With just months to go until the November elections, journalists and experts are explaining why voters in Democratic primaries need to put their ideological preferences aside and support moderate Democrats. As they have proclaimed for the last 40 years, the current Republican threat is the worst ever. Therefore the party faithful must put aside their political beliefs and pick the most electable candidates, those closest to the moderate center.
Their reasoning is simple. There is a political spectrum, running from left to right, with progressives out on the far left, liberals on the left, moderates in the middle and Republicans on the right wing. In addition, American voters position themselves on the political spectrum in roughly a bell-shaped curve. Using this model, it stands to reason that the moderate Democrats running with a middle-of-the-road philosophy will be positioned to win the majority of votes.
Clusters of Ideas
What if this argument, proclaimed for over a generation, is wrong? Doesn’t it seem more likely that political ideas and voting behaviors are, like the rest of life, three dimensional? In fact, most people have an array of political beliefs and ideas put together in a smorgasbord of liberal, progressive, and conservative takes on various issues. In this universe, political ideas defy placement on a simple line spectrum. Instead, politicians represent clusters of ideas – forming distinct colors – and voters choose the candidates who most closely fit their beliefs.
The Democratic Party has, since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, carried out a multi-election test of the “moderate Democrats on the political spectrum” concept and the results are dismal. After winning election by presenting himself as a hip, Baby-Boomer populist Clinton adopted a political philosophy that he labeled The Third Way. However, the Third Way was not a moderate version of all previous liberal Democratic ideas. Instead, it was a smorgasbord, a mix of social liberalism and conservative economics.
As I show in Chapter 4 of my new book, The Roots of Defeat, Clinton delighted social liberals by pushing for gay rights in the military but, he disappointed working class Democrats with conservative economic policies. He addressed the 1990-1994 recession with budget cuts and pushed through the NAFTA free trade agreement. Later, he botched the chance for health care reform by proposing a plan that would require a tax increase while enriching big health insurance companies. For the 1994 mid-term elections, many Democrats without college degrees chose not to go to the polls and the party suffered huge losses, losing control of the House and the Senate.
After the election, Clinton and his Third Way Democratic allies embraced even more conservative economic policies. They struck up fundraising alliances with High Tech executives and Wall Street Bankers. By the middle of the 1990s, the moderate Democrats were receiving big donations from wealthy individuals, passing a law that allowed trillion dollar banks to merge, and supporting a huge cut in the capital gains tax.
As part of their Third Way remodeling, Clinton Democrats told voters about how moderate they were and pointed to their positive alliances with business and Wall Street. In response, voter turnout in the 1996 elections fell to just 49% of voting age individuals – seven million fewer people voted that year compared to 1992. While Clinton defeated Robert Dole, the Republicans gained two Senate seats and retained control of the House. The same story occurred for the next ten years – low turnouts of young and working class voters led to Republican victories.
Only in 2006, in the midst of the disastrous war in Iraq, did voters give the House and the Senate back to the Democratic Party. In 2008, the Financial Crisis enabled Barack Obama to win the presidency and increase Democratic majorities in Congress.
Obama is a Third Way moderate Democrat
While Obama campaigned as a progressive, like Clinton in 1993, he implemented Third Way economic policies. He supported the bailout of Wall Street and passed an economic stimulus that was only half as big as it needed to be. Then he worked with Republicans to cut federal spending while unemployment was still over 10%. Turnout of lower income and young voters fell in the 2010 mid-term elections and the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.
The 2016 presidential elections were a clear test of the Third Way, moderate Democrats strategy. Democratic officials were stunned that voters were supporting Bernie Sanders, who presented them with an appealing package of progressive ideas. Sanders was, party officials contended, much too far to the left on the political spectrum and could not win a general election. The right wing candidacy of Donald Trump had to be countered by a safe, moderate Democrat. Unfortunately, the stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton brings into sharp focus the political weakness of Third Way politics.
Even now, in fall of 2018, the woeful emptiness of Third Way economic policies and the embrace of wealthy donors act as anchors on the Democratic Party. The blue wave that was much talked about in January has receded into a vague hope that the Democrats might regain control of the House. Before losing again, Democrats need to learn the lessons of history and jettison the inadequate “political spectrum” analysis that has lured primary voters into backing Democrats who are economic conservatives. It is time to support newcomers who can present a progressive package of beliefs and rally voters.