Democrats Must Move to the Left

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

Whenever the conversation turns to national politics, I often hear people whine and moan about how Congress can never get anything done. I think differently: Every time I hear the words “bipartisan coalition,” I tremble at the legislative monstrosity to come.

The Iraq War, the banking deregulation of the 1990s, the Patriot Act: all brought to you by bipartisan coalitions. If some of the “serious” people in both parties had their way, Social Security and Medicare and the rest of our threadbare safety net would also be dismantled by a bipartisan coalition. If another major terrorist attack occurs, American totalitarianism will be ushered in by a bipartisan coalition preaching the gospel of Safety and Security — you can be sure about that.

Cooperation between the parties rarely brings anything good for the U.S.; it’s usually far better for the country that the political tribes focus solely on beating the shit out of each other instead of on lawmaking.

I’m not saying there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. I’ve voted for Team Blue in every election so far, and I fully expect to vote for the Democrats in the future. But I also think it’s vital that liberals face the cold hard truth: The Democratic Party is a staunchly conservative party.

To illustrate my point, let’s embark on a short thought experiment: Imagine the Rapture happened and all the Republicans in Congress suddenly disappeared, leaving the godless Democrats to legislate at will. What legislation would our elected officials pass?
Here are my guesses: immigration reform; an assault weapons ban and an array of accompanying weak gun control laws; perhaps some kind of cap and trade law, provided it gave enough money to corporations; a tax hike on the top tax bracket; and maybe a tax hike on the financial sector.

I support all of those policies — that’s why I vote Democrat. But here’s what I’m very sure would not be on the agenda: single payer health care; public financing for elections; substantive financial reform that would end “too big to fail”; a basic minimum income; or any other kind of expansion of the welfare state. Even with a free hand, the Democrats would be totally incapable of producing any kind of radical reform. Why?

Well, one obvious explanation is that the Democrats are a corporate party that represents corporate interests. I think that has a lot of truth to it, but it’s not the whole story. While both parties are dominated by the interests of big business, American politics is also a duopoly, and duopolies behave in a very specific way.

Imagine a beach. Every American voter is placed on the beach according to their political views; if they are on the left, they sit on the left; if they are on the far right, they sit on the far right and so on. The two parties are represented by two ice cream trucks (you can credit Hirschel Kasper, my Econ 101 professor, for this analogy). Naturally, each ice cream truck wants to maximize its business, and generally people will buy from the ice cream truck that is closest to where they are sitting. So where on the beach should the ice cream trucks position themselves? That is, where on the ideological spectrum should the parties reside to maximize their votes?

If the ice cream trucks act rationally, both trucks should end up right next to each other in the middle of the beach; there should be an equal amount of people to the left of the Democratic ice cream truck as there are people on the right of the Republican ice cream truck, and there should be very little space between the ice cream trucks at all.

If one of the ice cream trucks thinks it’s in the middle of the beach but is really off to one side, the other ice cream truck will win more business. The ice cream truck that lost will then move closer to the middle of the beach.

We see this pattern quite clearly in presidential politics. Many presidential elections come close to evenly splitting the electorate, because the candidates are very good at positioning themselves in the dead center of the beach. When a party starts losing landslide elections (like the Democrats in the 1980s), they move their ice cream trucks towards the center, and Presidential elections become competitive again.

But there’s a problem with this analysis. The Republicans have lost two straight Presidential elections by sizable margins, and yet they show zero indication of moving to the center. The Republican Party has lost the ability to act rationally; due to a powerful conservative wing, the Republican ice cream truck is stuck in the sand on the right side of the beach. The rational party leaders who want to maximize votes — think Karl Rove — have lost much of their control.

If one of the ice cream trucks is irrationally stuck on the right side of the beach, how should the rational ice cream truck respond? To maximize business, the rational ice cream truck should move right next to the irrational ice cream truck. That way, the rational ice cream truck will win both the business on the left side of the beach and the business on the center-right.

In other words, the Democratic Party will continue to consistently win elections, but only by articulating a solidly center-right agenda. The Democratic ice cream truck will get more business, but only by placing themselves on the right side of the beach. If the Republican-Legislator-Rapture took place, the Democrats would enact center-right legislation — that’s who those politicians are. The Democrats “win” but conservative ideology triumphs.

So yes, the Tea Party is costing the Republicans elections. But on a substantive level, the Tea Party has made America a far more conservative country by dragging both parties to the right.

And the truth of the matter is that the Tea Party hasn’t cost the Republicans very much. Voters follow politicians more than politicians follow voters. People choose to sit near the ice cream trucks. If both ice cream trucks are on the right side of the beach, that’s where the
majority of people will sit.

My assertion is true for two reasons. Firstly, American politics is tribal. Calling yourself a “Democrat” is not a political statement; it’s a statement of identity.

Secondly, we live in a country where almost all political debate is framed in a partisan way. If you turn on CNN, you’ll see debate after debate with three people: a Republican operative, a Democratic operative, and an “Independent” (someone who intentionally positions himself somewhere between the two parties).

If you consider yourself a Republican, you’re very likely to agree with the Republican, even if the Democrat’s position is closer to where your opinion used to reside. Most Americans change their opinions to fit their party. Over the last few years, very few Republicans — even mainstream, “liberal” Republicans — have switched ice cream trucks; instead, they’ve gotten up and moved with their party.

So what does this mean for all of us Oberlin lefties — the lonely liberals and socialists, sitting far, far away from any hope of ice cream?

We have to mirror the Tea Party. We need the Democratic Party to act just as irrationally as the Republicans. We need to stop demurring to the party elite. We need someone to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016. We need to vote for them. We need to start dragging that ice cream truck.