Why the centre should want the Democratic Party to go left

There’s an on-going discussion among the opinion columns of America’s centre about directions for the Democratic Party. The choice isn’t simply binary (head left or head right) because, in principle and in past practice, US political political parties have had the capacity to head off in multiple directions at the same time. However, with congress increasingly voting along party lines and an apparently more entrenched electorate, the binary choice is worth looking at.

Obviously, I’d rather the Democratic Pary headed left: I’m a leftist, I’m biased that way. Even so, there’s more going on here and I’d like to suggest that centrists should want the Democratic Party to head left also.

To start with a key assumption is that the US is not going to stop being dominated electorally by two parties. Yes, other countries have more but to have n>2 requires parliamentary government for starters and more convivial voting systems. The UK has effectively 2.5 political parties (two big ones plus the Lib Dems and nationalist parties). Australia has, say 2.8 with Labour versus the Liberal+National coalition, plus The Greens, plus sundry others. It’s hard even with the kind of positive electoral conditions to get a genuine three party democracy (i.e. three roughly equal players) – perhaps impossible. It’s either less than 3 or lots and lots (and even then two main sets of coalitions). I could imagine the US have strong regional parties but this is not something that appears to be happening.

A second key aspect follows on from the two party dominance. US elections are as much about turnout as about shifting voters from one party to another.

A last aspect is that the Republican Party is the political equivalent of a landfill site full of car tires on fire. Whatever it may have been in the past, since at least the Nixon era it has been sliding into a political position that is actively harmful to its own country and harmful to electoral process.

So either you are or you can imagine being somebody who wants nice, stable centrist politics that are nice for capitalism but not too horrible to poor people and not too many taxes etc etc. What should you want? The Republican Party isn’t moving and try to coax it leftwards is rather like trying to reason with the aforementioned burning landfill. So it is tempting to imagine that the Democrats should hold the centre. This is an error, not just because actually you shouldn’t be a centrist but because it doesn’t get you what you want.

Let me use some non-scientific but conceptual schematics. Here is what a centrist should want or might believe was the case in the past.


That nominal centre moves over time but two major parties fight over it but from different directions. There are (in this imagined world) Republicans who more closely resemble Democrats (and vice versa) both as voters and in legislatures. Further to the left and to the right are people with political views who may be active in some ways but are not engaged electorally. Whether this has ever really been the case is an open question but it is safe to say that it doesn’t resemble the current situation and that the current situation is, if anything, moving further from this scenario.

Here’s what I think the current situation looks like (again not scientific or actually quantified and with all the flaws in scrunching complex ideologies into a single axis).


The Republicans have engaged the disengaged right. The rise of Trump has (to varying degrees) helped engage the disengaged left. However, the GOP is pretty much under the control of ideas much further to the right, whereas the Democratic Party is still pretty much what is was anyway – a centrist party.

What looks tempting is the electoral space being created by this heavy rightward shift of the GOP as well as its policy incompetence. I’ve described before the typology of voters in the US and there’s an increasingly clear gap between how the GOP projects itself and more socially-progressive but fiscally conservative sections of the population. Those business conservatives may still vote with their pockets for the GOP to get their tax cuts.

Put another way, there is a space for a political party in my schematics, shown with a red dotted outline. The GOP isn’t going to fill that space and so, a pundit at say the New York Times etc might look at that space and see electoral gold.


If it exists, then the choice seems obvious. The Democrats could ditch the left, head a bit (but not to far) right and pull in votes from the GOP, who will end up banished to the outer darkness. Like so:


What it would do in practice is to leave the GOP as it is (landfill full of tires etc see above) and lose the Democrats votes on the left. Yes, obviously the left aren’t going to vote GOP but they become less likely to vote all round or campaign electorally.

Worse, a centrist should want a PLURALIST system. This model has a reasonable but right-of-centre party versus a party that is actively dangerous to democracy and national stability. Either you’d have to hope for one party to be in power for ever or the GOP to fix itself. However, the capacity for the GOP to fix itself is actively undermined by this model because the moderate right has been poached by the Democrats. In effects, it makes the trashfire element of the GOP stronger.


Heading left has advantages for the Democrats by engaging voters on the left without abandoning the centre completely. In doing so it creates electoral and policy space in the centre right. Could a new party emerge there? Probably not based on past US history but even the threat of a centre right party that pulls votes from the GOP could help pull the GOP leftwards.


