America Shifts Left

The Emergence of New Kinds of Progressivism

The center of gravity in American politics moved left in Tuesday’s off-year elections.

Republicans took a big step back from the tea party. An ebullient progressive was elected mayor of New York City. And a Democrat was elected governor of Virginia after campaigning unapologetically as a supporter of gun control and a liberal on social issues.

The one bright spot for Republicans, Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey, was won precisely because Christie ran briskly away from the party’s right wing and developed a civil relationship with President Obama. His victory speech spoke of the need for politicians to go to places where they might be “uncomfortable” -- exactly where the tea party does not want to go.

And in the one direct intraparty fight over the GOP’s future, a tea party candidate lost a primary in Alabama to a more traditional conservative. A telling distinction between the victor, Bradley Byrne, and the defeated Dean Young: Byrne said that Obama was born in the United States; Young suggested the president was born in Kenya.

Young’s persistent “birtherism” is a reminder of how far right the American political discussion veered after the elections of 2009 and the midterms of 2010. The pendulum is swinging back.

And this week was not just a story of the Republican Party struggling to disentangle itself from extremism, or of the revival of moderation. The Democratic victories in New York and Virginia plainly marked the triumph of two different kinds of progressivism.

Terry McAuliffe may have won in Virginia as a middle-of-the-road, business-friendly champion of “jobs.” But he was also firmly liberal on gay marriage and abortion, and cast Ken Cuccinelli, his opponent, as a social troglodyte.

More than that: McAuliffe was outspoken against the National Rifle Association and in favor of a variety of gun-safety measures, including background checks. McAuliffe did not shrink from his F-rating from the NRA. He boasted about it.

His outspokenness was rewarded. He won the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly and built a large margin among women. The power of the gun-control issue should not be lost in the sometimes foggy talk about centrism. This should embolden supporters of sane gun laws.

In New York City, Bill de Blasio built the day’s second landslide on another sort of liberalism, a populist assault on rising inequality. In a victory speech that will be read as a manifesto for a new progressivism, de Blasio declared that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” He renewed his campaign call for modest tax increases on the best-off to finance education programs to give poorer kids a chance to join the ranks of the successful.

New York has a reputation as a great liberal city, and in many ways it is. But not since David Dinkins won in 1989 has it sent a Democrat and a staunch progressive to City Hall. The de Blasio experiment will be a test case for the nation.

Conservatives quickly sought to take the edge off their defeats on Tuesday by arguing that Cuccinelli’s attacks on Obamacare at the end of the campaign nearly allowed him to snatch victory from McAuliffe in a race that turned out to be closer than polls had predicted.

But the evidence for this is thin. In the Virginia exit polls, only 27 percent of the voters said health care was their most important issue, and they split 49 percent for Cuccinelli, 45 percent for McAuliffe. At a moment when media reports about Obamacare are almost universally bad, this narrow advantage is surprisingly positive news for friends of the Affordable Care Act -- especially since McAuliffe strongly and repeatedly endorsed using its expansion of Medicaid to provide insurance for Virginia’s near-poor.  

Republicans would be wiser to pay attention to the fact that McAuliffe re-created the coalition which twice elected Obama. When Democrats lost Virginia in 2009, Obama supporters stayed home in large numbers. This time, the electorate was significantly more Democratic, and the African-American share of the vote rose sharply. In next year’s midterms, Republicans cannot count on the sort of Democratic demobilization that was so helpful to them in 2010.

To say that this election nudged the nation leftward is not to claim a sudden mandate for liberalism. But it is to insist that the center ground in American politics is a long way from where it was three years ago -- and that if there is a new populism in the country, it is now speaking with a decidedly progressive accent.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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The elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City might each be taken at face value, as indicators of voter sentiemnt on the key issues of each campaign. Christie's main thrust was that he had worked across party lines for the people's benefit, and his well-known embrace of President Obama after Superstorm Sandy served well as Exhibit A. His opponent had no real response. In VA, as Dionne describes, McAuliffe recreated the Obama victory formula. The most important change may actually be the primary victory of Bradley Byrne in Alabama. Tea Party candidates have previously been far more effective in primaries than in general elections. That may be beginning to change, and would allow the Republican mainstream to regain its balance--and its effectiveness in general elections. One can also visualize Republican candidates campaigning FOR gun controls, especially in heavily urban districts, with financial support from control advocates such as Michael Bloomberg.

