Read: What do progressives do now?
The contradictory posturing of today’s most powerful liberals is not fully attributable to the shock and disorientation brought about by the 2016 election; its roots go back to the Clinton era at least—the period (not incidentally) when Democratic leaders formally abandoned their commitment to the New Deal and absorbed key parts of a Republican agenda.
American liberalism has always had a technocratic streak, but the disappointments experienced by liberals since the end of the 1960s enabled a new generation of more conservative Democrats to restructure the liberal coalition and redefine both its style and its political priorities. In the past few decades, the party has avoided embracing a clearly defined progressive program or engaging in the politics of confrontation. Whereas the consensus put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt was achieved through open conflict with powerful forces in American society, the lodestars of the new liberalism became compromise and conciliation with the right. While FDR forged a lasting political settlement around welfarism and an activist state against the wishes of much of America’s corporate establishment, the Clinton administration would famously denounce the scourge of “Big Government” and declare “the end of welfare as we know it.” The Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris even summed up the administration’s strategy in a memo as follows: “Fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.”
Accordingly, key parts of the conservative agenda were absorbed into American liberalism, which would now make a virtue out of both bipartisan compromise and ideological triangulation.
This style found its ultimate expression in Barack Obama, who masterfully paired a sonorous rhetoric of optimism with, to paraphrase the political scientist Corey Robin, a “moral minimalism” that rendered Democrats not so much unprepared for a fight with their Republican foes as indisposed to the very idea of one. Beginning with the hopeful cadence of “Yes we can!” and ending, after a slew of congressional defeats, with the election of Donald Trump, the Obama era has served to convince many liberals of the need to compromise even further—anything remotely ambitious being doomed to fail on the altars of conservative partisanship and Republican obstruction. (Rampant opposition to Medicare for All from centrist Democrats despite its considerable popularity has been justified on these grounds for years.)
Partly in response to the limitations of Obama-era liberalism, the left (notably, though not exclusively, in Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns) has embraced something like an inverse strategy: mobilizing around ambitious, popular policies and openly naming the forces and interests that stand in their way.
Derek Thompson: The millennials-verus-boomers fight divides the Democratic party