The Democratic Party Divide Is About Theories of Political Power

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File

Senator Diane Feinstein speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington. 

When California Senator Dianne Feinstein met last Friday with a group of young climate activists from the Sunrise Foundation promoting the Green New Deal framework, the resulting confrontation created yet another political Rorschach test in a fractured electorate.

You either saw an arrogant and out-of-touch politician dismissively lecturing children about matters of life or death, or you saw a savvy experienced legislator explaining how the world really works to a group of children pushed by their elders into promoting a hopeless fantasy. Those on the progressive side of the aisle mostly saw the former; those on the center-left and the right saw the latter.

Feinstein arguably conceded the point by shelving her more “realistic” alternative to the Green New Deal framework authored by progressive Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey. Feinstein’s half-measure would have extended the timeline to hit zero carbon emissions by 20 years, and reinstated a grab bag of Obama-era environmental rules that were inadequate to even that task.

But crucially, Feinstein’s defenders fail to understand how critics can acknowledge her skepticism of the Green New Deal’s ability to pass Congress while maintaining that her comparatively far weaker version is detrimental to the cause of curbing climate change.

The discrepancy arises from two very different approaches to political power, and two very different analyses of how America’s social, economic, and environmental crises came to be in the first place.

The right has always relied on the implicit or explicit threat that it would be willing to subvert all the norms of democracy to achieve its goals: “Second Amendment remedies,” Trumpian emergency declarations and other norm-breaking abuses of power, or the Federalist Society’s radical imposition of a libertarian originalist version of the Constitution to overturn a century of social-welfare legislation.

This is how the right succeeds in pushing the envelope in Congress and in the media: They let everyone know that they’re willing to pull out the stops if social conservatives with racist and sexist leanings don’t stay centered in society, and if the wealthy don’t continue to take an ever larger share of the economic pie.

The center-left, which has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the late 1970s, has long depended on being the “responsible” party: the cogent, the level-headed, the ones who, as Michelle Obama famously said, “go high” when they go low. Like the real mother in the biblical Judgment of Solomon, they are willing to sacrifice almost any legislative priority in order to maintain the norms of late-20th-century governance, especially so long as no one’s stock market portfolio takes a hit.

The problem is that this dynamic between right and center-left is codependent and convenient to the status quo. The far right gets to keep the angry old racists happy; the center-left keeps the concerned vaguely cosmopolitan educated crowd happy. Notably, the donor class and those with an interest in maintaining the current orderalways seem to come out ahead.

The progressive left is simply refusing to play the game. This is partly a matter of fundamental fairness, partly a recognition that this unhealthy political codependency causes a continual rightward drift in most policy areas. But most importantly, it’s a recognition that resolving the environmental and economic crises facing the country is more important than protecting rhetorical niceties and parliamentary traditions. Progressives are no longer willing to play the responsible straight man to the GOP’s destructive clown.

Climate change in particular is a life-or-death emergency. Climate scientists tell us we have less than 12 years to take radical action toward decarbonization or face a civilization-threatening ecological hellscape and untold political instability. So when Senator Feinstein told the children with the Sunrise Foundation that “it’s not going to get turned around in ten years,” she wasn’t expressing a hard-nosed legislative reality. She was, quite realistically, condemning them to a future of catastrophe and misery, and consigning their own children to potentially even worse.

It’s not that progressives don’t understand the legislative constraints Feinstein always foregrounds. They know the Green New Deal framework can’t pass the Senate under the current system. They’re not stupid.

What progressives are doing is laying down the marker that if this system won’t allow the Green New Deal to be enacted, they will change the system until it does—whatever it takes. If that means eliminating the filibuster? So be it. Need to add states to the union? Go for it. Term limits for justices or packing courts? Sign them up.

This might seem like fantastical thinking, but it actually carries a greater dose of realism about both the current political situation and about the opposition in the Republican Party.

First, many of these supposedly radical approaches are more practically possible than many believe. The current practice of the automatic filibuster is very recent and was never envisioned by the founders. It can be eliminated by a simple majority vote of the Senate. FDR’s famous court-packing initiative, long derided for its supposed failure, was an effective enough threat that many more conservative justices released the pressure valve by letting some New Deal programs through. Statehood for Washington, D.C., simply requires unified, filibuster-free Democratic control of the House and Senate—a definite possibility within the decade. At the moment, all of these seem more realistic and concrete plans than getting even a half-dozen Republican senators on board with a climate initiative.

Second, the center-left’s approach assumes that watered-down, Feinstein-style approaches will be likelier to win Republican votes in the Senate. But there’s no evidence for this. The battle over the Affordable Care Act serves as a valuable lesson: Despite endless months of wrangling and efforts to accommodate conservative priorities in the bill, not a single Republican was willing to sign on to health-care reform—even though much of what was in the Affordable Care Act began life as a more conservative alternative to Medicare for All. There is absolutely no reason to believe that any Republicans would agree to support a “light” approach to aggressive decarbonization and job replacement.

Any “solution” that would realistically get the vote of even a single Republican senator wouldn’t come close to doing what the moment actually requires. Which means that progressives don’t care what the center-left thinks it might be able to pass, because that’s ultimately irrelevant. Progressives are saying what is necessary, and then determining just how far they’ll need to go to get there. And not just to deal with climate change, but also radical inequality, the destruction of the middle class, and much more besides.

Ultimately, the sclerotic 20th-century version of American governance is unlikely to survive. The right sees an existential threat from a more progressive, more diverse population. They cannot afford for democracy to survive in its current form, and they will kill it if given half the chance. They are signaling loud and clear they would rather have a Putin-backed dictatorship under a corrupt idiot than give up old-white-male privilege or plutocratic control.

From the left, it’s clear that the current system also won’t let us deal with our environmental, technological, and economic challenges in anything like the timeframe we need to solve them. Which means the defenders of that system are just as dangerous in their own way as the right wing is.

The future belongs to the side that changes the system to accomplish their goals. It’s a life-or-death struggle, and the only coalition that fails to grasp the reality of the moment is the center-left most firmly—but falsely—trying to claim the mantle of hard-edged realism.

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