The Chris Christie-Rand Paul brouhaha that erupted within the Republican Party recently has overshadowed a looming battle among Democrats to determine their party’s direction.
To be sure, Democrats do not face the kind of fractious political wrangling that currently plagues the GOP and which threatens to worsen as Republicans face the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race. Republicans are riven into more factions, some overlapping, than one can count: Libertarians, deficit hawks, social conservatives, internationalists, neocons, tea party true believers, and so on.
The vast popularity of Hillary Clinton, who appears to have the Democratic presidential nomination easily within her grasp, should she want it, could paper over differences among Democrats for the next few years. And Democrats have achieved unity on a number of previously contentious issues. In 2008, much of the debate between Clinton and Barak Obama centered on the Iraq war. President Obama’s deft handling of the conflict has removed that issue. Similarly, Democrats no longer contend over so-called cultural issues. Democrats broadly agree on gay rights, gun control, immigration, and women’s issues. It is unthinkable that the party’s next presidential nominee -- Clinton or someone else -- will not be a progressive on these cultural issues.
But there is a growing realization among progressives that Democrats must address the great and growing problem of this century: Economic inequality. Detroit’s bankruptcy highlights the impoverishment of many left behind by the modern economy, and the plight of lower-income Americans who are falling further behind puts pressure on the party to abandon the center-left consensus on fiscal issues shaped by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and adopt a more progressive program aimed at reducing income disparity.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin captures this mood. “The sooner we get back to a good, progressive, populist message, the better off we’re going to be as Democrats,” he says.
“Look at where we are going to be at the end of the Obama administration,” notes Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Pogress. “We’ll see a lot of change on social issues, but on the ground in the country we’ll still have this growing economic inequality.”
President Obama recognizes the problem, even if he is frustrated by Republican obstructionism which threatens to torpedo all his initiatives. The president told The New York Times recently that upward mobility has been “part and parcel of who we were as Americans. Ant that’s what’s been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis.If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise. That’s not a future that we should accept.”
The maldistribution of wealth in 21st Century American is serious. The richest one percent of Americans take home 24 percent of income, up nine percent in the last three decades. In 1980, CEO’s averaged 42 times the earnings of the typical worker. By 2001 the differential was up to 531 times as much, and it’s rising.
It’s hard not to conclude that the richest nation in the world is starting to look like a banana republic.
The cutting-edge issues on which progressives will fight the battles over the widening gap between the rich and the poor are likely to be banks, entitlements, and consumer rights. Senator Elizabeth Warner -- suddenly Massachusetts’s senior senator even though she is a freshman -- may be the politician who pushes the party to more progressive positions.
Already, Warren is fighting on behalf of college students and recent graduates drowning in educational debt, proposing to offer them the same interest rate as the Federal Reserve currently offers banks, 0.75 percent. Warren is also at the center of the struggle to regulate financial institutions, the issue on which she first made her reputation, by raising the question whether commercial and investment banking should be intermingled. She favors restoring the Glass-Steagall New Deal prohibition against commercial banks engaging in investment finance.
Differences between progressive and centrist Democrats may well appear on these and similar issues. While the growing gap in income argues for a more liberal stance from the party, the increasingly rightward drift of the GOP leaves the whole center empty for Democrats to occupy, strengthening the hand of moderates in the party.
But the problems addressed by Senators Harkin, Warren, and other Democratic progressives will only worsen in the next decade or two, pushing the party further to the left.