those taxes confined to “the rich” won’t bring in enough revenue.

For Clinton to double down on the $250,000 marker while making no promise to increase the deficit creates a one-way ratchet for public investment. She can announce all kinds of promising ideas—paid family leave, debt-free college, early childhood education—but if she refuses to either pay for them or decide that paying for them isn’t necessary given their boosts to overall investment, they aren’t likely to occur. 

Clinton has rejected a paid family leave bill from her home-state senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, because it would increase individual payroll taxes by 0.2 percent, about a $1.38 increase for the median wage earner. If she opposes that, Sanders said in the debate, “She is disagreeing with FDR on Social Security, LBJ on Medicare.” It’s a disavowal of universal benefits that happen to be the most robust, secure, and popular.

Democratic campaign operatives claim this is necessary, that the public won’t accept broad-based taxes in exchange for more expansive services. If that’s the case, then you cannot claim that America is moving in a more liberal direction. A generation ago, Democrats would make the case that a strong America is worth paying for, that social insurance programs that benefit everyone need buy-in from everyone. And they would also note that taxing things we want to discourage, from cigarettes to high-frequency trades, has salutary effects even if someone who isn’t rich occasionally pays them. 

People react negatively to taxes because they don’t feel like they get value for them. Democrats, as evidenced by Clinton, don’t try to tell them otherwise. They tell you that someone else will have to pay. That makes this notion Beinart proposes of an America drifting leftward impossible. He marshals decent support for the idea that the public, especially the younger generation, is ready for bolder, more activist government. But the politicians are lagging far behind.