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I continue to think regime change is a useful way of understanding politics. That’s the idea that American political history turns in cycles. For 40 or 50 years, one party and its ideas prevails over the other with a majority of voters. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was the Democrats. From the 1980s to the 2010s, it was the Republicans. Each period is punctuated by crisis—world wars, economic shocks or, in our case, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regime change is useful because it helps put the chaos of lived experience into a coherent historical context. But that’s not all. Once you’re aware of the cycles of political history, you realize very little is set in stone. The political assumptions of the past may or may not be relevant to the new political assumptions of the present. Plus, the political assumptions of the present are not really new. Even as one set of assumptions dominates an era, another set is always already in some stage of development. It just needs an opportunity to emerge.
I have no doubt the president is thinking about the coming midterms. I have no doubt he’s worried about Democrats from swing districts. But it seems to me that by taking the liberals’ side in this fight, the moderates should take heart.
Regime change is useful to bear in mind while critically engaging the work of the Washington press corps. Many reporters, editors and talking heads come of age, personally, during one cycle while hitting their stride, professionally, in another. For example: By the 1990s, most Democrats felt it better to concede to conservative demands than to the demands of their party’s liberals. (They were convinced they would pay electorally for what was known as “liberal overreach.”) Most of the press corps, having come of age in the 1990s, still believes that assumption. That’s why we see headlines like this one in the Sunday Times: “Biden Throws In With Left, Leaving His Agenda in Doubt.”
I’ll get to that story in a minute. First, implicit in the above assumption is that the political center cannot be wherever the left flank of the Democratic Party is. But knowledge of the cycles of political history helps us understand that the center is fluid. It slides back and forth, depending on which party has the ear of a majority of voters. During the 1990s, the center was center-right because most Democrats saw utility in conceding to conservative demands more than liberal demands. The center cannot be center-right now. Only a minority of both parties speaks for the center-right. While most of the Democrats are left of center-left, virtually all the Republicans are so far to the right they’re better understood as dangerous authoritarian collectivists.
The center, moreover, might be said to be wherever loyalty to the US Constitution and the United States ends and treachery begins. In other words, the center is usually defined as the line between the parties. But it’s more usefully defined as the line between everyone who voted to impeach and convict a losing president for his failed coup d’etat and everyone who voted to acquit him of that high crime. The Congress is in the thick of debating Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. That the Democrats are bargaining with themselves and a handful of loyal Republicans seems to indicate the actual range of legitimate politics. Wherever “the center” is, it’s not anywhere close to the GOP’s center.
About that agenda. Last week revealed that the president had put almost no pressure on his party’s liberal faction (represented in press coverage by the Congressional Progressive Caucus) to support the important but unambitious bipartisan infrastructure bill. (That’s the one for roads, bridges, and traditional stuff.) Last week also revealed that he turned the screws on so-called moderates to support the important but ambitious “human infrastructure” bill. (That’s the one with provisions for child care, elder care, health care, education and more. It would be, as the Editorial Board’s Magdi Semrau put it, Biden’s Great Society.) This, according to the prevailing assumption of the last 40 years, is not how it’s done. A president is supposed to lean on liberals, not moderates. Joe Biden is putting his agenda “in doubt.”
Is he? I don’t know more than anyone else. But presidents do tend to be pretty good at knowing where the actual center of the electorate is. Otherwise, they would not be presidents. (Donald Trump is the exception to that rule of thumb, obviously.) I have no doubt Biden is thinking about the coming midterms. I have no doubt he’s worried about Democrats from swing districts. But it seems to me that by taking the liberals’ side in this fight, the moderates should take heart.
Why? Because if a Democratic president is taking the liberals’ side, that indicates that the country is entering, or has already entered, a new political regime with a new set of prevailing assumptions. Biden’s job, then, isn’t so much leaning on moderates and thus risking defeat in the midterms. It’s getting moderates to recognize that times have changed. It’s getting them to see that being a moderate isn’t what is used to be.
If I’m right, going big won’t hurt the Democrats. It will help them win. Moreover, it will make visible, even to our naval-gazing press corps, a new set of assumptions that aren’t really new but had been in some stage of development for 40 years. The government isn’t a problem, liberals have been arguing since the Reagan administration. The government is us. It’s a solution to our problems, because we the people are the solution. Biden is leaning on the right people. The liberals are now at the center. The moderates have to catch up.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article is a reprint that can be seen here.