CRB: Hippie days are here again

On Tuesday we began our quarterly rollout of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), featuring Stanley Kurtz on the debilitating effect of the Clinton’s co-consular arrangement on executive power. We followed that up with our own Steven Hayward’s essay on the continuing necessity of the “extremism” of Barry Goldwater for a properly conservative Republican Party. Today we offer CRB senior editor William Voegeli’s essay on the post-Obama future of the Democratic Party.

In “Hippie Days are Here Again,” Voegeli examines the resurgence of the “new McGovernites”—”the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”—and assesses their political future. The Left’s hope that Obama’s election represented the vindication of the long-frustrated McGovernites has largely gone unfulfilled, whether because of Obama’s missteps or because he was never really that committed to his more audacious pronouncements. But, writes Voegeli, if Democrats are unsure of just why Obama failed, and what was squandered in his failures, they remain smugly confident that the future belongs to them.

Whereas I see Democrats of essentially one variety on the national scene, differentiated only by the degree of candor with which they present themselves, Voegeli challenges my understanding. He explores the division of Democrats into a populist camp (think a purer confiscatory left a la Elizabeth Warren) and a progressive camp (think a slightly obscured left a la the Clintons). The Democratic Leadership Council, now disbanded, was the vehicle for the promulgation of the latter. I don’t know if I agree with him, and I won’t pause here to elaborate on the terms as he uses them, but Voegeli introduces possible complexities that are deserving of consideration.

While a “populist uprising of the Left” hasn’t happened during Obama’s presidency, that doesn’t mean it will not occur in the near future. The populist Left grows apace, with new standard bearers in Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. “As the balance of power tilts ever more steeply against the GOP, future Democratic presidents, of which there will be many, are certain to accomplish all the big reforms that eluded Obama, in ways that future Republican presidents, of which there will be few, can never undo.”

This, and not the Obama presidency, will be “George McGovern’s Revenge.” McGovern lost in the 1972 election in a landslide, but he won handily among fast-growing voting blocs: affluent professionals, women with jobs outside the home, and non-white voters. All have grown since, and all are expected to continue to grow for years to come. “To win steadily larger percentages of the vote from segments of the electorate that are themselves growing steadily larger is close to an unbeatable electoral formula.”

Voegeli doesn’t end there. He points to the immediate difficulty facing the new McGovernites: winning the primary battle within the Democratic Party. According to Voegeli, the populist (de Blasio/Warren) wing of the party will need to triumph over progressive (Clinton) wing before turning its sights on the malefactors of great wealth.

Such populist Democrats have indeed won in recent elections—in deep Blue jurisdictions. Whether they can translate this to the national stage is unclear. And while they seem to hold all the energy on the Left these days, Voegeli identifies a couple of dark clouds on the horizon. “First, the party that stands for conferring ever more responsibilities and resources on government is unlikely to flourish in an age when Americans are increasingly skeptical about government’s competence and integrity.”

But perhaps voters won’t care about such incompetence? “A pro-government party that can’t govern straight might still win elections if politics isn’t about governing, but about whether this country is ours or theirs” (which sentiment, so often projected by the Left onto the Right, ventures out into the open at times too—as Joe Biden has reminded us in Michigan). Even if they can’t make Big Government work, as failures pile upon failures, the populist Democrats sleep well knowing that their demographic trump card will still take the trick.

This complacency rests on two assumptions, however, that, if mistaken, would together form the second, darker and more threatening cloud: that political dispositions will remain relatively stable over time, and, perhaps more importantly, that demographic identities are rigid. Voegeli is skeptical:

Ultimately, people’s hearts and minds, not their melanin levels and Census answers, determine how they vote. Demographic changes will be less important to America’s political future than whether voters gravitate to the Democrats’ ethic of aggrievement or the Republicans’ ethic of achievement. Democrats are likely to dominate if most Americans come to doubt the practical and moral worth of individual striving, discipline, and rectitude. Such voters will turn to Democrats if they believe the real cause of their dissatisfactions is nothing they could have prevented, or can ever remedy through their own efforts, but is instead what has been done to them and hasn’t been done for them…. The Republicans’ corresponding challenge is anything but easy, but is simple and clear: to vindicate the moral and practical worth of striving, discipline, and rectitude.

Whole thing here.

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