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“...Or Get Off the Pot”: Where Moderates Fall in the Modern Democratic Party

For many college progressives, it’s nearly impossible to scroll through a Twitter or Facebook feed without seeing a video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slamming a Trump administration official in a hearing or clapping back against false claims by conservative pundits. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (AOC for short) receives a great deal of conservative haranguing, particularly from Fox News, leading most Democrats to rally in solidarity around the congresswoman.

Still others have taken it a step further, offering full-throated support not only to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s character, but her policies as well. The prospect of radical action on climate change and health care is a dream come true for leftists frustrated by the party’s persistence in following a centrist path. But for the proponents and adherents to that path down the middle, AOC’s seemingly radical policies are a bridge too far, and seem to spell electoral doom in 2020 and beyond.

With such a conflict rising on all levels of the party, many are wondering when and where reconciliation can be found. Is there room for moderates in AOC’s ideal Democratic party?

To begin, it’s essential to outline which policies have cast AOC and progressive allies like Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Bernie Sanders in such a radical light. The first is a single-payer healthcare system dubbed “Medicare For All.” This would extend the government-run health insurance program for people over 65 to all Americans, effectively doing away with private insurance. While it may seem like a large undertaking, major countries like Canada and the UK have implemented their own government health systems with considerable success. An American system could potentially save 2 trillion dollars in costs over 10 years, should cost controls curb prices.

Another major talking point is the Green New Deal. Evoking FDR’s historic policy initiative, the Green New Deal would take drastic steps to respond to the emergency of climate change. Proposals in the non-binding resolution recently offered by Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey would overhaul public transportation, establish jobs for those displaced by climate change and the shift to renewable energy, and make the US carbon neutral within 10 years. These proposals seems like ambitious steps to take in such a short time frame. However, they are in response to a recent UN report that within 12 years the effects of climate change will drastically change life as we know it.

Both programs would involve massive amounts of federal spending, bringing up the question of how to pay for it. When presented with this by Anderson Cooper, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez proposed raising the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent from its current 39.6. In doing so, AOC aligned herself with fellow democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who made tax reform a key issue in his bid for the democratic nomination in 2016. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez claim they have history on their side in this fight, citing high tax rates during and after World War II as the key to funding the economic expansion of the mid-20th Century–but does this claim hold up?

The short answer is yes. National health insurance has been a progressive goal for almost 70 years. FDR considered including it in the Social Security Act of 1935, eventually abandoning it to speed the bill’s passage. Lyndon Johnson came close in his Great Society programs, instituting Medicare and Medicaid to alleviate health care costs on the poor and elderly. Bill Clinton even tried early in his presidency but ran into a wall of conservative backlash, which forced Clinton to the middle on health care and subsequent policy. Most recently, the Affordable Care Act almost contained a public option, but it was yet again abandoned in an effort to compromise with Republicans.

Needless to say, passing a government health program would finally realize the dream of generations of progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Rep. John Dingell who passed away this past February. The progressive basis for the Green New Deal is more clear. FDR’s economic overhaul is a perfect parallel for the similar reconfiguration promised by the Green New Deal. Worth noting, however, is the rocky road the original New Deal took to being enacted.

Roosevelt’s policies had their fair share of opposition, both from the Supreme Court who struck down several New Deal programs, as well as from within the administration. Roosevelt’s first vice-president, John Nance Garner, was opposed to many of the policies, along with populist governor Huey Long. Republican opposition was significant, but not insurmountable in the face of economic catastrophe. Fiscally, increasing top marginal rates and taxes on capital gains also harken back to the post-war era. Top marginal rates reached as high as 90 percent during and immediately after World War II, slightly declining throughout the 60s and 70s, and eventually bottomed out under Reagan and his trickle-down economics. Such rates were deemed fitting to fund not only big projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, but also basic services like the Interstate Highway System. Raising taxes to fund modern innovations in energy and transportation has historically proved to boost those initiatives.

Even with a solid basis in the past, do these policies have a place in the big-tent Democratic party of today and tomorrow? A convincing argument can be made that the modern Democratic coalition requires the votes of minority groups and white working class voters, almost necessitating compromise and caution. However, the response from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others would be that these policies would benefit both of those communities, as well as the country as a whole.

Every person requires health insurance, and most modern plans are far too sparse to cover the rapidly ballooning cost of healthcare in America. Climate change doesn’t discriminate based on racial or economic background, though its impacts would certainly be felt most severely by the poor, shown clearly in the hiring of private firefighters during the California wildfires. Proposed tax increases would only impact earnings over at least $500,000, if not higher, in a restructured tax system. This means that for average Americans there would be no significant change to their taxes. The burden would fall on the very wealthy, as it did during the post-war expansion period.

Ultimately, the only people who would be placated by rejecting these policies are those who benefit from current healthcare costs, fossil fuels, and low taxes. Needless to say, these are not the ideal Democratic demographics. Given this, along with polling data that shows that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are increasingly popular not just in Ocasio-Cortez’s New York but in middle America as well, there is no reason to believe adopting these policies would doom the Democratic party.

On a more conceptual basis, what Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are fighting for is a return to progressive roots. There is little doubt as to where Franklin Roosevelt stood on economics. The same goes for Roosevelt’s political antithesis, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s reputation as the liberal bogeyman was earned through the championing of small-government conservatism. Like him or hate him, he stood for something. In a shifting political landscape, Republicans have continually tightened their ideological adherence, aiming for ultra-conservative principles thought to be radical even under Reagan.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 2010 midterms,  when Tea Party candidates swept through Republican primaries and shifted the party even further to the right. Such an insurgency is still scary in the minds of many modern Democrats, triggering apprehension when Ocasio-Cortez proposed something similar. However, for as much ideological purification as the Republican party has gone through, the Democrats have become increasingly lost. What began as strong fiscal liberalism under FDR and civil rights championing under Kennedy and Johnson decayed over time, leading to Clinton, and even some Obama policies that blurred the line between Democrat and Republican.

While bipartisan solutions are welcome, they fall short in an era where few Republicans are willing to come to the table on economic and social justice. Current Democratic policy often involves vague buzzwords like “affordability” and “accessibility” when talking about healthcare reform, environmental policy, or economic justice. This leaves Democratic candidates as seeming to simply oppose Republicans, instead favor their own platform. Such a lack of focus was a key critique of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign–strong policy lost in the haze of anti-Trumpism.

What Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are realizing is that an effective response to Trump and modern conservatism is not simply obstruction, but redirection. Regardless of public opinion, policies like Medicare For All and the Green New Deal present a clear image and partisan identification in the minds of voters, similar to that of smaller government and lower taxes. At this moment in political history, strong party identity isn’t something to be afraid of. President Trump frequently sends mixed signals about his policy goals, leaving members of both parties confused as to where Republicans actually stand now. A strong Democratic foundation presents a clear alternative to voters, and aligns with prior ideological tradition.

While the input of moderates is helpful in policy-making, it doesn’t present the clearest image on a campaign trail. Moderate views add to partisan confusion, and as such, have found a less visible spot in a modern GOP looking to win. It’s reasonable to think the Democrats could match that ideological shift, without losing their coalition or further destroying the political system.

Ultimately, voters need something to believe in, and moderate ideology simply doesn’t command the same attention and identification as a strong leftist one. Moderates have a place in the modern Democratic party, but it very well may involve more listening than talking.

A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.