Moderate versus progressive — or practical versus ideological?

While coronavirus dominates the news, the presidential election campaign has taken a back seat. I was going to write this post right after the Illinois primary, but that time was also when the state’s stay-at-home order started.

This year’s presidential primaries, along with the rise of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party, had me thinking about where I fit on the political spectrum. I never before would have called myself a political moderate, but my opinions aligned with the so-called moderates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

Since the description felt undesirable — too cautious, too neutral — I reminded myself that the Democratic Party has moved to the left and may have changed more than I have.

My rating on the Pew Research Center’s political typology quiz is still solidly liberal. But the quiz is unnuanced, with each question offering a choice between two extreme positions. And it didn’t ask, for example, about eliminating private health insurance or getting rid of fossil fuels in a decade.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with quite a few issues on which I disagree with the leftmost wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

As I’ve written before, an eventual single-payer, government-run health insurance system would be okay with me, but it shouldn’t be shoved down people’s throats. In the near future, a public option could be one choice. People who like their employer-provided insurance could keep it.

On immigration, it seems a country should exercise some control over who comes in, and if ICE were abolished, we’d need an enforcement agency to replace it.

Making community colleges free is reasonable, considering that they often serve students who can’t afford expensive universities or are seeking vocational programs. I don’t see why four-year public universities should be free for all of a state’s residents, however. Those who can afford to should pay.

About student debt I feel similarly: I’d have means requirements for loan forgiveness.

We need bold action to combat climate change, but I doubt that a conversion to 100 percent clean, renewable energy is achievable by the Green New Deal’s target date of 2030.

There are more than ideological differences, however, to my reservations about Sanders’s positions. I couldn’t fathom how he expected the majority of the country to buy in to his proposals and to be willing to pay to enact them. As NPR’s Scott Detrow has suggested, maybe the Democrats divide is “practical versus ideological” rather than moderate versus progressive. Those on the far left are motivated by ideology. Those characterized as more moderate are focused on attainability.

Pragmatism is characteristic of the “progressive new guard,” one of six wings into which Perry Bacon Jr. divided today’s Democratic Party in a FiveThirtyEight article. It’s the wing I most identify with. Bacon observed that this group is more likely to talk about Medicare for All as an aspiration than as an immediate goal. It believes that election success requires courting everyone, from the white working class to radical activists.

So, “progressive new guard” could be my pigeonhole, although in conversation I’m more likely to say something understandable, perhaps “practical liberal.”

To the left of the progressive new guard, Bacon puts the super progressive (Oscasio-Cortez) and the very progressive (Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). To the right are the progressive old guard (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer), moderate (his examples are House members I’ve ever heard of), and conservative (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin).

Bacon’s article was published a year ago. While considering his divisions, I decided that this is a poor time to look for what separates Democrats from one another. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to figure out that I’m this and not that, especially in 2020, when the important thing is for Democrats to be unified to defeat Donald Trump.



“The president did essentially tell people to poison themselves because he thought it was a good idea. Only an impossibly stupid person would think this was a good idea, but we have an impossibly stupid person running our country.”
—Martin Longman, Washington Monthly

Leave a comment