The Democrats’ dilemma: two parties in oneNiall Ferguson
Last week I began to understand how the Democrats will lose the 2020 presidential election. The reality is that they are not one party, but two: a liberal and a socialist. The former can beat Trump — but not if it is associated with the latter. Socialism is a term for so long regarded as anathema in the US that it used to be avoided altogether: instead of “socialism”, one said either “progressive” or “the s-word”.
These days, however, the s-word is no longer taboo. The Democrats, in their eagerness to recruit a new generation of young voters, have admitted a faction of radical ideologues into their midst.
Exhibit A is the Green New Deal unveiled on Thursday by the Bronx’s very own La Pasionaria, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), and the rather less glamorous 72-year-old Massachusetts senator Ed Markey.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not in denial about climate change. Yes, the evidence is pretty compelling that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases are causing average temperatures to rise and the weather to become more volatile. But I am not quite sure how this is “related” to the “large racial wealth divide” and “gender earnings gap” referred to in the Green New Deal on page 3 or the “systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices” on page 4.
The Green New Deal asserts that climate change has “disproportionately affected indigenous peoples, communities of colour, migrant communities, deindustrialised communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities and youth”.
However, this drearily familiar list of the victims of patriarchy and white supremacy bears only a tangential relationship to the real Americans who were killed or lost their homes in last year’s Californian wildfires.
The measures proposed in the Green New Deal to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” are breathtaking. More nuclear power stations? Er, no. Comrades, we’re talking about a “10-year national mobilisation” on the scale of the Great Patriotic War . . . sorry, I meant the Second World War. By the end of the Green Leap Forward, 100% of US power demand will be met from “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources”, which means geothermal, hydro, solar and wind. Nukes are out, according to the FAQ sheet on the “10-Year Plan” released by AOC’s office.
“All existing buildings in the United States” are going to be upgraded “to achieve maximum energy efficiency”. And there is going to be investment in high-speed rail “at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary”. All this is going to be financed “the same way we paid for the original New Deal, World War II, the bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich and decades of war — with public money appropriated by Congress”.
While they are at it, the people’s commissars are also going to “guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security to all people of the United States”, not to mention “(i) high-quality healthcare; (ii) affordable, safe and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and nature”.
The highlight of AOC’s FAQ sheet was the pledge of “economic security” for people “unable or unwilling to work”.
This is what you get when you recruit your legislators more or less directly from college. For this is the language of countless student union resolutions, freighted with the pious verbiage of today’s “intersectionality”, oblivious to the echoes of the totalitarian regimes of the past. And yet this document has been endorsed by (thus far) five of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Meanwhile, in the real Democratic Party, all hell has been breaking loose. Just over a year ago the party was celebrating the swearing-in of a new governor in Virginia, the former army medic Ralph Northam, who during the election campaign had accused his Republican rival of “fearmongering, hatred, bigotry, racial divisiveness”.
Symbolising the new, progressive South was the election of the African-American lawyer Justin Fairfax as lieutenant-governor — not forgetting the bravery of the attorney-general Mark Herring in refusing to defend the ban on same-sex marriage in the Virginia state constitution.
Last week all three men were battling for political survival after a) the publication of a photograph from Northam’s medical school yearbook showing two students, one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood (it’s not clear which is Northam); b) the allegation, strongly denied by Fairfax, that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004; and c) the admission by Herring that he, too, wore blackface in college.
It is political suicide for the Democrats to embrace the campus socialism of AOC. Just as the #MeToo movement has so far destroyed the careers of more liberals than conservatives, so the endless scouring of college yearbooks for evidence of racism will destroy the careers of more Democrats than Republicans. Reminder: before civil rights, the Democrats were the Dixiecrats, the party of segregation.
On Tuesday, AOC and the rest of the House Democratic Women’s Working Group turned up for Donald Trump’s state of the union address dressed in white, an allusion (they thought) to the suffragette movement and a rebuke to the arch-sexist in the White House. This meme took about 30 seconds to reach my phone: “I haven’t seen so many Democrats in white since they started the KKK.”
Trump’s speech was not only delivered with a panache that took his opponents by surprise. It was also subtly crafted to expose the fatal contradictions between the Democrats and their socialist succubi. Sure, there was red meat for the Republican base on the economy, immigration and abortion. But the blue potatoes of bipartisanship were more plentiful — infrastructure investment, criminal justice reform, China-bashing — as appealing to the ageing Democratic leadership as they were repugnant to the youthful lefties.
I lost count of how many times he forced Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democrat, to applaud. AOC’s face was a rictus throughout.
“We are born free and will stay free,” Trump declared early on. “America will never be a socialist country.” But he saved the best for last: a broadside against the crumbling Chavista regime in Venezuela, “whose socialist policies have turned [it] from the richest country in South America to the poorest on Earth”.
There are a great many reasons why Trump ought to be a one-term president. Yet the further the Democratic Party lurches to the left under the influence of AOC and her fellow social justice warriors, the higher the probability of his re-election. In American politics, unlike in Europe, those who live by the s-word die by the s-word.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is now available as a Penguin paperback