There is one other issue that will be more contentious in 2014: the ACA. No doubt, HealthCare.gov will work in a month or so, and millions will sign up. The questions of 2014 wil be more substantive, perhaps existential. For example, the CBO projected last May that even in 2023 (ten years hence) there will still be 31 million uninsured adults (under 65) with the ACA fully implemented. The ACA will have conspicuously failed to have brought coverage to many of the 47 million who were uninsured when the law was passed. By next fall, the magnitude of the remaining uninsured will be apparent. Also, Secretary Sebelius testified last week that so far, $174 million has been spent on HealthCare.gov and related IT support. At the very most, 20 million people will use that website to buy health insurance. Someone wil calculate that for $174 million we could have simply distributed a HealthCare credit card capable of drawing $8.7 million to every one of the 20 million uninsured persons whom HealthCar.gov is built to serve. Skip the website and all the big contracts--just let people get to their healthcare providers. The debate will center on whether, if  health care is a right, are we a more moral country when so many are still uninsured? And how was so much taxpayer money, and so much opportunity to do good, squandered on a website that does not, even when it works as intended, address the problem of millions of Americans still without health coverage? 

Yes, the 2014 election will be different, for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Progessivism is only to be measured by getting rid of part-time jobs and no benefits by punishing corps that 'live' off that . next is raise the minimum wage a few bucks. All the other social issues are cable news babble.

To correct a typo in my original Comment above: delete the "capable of drawing $8.7 million". 

This article seems to be more along the lines of wishful thinking than accurate reflection upon what happened Tuesday. None of these elections resembles that overwhelming feeling of progressive 'victory' that I got in 2006, and again in 2008. In Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli received 40% of the 18-29 vote, and the liberal MacCauliffe only received 45% of the 18-29 vote. This does not bode well for progressivism's future, since many of these young people will naturally vote more conservatively as they age. Why would so many young people cast ballots for Cuccinelli in 2013? In part, it's because the country (and Generation Y) is becoming more conservative. Running on issues such as "free" contraception and more abortion doesn't play well with people who don't remember 3rd wave feminism. And running on any kind of spending increases won't play well with young people either. The debt and budget will define the next 1 or 2 decades of politics if the Democrats don't find a way to make some kind of grand bargain soon. This is naturally an argument that conservatives will win. Add to this the growing influence of the Tea Party, the dismantling of public education, the decline in unionism (and rise of right-to-work laws), the changing public attitudes on abortion and government spending by young people, and the Citizen's United case. Conservatism's future looks much brighter than Progressivism's at this point. I'm not sure how E.J. can even write an article like this and not expect to get laughed at.

"And how was so much taxpayer money, and so much opportunity to do good, squandered on a website that does not, even when it works as intended, address the problem of millions of Americans still without health coverage?"

Sweet Jesus, Joseph, have you never heard of the US Congress?  If so, have you paid any attention whatsoever to their behavior as of late?  They are not an impotent group.  Their ability to cripple useful US policy is becoming quite legendary worldwide.

"I'm not sure how E.J. can even write an article like this and not expect to get laughed at."  I, on the other hand, I not sure how anyone with a remotely useful notion of "conservatism" could consider the Tea Party agenda to be driven by anything other than fear mongering, a near fanatical worship of oligarchy and an unrelenting adulation of ignorance.

I wonder if Mr. Dionne visited New York City during the Mayoral term of David Dinkins?  It has taken a rather long time for New York to 'recover its self' from the general disintegration of the City since his term finished.  I do hope Mr. DiBlasio will not 'let things go down hill' with all his 'progressive ideals' to reduce New York City to that parlous situation. 

>> Someone wil calculate that for $174 million we could have simply distributed a HealthCare credit card capable of drawing $8.7 million to every one of the 20 million uninsured persons whom HealthCar.gov is built to serve. 

If only such a person knew their math, they would quickly see that 174 million dollars / 20 million is not 8.7 million dollars but 8.7 dollars.  That is, if I gave 8.7 dollars to 20 million people, then I have spent 174 million dollars.  Funny how this type of misinformation spreads so easily on the internet.

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).