Conservative v. Liberal Dems: A Healthy Debate, Long Overdue

BernieSanders_Roosevelt_Kennedy_Ver2First, a little history: Up until the late 1970’s, the Democratic Party had two main factions: Conservative and Liberal. Conservative Democrats were mainly in the South; Liberals mainly in in the North and on the West Coast.

Then came an historic shift: many conservative Democrats in the South switched party allegiance starting with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. In response, the Democratic Party also shifted right. Bill Clinton, fundamentally a conservative Democrat, was elected in 1992.

Examples of the party’s rightward tilt in the Clinton Administration include passage of the Crime Bill of 1994 that resulted in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, particularly African Americans. In addition, the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 allowing big banks to engage in both commercial and investment banking without adequate safeguards.

More generally, mainstream Democrats bought into Republican supply-side propaganda and the notion that government was inherently evil and only private enterprise could lead the way to continued growth and prosperity.

Conservative Democrats took over the party, and for much of the 1990’s, the conservative tilt seemed to be working. The economy grew at a robust rate. “Liberal” become a dirty word.

Then, starting in the early 2000’s, things began to change. The U.S. became mired in unnecessary and counter-productive foreign wars. Funds that should have been invested in the U.S. flowed overseas, helping stifle U.S. economic growth.  And then the deregulation of the big banks under Glass-Steagall, lax lending standards and mounting credit defaults, came home to roost with the stock market crash of 2008 and early 2009.

Since then, economic recovery has been slow and painful. Fed policies to stimulate economic growth have largely inflated asset values, primarily benefiting the wealthy and exacerbating income inequality. Fiscal policies that could have helped stimulate a broader and more robust recovery, such as increased investment in infrastructure, were much too tepid thanks to a “do-nothing” Congress.

Today, led by Bernie Sanders, we are witnessing the resurgence of the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The conservatism that began with the Reagan revolution of the 1980’s has not worked, liberals argue, and it is time to re-think our priorities. We need a progressive system of taxation and more investment in infrastructure and in people, similar to policies that led to robust growth and rising wages in the post W.W. II period through the 1970’s.

We should also be looking beyond our borders, as Bernie frequently suggests, to countries such as Canada, the UK, France, and Denmark – countries that have managed to guarantee quality health care for all at much lower per capita costs than in the U.S.

Hillary is not just conservative; she’s a neo-conservative who would use Henry Kissinger as a foreign policy adviser and who refuses to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under Netanyahu. She does not favor progressive taxation, as she signaled in yesterday’s Brooklyn debate with her refusal to agree to lift the income cap on Social Security contributions, a small but significant step towards helping address income inequality.

Bernie, on the other hand, has demonstrated that liberalism can generate the kind of excitement that energizes voters and will likely lead to fundamental changes in the makeup and direction of the Party for years to come.