I have been offering my modest suggestions for a sane and reasonable liberal agenda that could help Democrats reach a wider audience instead of remaining in thrall to their fanatical but deeply unpopular “progressive” base. Letting a small but loud faction demand the loyalty of the party for an agenda that is off-putting to the general public is a mistake Republicans have been making, and Democrats shouldn’t want to repeat it.
In Part One, I offered suggestions for what Democrats could try on the state and local level, but the obvious urgency as we approach the mid-term elections is for Democrats to regain popular support on the national level.
They can start by borrowing the spirit of Trumpian populism, with all its talk about American “greatness,” but with very different substance. Here, the most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, Americans don’t want handouts. They want prosperity.
Whip Inflation Now
The recovery from the pandemic, even though it has been slowed by the new variants, has been delivering strong growth. But nobody will enjoy it or even notice it if all those gains get siphoned away by higher prices.
The first step for national-level Democrats is to grab your colleagues by the lapels and shake them until they stop denying the problem. No matter what the trendy academic theories say about how inflation is good, really, the average person hates it like poison and with good reason: Rising prices tend to outstrip rising wages. Again, the upper-middle-class college-educated professionals who call themselves “progressive” tend to notice this less because a smaller percentage of their income goes to staples like food, and because they own assets like houses that tend to be boosted by inflation. It’s the people on the bottom who get hit hardest.
So focus on inflation and do whatever it takes to tame it. (And no, that does not include price controls.) Here’s part of the answer. Too much of the progressives’ welfare state is designed around making it easier for people not to work, because it is considered a kind of cruel moralism to encourage people to get a job. Yet work is what people actually want. It’s what actually makes them prosperous.
Paying people to stay home means pumping more money into the economy while we’re also producing fewer goods—and then we wonder why there are shortages and rising prices.
Sane Democrats need to adopt a pro-employment, pro-work, pro-growth agenda, which means more pro-work welfare reform—and no more big “stimulus” or “relief” packages that are designed to pay people to stay home.
Power the Future
A pro-growth agenda has to be a pro-energy agenda.
The “progressives” promote a fantastical “Green New Deal” that envisions a massive energy transition that is literally impossible given existing technology and depends on wild speculation about some as-yet-unknown new energy technology. In practice, the radical environmentalists are in favor of every energy source except the ones that work.
I am deeply skeptical about global warming, but if you assume it’s a problem, then you ought to acknowledge that the US actually has reduced carbon dioxide emissions over the past few decades. How? Not by switching to wind and solar, which are still marginal sources. We have done it largely by switching to natural gas for generating power. But that, in turn, is made possible by the fracking revolution—which a lot of the “progressives” are trying to shut down.
Then there is the easiest, most thoroughly proven way to generate power without emitting carbon dioxide: nuclear energy.
I mentioned above the tendency to declare that there is a crisis without really acting like it. The textbook example is exactly what Democrats have been doing for decades on energy policy. If they thought global warming and carbon dioxide emissions were a crisis, they would have embraced fracking and launched a campaign to build nuclear power plants. They still can.
A few well-known environmentalists, like Stewart Brand, already support nuclear power as a clean and reliable alternative to fossil fuels. There also has been a small but growing group of “ecomodernists” who have been promoting a nuclear renaissance. They could use more enthusiastic support from the top.
Then again, if the goal is just to shut down industry and force people to live with less, then it makes sense to be against fracking and nuclear energy. But that’s a pretty rotten goal, and people will very understandably want to vote you out of office.
Again, as with building lots of housing, fracking a lot of natural gas and building lots of nuclear power plants would also mean putting an awful lot of blue-collar people to work.
Embrace Free Trade
Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who notoriously gave a raised-fist salute to the Capitol rioters, has been looking for a Smoot to help him pass legislation that would shut down international trade and plunge the economy into crisis.
Yet it’s telling that it’s the authoritarian, nationalist wing of the right that has turned most sharply against free trade. “Industrial policy,” with its arbitrary restrictions on trade and vast grants of power to Commerce Department bureaucrats, is a wide-open field for what is usually called “crony capitalism.” Politically connected businesses and CEOs who support the right side can expect to have their products certified as being consistent with the “common good.” But other companies? Maybe not so much.
