Brad DeLong describes himself as a Rubin Democrat, which he defines as “largely neoliberal, market-oriented, and market-regulation and tuning aimed at social democratic ends.” It is a natural position for an economist to be: it is generally more efficient to tweek markets than destroy them. But he thinks the time has come for this kind of Democrat to pass the baton over to the left. “We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.”
That is an unusual thing to say, on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK the left under Corbyn is in the lead, but you see few of the people who used to run the Labour party saying anything similar. Instead some have conducted a relentless campaign to undermine him. Not only is DeLong unusual, I also think he is probably right, so I want to examine the reasons he gives.
The key point he makes is that the political right has torn up the normal rules of the game, by both moving further to the right and becoming totally partisan. This was very clear in the Obama years. Obama pursued Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. “And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not.”
There is much less bipartisan cooperation in the UK compared to the US, but I think there is a clear analogy with triangulation. The lesson Brown and Blair drew from the defeats of the 1980s was that Labour needed to win the middle class, and that meant moving policy to the centre ground. There was little attempt to reverse the neoliberalism of Thatcher, but instead to mitigate its social effects.
But the problem is that the political right in both countries were not playing by the same rules. They had a quite different strategy, which was to shift policy on issues like taxation and the size of the state to the right, and instead try and win elections by pushing a socially conservative agenda. (Here is a formalisation.) There is no triangulation here, but instead an attempt to hide a right wing agenda by starting a culture war.  As the right has control over a section of the media, they can also misrepresent their own and their opponents position. That control, together with ineffective scrutiny by the non-partisan media, allows politicians to lie to an extent that would have been thought inconceivable a couple of decades earlier.
When the right adopts this strategy (what I have called elsewhere neoliberal overreach), attempts by the left to get bipartisan agreement or triangulate policies moves what most political commentators call the centre ground of policy to the right. This has two effects. The first is that policies that would be popular among a majority of the population don’t happen. It is often noted that Corbyn’s policies are popular, and the same seems to be true in the US. Second, those supporting the left wing party become dissatisfied with it, and try and move it back to where it once was.
A vivid illustration from the UK of how triangulation fails is immigration. The Conservatives, together with their allies in the media, decided to use immigration as a major weapon against the Labour government. Gradually the increase in the number of stories about immigrants living on welfare and ‘taking our jobs’ began to move immigration up the list of issues voters were concerned about. Immigration numbers were increasing because the government knew this was good for both the economy and public services, but newspapers used words like “mass”, “vast”, “large scale”, “floods”,“waves”“army”, or “hordes”. With a few exceptions it was not voters in areas where migration was increasing that were reacting, and the best predictor of voter concern was which newspapers voters read.
Eventually Labour decided they had to try and triangulate, by talking tough on immigration. The case for immigration was no longer made. The false belief that immigrants made access to public services worse became ingrained. This allowed the Conservative government to deflect a lot of anger over austerity on to immigrants, and it eventually led to Brexit. The strategy of triangulation was a disaster. It is interesting that since the negative impact of reduced immigration on the economy has become clear with Brexit, views on immigration in the UK have shifted to become positive rather than negative.
Another consequence of the right not playing by the old rules is a lack of proportionality. I remember reading Paul Krugman during the Clinton vs Sanders primaries. I think Paul mainly favoured Clinton because Sanders was too populist, which naturally grates for someone who knows and cares about the detail and the difficulties involved in populist policies. But I also remember him writing that the Republicans might be hard on Clinton but that would be nothing compared to what the right would do if Sanders was the Democratic candidate. I’m not sure that was correct, because the right were not playing by the old rules where you had to stick to facts.
As a result, Clinton was accused of all kinds of imagined crimes by Trump, and the non-partisan media played along by obsessing about her email server. Much the same happened in the UK if we look at the 2015 and 2017 elections. The right wing press relentlessly attacked Corbyn in 2017 with wild charges about what he would do as PM, but what they did to centre-left Ed Miliband (‘red Ed’) in 2015 was not that different. Their attacks were not proportionate to how left wing their opponent was.
I think you need to add in one additional point here, and that is a public that is looking for radical solutions, by which I means solutions that move away from the status quo. The reason for this is not hard to understand: the worst recession since WWII following the financial crisis, stagnant and declining real wages, and geographical areas (rural, towns) that seem to be falling behind more dynamic cities.
The lesson of Brexit and Trump is if you fight a culture war and lies with just well researched and targeted policy proposals, you lose. It is better to fight a culture war with an alternative vision and popular policy proposals, and a bit of class war too. I am not suggesting that you don’t have well researched and targeted policy proposals behind that: as DeLong says “we are still here”. But this is the time for radicals on both sides. I suspect Sanders would have been more effective than Clinton at taking on Trump, just as Corbyn was very effective at taking on Theresa May.
You might have noticed that I have said very little about policy divisions between the left and centre-left, and that is because in practice I don’t think they are very important. In both countries the left cannot implement much that the centre-left disagrees with, and much of what the left want to do the centre-left are prepared to accept.  (Maybe not rich Democrat or Labour donors, but crowdfunding means that is unfortunate rather than fatal.) The key question is whether the centre-left allows the left to lead when it needs to lead, or instead fights against the left and keeps the right in power.
Let me end with Brad again.
“Our current bunch of leftists are wonderful people, as far as leftists in the past are concerned. They’re social democrats, they’re very strong believers in democracy. They’re very strong believers in fair distribution of wealth. They could use a little more education about what is likely to work and what is not. But they’re people who we’re very, very lucky to have on our side.”
Some in the UK may feel that statement just does not apply here, but they need to ask whether DeLong is right and it is the left’s time to lead, because what he says about the political right in the US applies equally to the UK.
 Cameron talked the talk of centre triangulation, but that did not happen in practice (with the exception of one or two issues like Gay marriage and the aid budget). With austerity he pursued an attempt to shrink the state that Thatcher could only dream of, and the degree to which the Tories wanted to shift policy to the right was masked by the Coalition’s other partner.
 One of the problems we have in the UK is supporters of the left who do not understand this, and act as if the centre-left is the enemy and it can win without them. But the centre-left also needs to recognise that on some big issues like financialisation they have been wrong and the left has been right. Some discussion on US issues here from Paul Krugman.