March 28, 2019

March 28, 2019

The Spurious Claims of Democratic Purplehood. “We’re actually a more purple caucus today than we were a year ago,” Rep. Jim Himes says in a story in today’s Washington Post. Himes’s own purpleness is beyond question: H’s a past chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, and is, to my knowledge, the sole Democratic House member who worked at Goldman Sachs. He also represents the Connecticut congressional district just over the line from New York, home to flocks of Wall Street mega-millionaires.

But is it true that the caucus is more purple? It’s certainly true that the caucus attained majority status by winning formerly Republican seats in the suburbs. At the same time, however, following the leftward movement of Democratic voters, many Democratic House members now support proposals for such leftwing policies as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal that they wouldn’t have supported in years past. 

That’s the problem with the purpling narrative: While it’s true that new members like AOC are outnumbered by new members from more moderate districts than hers, the claims for Democratic purplehood gloss over the fact that the vst majority of House Democrats today support progressive policies and ideas that weren’t even on their radar before 2016. 

Himes’s narrative has a cautionary function: It is intended to warn the Democrats not to go too far left. Depending on how you define “too far,” of course, it’s an unexceptionable narrative. But there’s another caution the Democrats need to heed: The share of rank-and-file Democrats who describe themselves as liberal today is nearly twice that of the share in the 1990s. A majority of Democrats have told pollsters that they prefer socialism to capitalism. There is a social democratic tide within the party that Congressional Democrats would be foolish—and self-destructive—to ignore. 

Recently, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has instructed all political consultants that they’d be blacklisted if they worked for primary challengers to incumbent House members. No such strictures, we should recall, were imposed against the Democrats who worked for Senators Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy when they challenged incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, or who worked for Senator Edward Kennedy when he challenged incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980.     

Those challenges arose because a many Democrats opposed those two presidents on policy grounds—the Vietnam War in the case of LBJ, the rightward tilt in economic policy in the case of Carter. In 2018, in deep blue urban districts, several young progressives—AOC and Ayanna Pressley in particular—ousted longtime Democratic House members in primaries. Given the surge of young progressives into Democratic politics, it seems the height of arrogance and folly to try to retard any such efforts in 2020, particularly in safe blue districts. At a moment when the Democratic base is shifting leftwards, such an effort appears chiefly to be an effort to set the ideological composition of the current Democratic congressional delegation in stone, the leftward movement of rank-and-file Democrats to the contrary notwithstanding. 

The role of the DCCC shouldn’t be that of King Canute, standing on the shore, seeking to hold back the tide.