Republicans had Barry Goldwater. Democrats now have Elizabeth Warren. What do they have in common? Years back, he pointed the way for his party, and now she's doing the same thing for hers.
Goldwater was already a force in Republican politics when his Conscience of a Conservative was published in 1960. He pushed the party toward a conservative future. Warren is riding a liberal surge among Democrats and prodding them in an even more liberal direction.
We know where Republicans wound up. They're the conservative party, all the more so as a result of Tea Party activism. We don't know where Democrats will ultimately land. But if Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, is any guide, they'll be a far more liberal party than they are today and more politically vulnerable as well.
Much attention has been paid to the GOP's recent drift to the right. The mainstream media, echoing President Obama, have characterized congressional Republicans as the chief cause of gridlock in Washington. Obama's role as an impediment to compromise and his allegiance to liberal interest groups has been largely ignored.
That Democrats have grown more liberal has been quantified by both Gallup and Pew Research. In January, Gallup found that 43 percent of Democrats identify themselves as liberals, up from 29 percent in 2000. Gallup's Jeffrey Jones called the shift "a telling indicator" of a once-diverse party "increasingly dominated by those from the left end of the ideological spectrum."
In February, pollster Andrew Kohut wrote that Pew's "values survey" from 1987 to 2012 shows Democrats "as a whole have moved to the left in recent years. They are much more socially liberal than they were even a decade ago, more supportive of activist government, more in favor of increased regulation of business."
In June, another Pew survey found that since 1994 the share of Democrats who regard themselves as usually liberal had jumped from 30 percent to 56 percent. And 70 percent of active Democrats said their views are mostly or always liberal, double the 35 percent of two decades ago.
Josh Kraushaar of National Journal is one of the few journalists to call attention to this trend. Citing Pew's polling, he noted five issues on which Democratic liberals and moderates disagree: the deficit, the environment, social issues, income inequality, and foreign policy. On all five, he wrote, "Obama is on the leftward side. ... Obama has been effective in portraying himself as a moderate consensus-builder while governing in a liberal direction."
Liberals and Obama "give low priority to dealing with the deficit," Kraushaar wrote. They favor "paying higher prices to help the environment." Liberals "are much more optimistic about the ability of government to make a meaningful difference in the income gap." Kraushaar also noted Pew found that "most liberals don't believe in ensuring peace through military strength." Obama's fidelity to liberal interest groups, a key feature of his presidency, has intensified this year. With Latin American children flooding across our southern border, he initially backed a change in a 2008 law that protected them from quick deportation. But after liberal, pro-immigration groups urged him not to, the president dropped that idea.
To jack up Democratic turnout in the midterm elections, his policies are focused entirely on stirring the Democratic baseracial minorities, the poor, environmentalists, peaceniks, gays, unions, and every other liberal faction. "It's tactical," Obama's only hope for enlarging the turnout, says Republican adviser Karl Rove. Obama has given up on appealing to independents and moderates.
Meanwhile, "an ascendant progressive and populist movement ... is on the verge of taking over the party," Doug Sosnik, the political director for President Clinton, wrote in Politico. It's currently "simmering beneath the surface."
For Sosnik, the change from his years in the Clinton White House must be vivid. Conservative scholar Steven Hayward says the "most notable shift is that Democrats have shed the relative moderation of the Clinton years on social and economic policy in favor of the old-school, punitive redistributionism of Elizabeth Warren." Indeed, "Bill and Hillary Clinton's support for traditional marriage," Hayward says, "is being airbrushed out of party history as effectively as a disgraced Soviet Politburo member."
Warren isn't charismatic or an eloquent speaker, but she arouses liberals in a way Obama hasn't since his 2008 campaign. She's also a problem for Democrats. She's forgotten what happened the last time Democrats tilted sharply to the left (pre-Obama). It was in the 1970s, and the backlash led to the presidencies of Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43. And Obama was elected while posing as a bipartisan unifier.
Sosnik pointed out the liberal trend among Democrats has been accompanied in public opinion by something very un-liberal"a desire for less government, not more." Thus Democratic activists must reconcile public support for smaller government "with their own progressive impulses," he wrote.
That won't be easy if Warren has her way. She's not a reconciler. Her most famous remark is that America's economic system is "rigged" in favor of the high and mighty. And who else is there to uproot the system but the federal government? The 11 principles of progressivism she laid down at the Netroots Nation convention amount to an invitation for Washington to intervene. If such a thing as a small government liberal exists, she's not one.
Warren's progressive tenets include these: "Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement ... the Internet shouldn't be rigged to benefit big corporations and that means real net neutrality ... fast-food workers deserve a livable wage ... students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt ... equal means equal and that's true in marriage, it's true in the workplace, it's true in all of America ... immigration has made this country strong and vibrant and that means reform ... corporations are not people." These sound nice, but they all require bigger, more intrusive, and more powerful government.
In her mind, this package of liberal ideas is more than a political agenda. "This is 21st-century democracy," she said. "This is the future of America." I'd put it differently. Warrenism is the future of liberalism.