15 thoughts on “Why the centre should want the Democratic Party to go left

  1. But isn’t there a difference between state elections, elections to the senate, House of Representatives and presidential elections? What is good in one category isn’t necessarily good in another. And factors work together in different ways. In Arizona, the Democrats won the senate but lost a he governorship. Their senate candidate was more leftist than their candidate for governor. This centrism gave the extra votes that pulled the senator candidate over the line. But without leftist votes engaged by the more leftist candidate for governor, the senate would probably have been lost too.

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    1. Well yes and US party politics in the past has worked on a model where there could be huge differences regionally between parts of the party (especially the Democratic Party) but that has reduced. I don’t know why the US doesn’t have distinct regional parties for elections other than the Presidential one – I’d have thought they’d be a natural out growth of the system.


      1. We do actually, but not many. It’s generally been more profitable to work your way into one of the Big Two, and implement changes from within. And the South has cast shall we say an ominous shadow over the existence of third parties in large swaths of the country.

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  2. As an outsider, the two most obvious problems – and therefore the routes towards success if solved – are turnout and unrepresentative results (gerrymandering, vote suppression, structural stuff like the Senate). Get your vote out, make your votes count fairly, and then argue policy within a successful party.

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  3. One problem in America is that the largest of the third parties — Libertarian and Greens — are easily gamed by outside forces like the Russians and poorly organized with no strategy. Instead of focusing on small local and regional races where they might be able to win, supporting those candidates and building up from there to Congresspeople, Senators, etc., they pretty much spend their main focus on the big federal elections and carping about the two big parties. With the Republicans a large and still strategic but stumbling white supremacist party, the Libertarians had some huge opportunities on the state and county level, which they haven’t really taken advantage of. And the Greens could use competing reform agendas in the Democrats as an opportunity to take local races that Dems didn’t up until recently focus on and then canvas with the Dems, enacting changes, especially as environmentalism comes to the forefront again. But we’ve seldom seen that either. Instead, what the Greens do is help elect Republicans by stripping away unstrategic liberal voters from the Dems. Without a parliamentary system, they have nothing to offer the two big parties the way they operate.

    The other issue is simply that “centrist” pundits in America aren’t centrists. They are conservative, old fashioned Republicans — often outright Republicans offering “advice”. And the Democratic party pulling to the left always scares them that their interests will lose standing. So they keep “warning” Democrats that if they go too left towards the brown people that they will scare the white people away. They keep saying this even though it on average doesn’t work and helped elect Republicans at various levels as white people scared of brown people and not having that narrative refuted by Dem centrists run to white safety Republicans, not coalition Democrats. Clinton was more centrist than Obama and lost to him. Clinton was more centrist than much of her party wanted her to be when she ran again and lost less because she didn’t capture conservative white workers scared of brown people than that she didn’t capture lefty white people who viewed her as a corporate stooge. (Plus voter suppression from the Republicans.)

    If you want young people to turn out to vote — as they did this election — they don’t vote on average for centrists. POC will vote for centrists when they have to in order to get butts in the seats, but the majority will always lean left towards those who promise at least a nodding interest in their civil rights and who advance POC candidates. White women who are not conservatives and/or terrified of brown people generally don’t vote for centrists who want to put abortion rights, equal pay and other women’s issues on the back burner.

    There is always going to be centrist compromising in American politics (as there is in most politics,) unless the Republican party completely collapses. But any shrewd negotiator knows you don’t start from a position that you will happily compromise and let unhealthy and abusive policies stick around. You start from a position further away from the one you expect to end up on — you start on the left and you advocate left and then you’re going to get pulled to the center from negotiations, but not as far right/center as you would if you start from the center. But centrist pundits get to publish by corporate media, which are almost all conservative run to one degree or another, and they want pundits that will offer reassurance and advice that people shouldn’t go too far left — towards worker rights and pay, tax justice, environmentalism and other things that inconvenience global corporations. They want those compromises that benefit them, so you always get a massive amount of concern trolling of the Democratic party in the media whenever it breathes a hint of civil rights and wins elections from doing that.

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  4. In other online news, Ted Beale has responded to the story of Threatin, the Heavy Metal band with a fake fanbase and a fake history… by comparing them to Scalzi.

