Democrats Are Headed off Their Own Cliff

by Stuart Rothenberg April 15, 2016 · 8:45 AM EDT

Political observers – yes, including myself – have argued for years that the Republican Party has moved too far right, allowing its most ideological elements to limit its legislative options, prevent it from addressing national problems, and damage its appeal to key swing and emerging voter groups.

But instead of Democrats responding by positioning themselves in the political center where they could maximize their appeal, many Democrats are embracing their own version of ideological extremism.

Bernie Sanders’ uncompromising anti-business rhetoric and agenda, combined with the energy of “progressive” forces in the Democratic coalition, reflect a significant turn to the left by a party that once stood for pragmatic change, not “revolution.”

Though the Vermont senator’s supporters won’t like to hear it, Sanders has plenty in common with both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Like Cruz, Sanders is an ideologue who resists compromise. And like Trump, Sanders has simple answers to complex problems and sounds as if he doesn’t appreciate the dramatic, and often deeply unsettling, consequences that his policies would produce.

“Break up the banks,” roars Sanders, as if that would solve part of the nation’s economic problems without creating any new ones.

“It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free” asserts Sanders (on his website), without discussing the ramifications of doing so or acknowledging the true cost or the inevitable disruptions.

Anyone interested in the ramifications of some of Sanders' proposals – and why it would be difficult to try to turn the United States into Denmark – should read Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Steven Pearlstein’s excellent piece, “What Bernie Sanders Would do to America,” in The Washington Post. Pearlstein, who once worked for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Michael Harrington, dissects many of Sanders’ proposals.

Trump bases his wild assertions that he’ll destroy ISIS quickly, get Mexico to build (and pay for) a wall and produce economic growth on his self-proclaimed smarts and the force of his personality. Sanders bases his promises of prosperity and justice for all on an extreme ideology that has not worked successfully in a country as large and diverse as the United States.

Trump, Cruz and Sanders are all true believers – one in himself, one in conservative political thought, and one in leftist political and economic ideology. None of them ever acknowledges the risks involved in their agendas.

Sanders and Trump have something else in common. They paint with broad brushes, caricaturing individuals and groups.

Whereas Trump maligns Mexicans, Muslims and members of the media, Sanders is equally demagogic when he talks about corporate America, Wall Street and his most frequent scapegoats, “millionaires and billionaires.”

Yes, there are people on Wall Street who are selfish, vain, narcissistic, underhanded, deceptive and greedy. And yes, some of them break the law and ignore the public’s interest. But most people who work on Wall Street or run American companies are not like that. And plenty of people who do exhibit those negative qualities are not on Wall Street, in corporate America or millionaires and billionaires.

Many of them are not even Republicans.

Of course, Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee for president this year. If anyone gave him a serious chance of swiping the nomination, the stock market would fall precipitously and dramatically, wiping out working people’s retirement accounts faster than you could say Katrina vanden Heuvel.

But the problem for Democratic strategists is that Sanders is doing surprisingly well. He is winning primaries and caucuses, and energizing many in his party, particularly the young. A large chunk of his party is in sync with his message. Hillary Clinton is leading in the Democratic race solely because of her support among minority voters and super delegates.

Clearly, the Democratic Party has moved left over the past few years. Whether this is out of frustration that President Barack Obama didn’t move far enough or fast enough in a progressive agenda, or because Democrats watched the tea party pull the GOP to the right, many Democrats want a much more “progressive” agenda.

The fact that Sanders, who continues to embrace the socialist label, is doing as well as he is ought to worry party strategists.

Shortly after the Democratic Party’s 2006 midterm election victory, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and then-Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel warned their colleagues that Democrats needed to prove that they could govern, that they could be pragmatic and work to improve things for the middle class.

Emanuel, of course, is now under attack from the minority community and his party’s left, as is Bill Clinton for his White House years. On the other hand, Schumer is headed to become his party’s Senate leader.

The question is whether most Democrats still agree with Schumer’s 2006 comments, or whether they are now more comfortable with the views of left-wing intellectuals Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Herbert Marcuse and Gabriel Kolko, as Sanders clearly once was and possibly still is.

One thing remains clear. Swing voters remain in the middle, so the further left the Democratic Party moves, the more ammunition it gives to the GOP, whether in 2016, 2018 or beyond.