A few days ago former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders went on Morning Joe on MSNBC to explain why he believes people should be supporting Hillary Clinton in November. He has received criticism from those on the Left who believe he’s ‘sold out’ and Clinton loyalists who bemoan his lack of sycophantic fawning. Sanders claims that the current Democratic platform is “the most progressive in the history of the Democratic Party”, and even said this line in his speech at the DNC. Normally I let this go because you could argue that FDR’s policy programme was much more progressive in many areas, but the Democratic Party was a different animal back then and many Democrats still supported segregation. But this blog post isn’t about Bernie Sanders, its about how ideology is a powerful tool that can be used to shape how people think about certain issues.
Sanders can say that this platform is the most progressive in the history of the Democratic Party because the Democrats used to be very conservative, but since the Southern Strategy the parties have become more ideologically distinct in some areas. It would be bizarre, for example, if a Democrat was opposed to LGBT rights, and similarly strange if a Republican politician openly said he wanted to rewrite the US Constitution without the Second Amendment. Ideology has the power to set a tone for a country and this affects discourse in a fundamental way.
When people try and win elections the conventional wisdom is that they must appeal to ‘the centre’ but what people mistakenly believe is that this is the same as being a bland centrist. The ideological centre of a country is dependent upon events and moves accordingly. For example, after 9/11 the American people valued national security as the most important political issue, and because of this the Bush Administration was able to establish the machinery of a literal police state. The Department for Homeland Security was created, an extra-judicial prison was established, torture was adopted as a method of eliciting information, and the list goes on. The centre of the country has now moved away from supporting such obviously unconstitutional activities, but in the aftermath of 9/11 there was a significant appetite for those policies. This focus on the political centre of a country is why the current Democratic platform should be put into context.
Because we live in the post-Reagan era the dominant ideology of our time is neoliberalism. There are different variations of this ideology. For example the Clintons are also neoliberals but, to quote George H.W. Bush, they don’t believe in the “voodoo economics” of Reagan. Under Reagan the Democrats shifted to the Right in order to appeal to the perceived centre of the country. The surge in support for Bernie Sanders, most notably among the young, is seeking to pull the party to the left, but again we would still be very far from the ideological standard of previous eras.
Take the example of the 1912 US general election. In this race there were four candidates for president. The most ideologically conservative candidate in the race was the eventual winner, Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is now remembered for his philosophy to foreign policy, a very good example of this being his Fourteen Points speech. He was a liberal and as such supported free trade and international institutions, but he was decidedly less hawkish on foreign policy than, for example, Hillary Clinton. The point here is not to criticize Hillary Clinton, but to illustrate how far the ideological centre has shifted. The liberal non-interventionist was the most conservative candidate on the ballot. The spectrum has shifted so far to the Right that there isn’t a mainstream candidate running on a message of non-interventionism.
Referring back to Sanders’ interview, he emphasized the progressive aspects of the Democratic platform, but again this pales in comparison to what was on offer in the 1912 election. The other candidates, all of whom were to the Left of Wilson, were the Republican and sitting president William Howard Taft, the former President Theodore Roosevelt of the Progressive party, and the Socialist party’s Eugene Debs. Debs and Taft were never going to win the election, and their success in the electoral college clearly shows this, so let’s look at what Roosevelt, who finished second, was suggesting.
In 1912 the Progressive party was formed by former president Theodore Roosevelt after he left the Republican party for being insufficiently progressive, which we would now term as insufficiently left-wing. At the party’s convention in the same year, the party agreed on it’s platform and included a number of policies that would now be considered as radical. The Progressive party’s platform called for: strict limits on campaign contributions; stricter regulation for lobbyists; an eight-hour workday; a minimum wage law for women; women’s suffrage; an inheritance tax; and a ‘National Health Service’ to provide healthcare to all people. I’ve left out a few things because it was a long list, and thankfully some of these policies were adopted by later politicians, but there are many things that I just listed that still are not the case now.
We live in a time that is defined by ideology in very subtle ways, and the discourse around many political issues is very much evidence of this subtle manipulation.The current Democratic platform is more progressive than many others of recent years, but the American Left needs to begin setting the ideological agenda. Under Obama this has happened with social issues, but policies like the continuation of the Bush tax cuts undermine the Left in the long run. The mass movement created by the Sanders campaign cannot be allowed to go to waste, and policy discussions must shift significantly enough to make radical change a part of the mainstream.