    Yes, Teddy, that’s who it resembles. Highly successful author John Scalzi. And not the “publisher” whose author catalog is an undefined quantity of himself under different names.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. That’s part of it, yes. Another is this story so clearly reminds Beale of himself that he feels an almost obsessive need to insist that it does not, to ‘other’ it, and yet again project his failings onto one of his well-worn gallery of hate figures.

        It’s just in this case, the play is obvious even by his standards.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s possibly Teddy’s most obvious projection ever. Which is a lot, considering how obvious his projecting always is. It’s not even hidden at all here. One or two of the Dead Elk might even figure it out.


  5. And now we have some Blue Dog DINOs that we had to put up with to hold Dem gains trying to unseat Pelosi as Speaker because it’s too much “identity politics” — that played a substantial role in the success of the elections — and they want to concentrate on the “economy” so as not to upset….Republican white voters. There is still a lot of weeding that will have to be done over time in the Dem party to keep up its development. But that’s the problem — the Republicans moved further and further right and are imploding in pockets, so a bunch of Republicans have edged over to the Democratic party in recent years, offering some gains in deeper red rural seats, and then they keep trying to drag it rightward too in the name of centerism, but really in the name of keeping POC out of candidacies and positions of power in the party, keeping LGTBQ issues buried and letting their anti-choice members placate their far right religious backers on the down-low. They make a mess, then claim there is destructive “disunity” in the Dem party when they get sat on for it.

    So don’t expect a lack of centrist whining, though it probably won’t reach the crescendo it did when Obama first got elected. The better the Dem party does — and the less white straight menny it is when it does well — the more whining about moving center for the sake of the “economy” we’ll get from them. They call it duck and cringe Democrats and that strategy is what lost Dems whole state governments and control of Congress before. It never works. It’s the trickle down economics theory of political spectrums.

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  6. Know what you get, if you stuff ten cats together? You get ten cats.

    This entire discussion’s implicit assumption that it’s useful to discuss the USA Democratic Party as if it were anything even within shouting distance of monolithic is faintly hilarious. It mostly backed the Great Society fifty years ago; it mostly backed the New Deal ninety years back. It mostly stood for labour (well, in skilled trades only) forty years back. Today? It’s just a loose alliance of convenience centred somewhere to the stodgy side of Angela Merkel.

    It would make more sense to debate the merits of the Democratic Party going ‘centrist’ if there were some credible force able to take and keep it there, but I see none standing around. I mostly see lots of individual politicians purporting to look out for their individual constituencies, and no obvious likelihood of that changing, with the major impinging force from outside being the emergent properties of first-past-the-post voting, specifically Duverger’s Law.

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      1. I like that image. (See UK Labour as a fine example.)

        My European and antipodean friends are often surprised to hear that US political parties actually have neither power to control either who runs for office under their banners nor which voters are ‘members’ (and that ‘members’ neither pay nor apply for that status, and cannot be expelled or denied). This situation arose because of the entirely unofficial and (basically) unintentional manner in which those parties arose, as private political associations that are only grudgingly recognised by government at all and have no constitutional role. (Conversely, my fellow Yanks tend to assume the rest of the world shares their utterly mad non-system.)

        In light of that lack of clarity, it’s not surprising to hear the Democratic Party spoken of as if it had top-down discipline and a national agenda, both of which it utterly lacks — in sharp contrast to the GOP under the Babylonian Captivity it’s experiencing courtesy of the Toddler-in-Chief. Of course, it doesn’t help that the gentlemen of the press and pundit class ignore these realities for polemical purposes, further muddying the picture.


  7. I’d like to see people being authentic. To me, that’s the real reason Dems should “move left” (dessicated US version of left though it may be), to be true in public to what one believes and not have to parse or disguise or triangulate or obfuscate or sweeten or minimize (or maximize). Authenticity is a rare political practice (I nearly said “commodity” but I am trying to be more authentic myself and stop framing non-commercial things in market terms! Ha!)


    1. I’d like to see people being authentic.

      I think that’s why Beto O’Rourke made the splash he did. (That, and not taking PAC money; disclaimer, I made a fair chunk in donations to him myself.) In interviews, he came across as authentic and straightforward; he answered questions without equivocating or trying to weasel out of saying Yes or No. (For example, when asked if he would have voted for Brett Kavanaugh, he replied without hesitation, “No, I would not.”) Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite knock off that human stain Cruz in Texas, but there’s already rumblings about him running for President in 2020.


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