Published August 24, 2021
Much of Washington’s chattering class is fixated on the ongoing battle between Democratic moderates and progressives over the fate of President Biden’s domestic agenda. They wonder how these disagreements will get resolved. They have yet to realize that this battle is essentially unresolvable.
Journalists typically frame these differences as ones over legislative process and details. Progressives want more spending; moderates want less. Progressives want Democrats to act alone; moderates want bipartisanship. Progressives want bold action on climate change; moderates want to go slower. And so on and so on.
This framing suggests that differences can be resolved by old-fashioned Washington dealmaking. Progressives accept less than they want, moderates give more than they want and the problem goes away with everyone satisfied if not happy. That’s how Beltway elites have settled squabbles since the Founding, and it usually works.
The problem now is that this view fundamentally misdiagnoses the nature of the Democratic dispute. Progressives and moderates disagree on very little at the level of principle. Virtually every Democratic officeholder calls climate change a crisis, and all endorse the goals of Biden’s domestic spending plans. This has been the case for decades, at least since 1992, when pro-life Pennsylvania Democratic governor Robert P. Casey Sr. was denied a speaking slot at the party’s convention. The battle between liberal McGovernites and conservative union and city boss leaders ended long ago with the McGovernites firmly in control.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.