Jacob Heilbrunn

Will A Left "3.0" Emerge?

Over a decade ago Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis published a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. Their argument was that a new "progressive centrism" was emerging and that it was based on demographic and social trends. Then came George W. Bush and Karl Rove. By 2004 Rove was declaring that he had created a new conservative governing coalition. Then came 2006. Rove had failed.

Since the 2012 presidential election, the Teixeira-Judis thesis, once branded empty, is getting a fresh and well-deserved look. And so a new flurry of speculation has emerged about President Obama. Can the Democratic party duplicate his success in the past two presidential elections? Has Obama created a new majority? Are the Republicans doomed to obsolescence?

In an enlightening article in the latest (and final) issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, the magazine's longtime editor Tod Lindberg tackles these questions. Operating at a fairly high level of abstraction—Lindberg never quite defines what or who makes up the "Left 3.0" that he identifies—Lindberg examines the evolution of the Democratic Party and the Left over the past few decades. He doesn't quite put it this way, but he appears to suggest that the Left has grown up, while the Right is in danger of splitting into multifarious factions, each vying for a shrinking slice of the electorate and condemning the other as false to the true faith, whatever it may be.

To be sure, Lindberg argues that there are continuities between the aspirations of the old Left and the new version. But what is most distinctive about his essay is the cool and impartial manner in which he dissects the changes that have taken place in the Democratic party. He echoes David Brooks in concluding that former radicals have largely been domesticated, even turned bourgeois. The radical thing about the Democratic Party, you could say, is that it doesn't believe in old-time radicalism. For example, Lindberg writes that

There are, no doubt, a few aging radicals who still dream of sweeping the whole capitalist system away and starting over. But never in the history of the Left have such views been so marginal. Once the vanguard of the Left, the radicals are now its pets.

Violence on the Left seems largely confined to scuffles during demonstrations, and indeed, the Left is now heavily vested in the proposition that the real danger of political violence comes from the extreme right. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, casts a longer shadow now than any remnant of the Weather Underground. The last thing Left 3.0 would wish to be thought is dangerous.

The Democratic Party may be in a strong position to consolidate its recent gains. For one thing, the infighting among Republicans—the latest example is Karl Rove's establishment of a division of American Crossroads to support more moderate Republican candidates in congressional races, a move that is drawing outraged cries of heresy and treachery from Tea Party circles—is helping to shore up Democratic electoral fortunes. But as Lindberg cogently points out, it is also the case that Democrats are better organized and more attuned to what the electorate actually wants—generational differences, the changes in the demographics are all ensuring that the GOP brand has passed its sell-by date, an argument underscored by a highly informative essay in the January/February issue of the American Prospect by Celinda Lake, Michael Adams, and David Mermin which contains a lengthy analysis of recent polls that show, among other things, that 75 percent of Americans under thirty agree with the statement that "I would be happy if someone in my family married someone of a different race" and 54 percent agree that "It should be primarily government, not the private sector, that is concerned with solving the country's social problems."

According to Lindberg,

A united conservative movement is unlikely any time soon to find itself at one with the Republican Party in the manner in which Left 3.0 is at one with the Democratic Party. First, one would need a united conservative movement, which is difficult to envision in its own right, leaving aside its potential for melding with the gop.

In a broader sense, though, the Left differs from the Right in knowing where it wants to go: in the direction of more equality. Conservatives mostly know where they want to stay: in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity. Since the push in the direction of equality will sometimes impinge on liberty and on the market in ways that people will notice and object to, conservative reform will once again have its day. But today belongs to Left 3.0.

Faced with this prospect, the conservative movement might detach itself from the Republican party. Is it possible that conservatism will flourish as a niche industry even as the GOP goes down to electoral defeats? Republicans may think they can simply rebrand their party, but it needs an entire reboot.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Soman. CC BY-SA 2.5.