After four years of Donald Trump’s misadventures in trying to clamp down on trade, this is the one part of his legacy Democrats haven’t really lifted a finger to reverse. Perhaps they are still cowed by anti-capitalist rhetoric from their party’s left wing, and perhaps this is the one and only area where Democrats have decided that they couldn’t possibly risk offending blue-collar workers. But they should reflect on one of the lessons of Donald Trump’s trade war. When the Trump administration imposed new tariffs on steel, for example, it turned out that there are more workers who use steel than there are who make steel. The guys who make the steel were helped by tariffs, if only temporarily, while the ones who use steel were hurt, because their companies had to pay more for materials.
America is still one of the world’s great manufacturing powers, but we’re not going to compete for the cheap low-skilled jobs that went to China, nor should we want to. We should be embracing our advantages, which are largely in manufacturing that is more automated, requires higher-skilled workers, and is better paid. That means embracing the advantages of free trade and the opportunity to find markets for our goods overseas.
Be the Leaders of the Free World
Hating America may sell on college campuses and on progressive Twitter, but the overwhelming majority of Americans are patriotic and hate to see America losing all the time. That’s why President Biden fell so precipitously in the polls after his withdrawal from Afghanistan. (This is also why Democrats have been losing Hispanic voters, who want the American Dream.) Voters will continue to punish Democrats for a foreign policy that seems largely built around plans for evacuating US citizens and diplomats from one part of the world after another as our enemies advance.
Rally the people to the American cause. Say good things about the American system and fight for spreading our ideals and our example abroad. Offer active and vigorous support to our allies.
This doesn’t mean recklessly getting into new wars, but there’s no reason to accept that the only alternative to immediate global thermonuclear war is to do nothing at all. Democrats should learn from their previous mistakes. I knew a lot of people who were absolutely convinced in the 1980s that Ronald Reagan was going to plunge us into World War III. Yet he precipitated the collapse of our big global rival with very little actual fighting. He made the Soviets back down mostly by just standing up and building up—by asserting our interests and values, and by increasing our military power to deter our enemies.
And do you know what a big military buildup just might do? That’s right: put a lot of blue-collar people to work. Are you noticing a theme here?
Then again, address employment and inflation and get us back to normal after the pandemic, and they would get to run this old ad in a loop.
Steal This Agenda
Aside from policy, symbolism matters. But the symbolism of a hectoring, holier-than-thou wokism is deeply off-putting. It’s even off-putting for the minority voters Democrats have been relying on for their future. Heck, it’s especially off-putting for those voters.
The symbolism Democrats need to project is that they are fighting for the future, for growth, for a proud and prosperous America—and yes, for freedom. Freedom from conformity of thought, to one side or another, and freedom for the average person from pettifogging regulations and overbearing bureaucrats.
Some of what I’m advocating may seem like it takes over agenda items and rhetoric associated with the “other side”—though often it is just restoring parts of an older “liberal” tradition. But also bear in mind that many Republicans are busy taking up anti-market talking points, with Tucker Carlson singing the praises of Elizabeth Warren. Maybe it’s time to be less afraid of being accused of heresy by the “progressives” and more focused on creating a sensible agenda.
Being sensible might also be very popular. I remember back in the late 1990s attending a conference of right-of-center political types from around the world, most of them American Republicans and British Conservatives. The one universal complaint I heard from them was that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were “stealing our agenda.” But all those two leaders were doing was shaking off their party’s most dogmatic elements. The resulting political success is something that Democrats might like to experience again.
The country needs to move on from Donald Trump, and the best way to do that is to offer voters such an attractive alternative that they will relegate his insurrectionist movement to an irrelevant minority of cranks and conspiracy theorists.
If they’re willing to be more creative and open-minded in their agenda, sensible “liberal” Democrats could save the republic—and earn a lot of votes in the process.