A Budding Bipartisan Consensus on the Liberal World Order

On June 26th, Democratic Representative Joe Crowley of New York was defeated in a primary challenge from the left by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a twenty-eight-year-old former organizer for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory shocked many as Crowley, the powerful chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, had been named as a potential replacement for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and led in several polls in the weeks leading up to election day. Yet despite the upset, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said Ocasio-Cortez “represents the future of our party;” and based on her support amongst younger voters, he would seem to be correct.
In addition to running on a progressive platform similar to that of Senator Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez’s policy positions are indicative of a larger trend within the Democratic Party. Over the last eighteen months, Democrats have begun pivoting to the left of their Obama-Era stances as a result of President Donald Trump’s actions in an effort to oppose him as strongly as possible.
Take immigration for instance. President Barack Obama famously deported more people than any of his predecessors and called for tough and secure borders, while simultaneously supporting a path to citizenship and implementing the DACA program, which protected minors who were brought to the U.S illegally from deportation. All of which were at the time moderate. Obama called them, “common sense” solutions. Yet Trump’s rhetoric and actions on immigration, regardless of how disrespectful and inhumane they may be, have caused Ocasio-Cortez to call for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, and a number of other high-profile Democrats are now doing the same. The policy represents a strong shift to the left from Obama’s positions. Thanks to Trump, Democrats who used to back Obama’s “common sense” immigration reform and strong border security measures would be hard pressed to utter any sort of support for them now.
The same is happening in healthcare. Before Trump, Democrats supported working to improve the flaws within the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of what many in the Republican Party may say, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement was both a moderate plan and a compromise solution to one of the nation’s toughest and most divisive issues. However Trump’s efforts to strip Americans of their health insurance and wreck the Obamacare market through repeal of the individual mandate have led rising Democratic stars such as Ocasio-Cortez to instead call for a more radical Medicare for All plan. Again, due to Trump, attempting to fix the flaws in Obamacare is seen as outdated while support for a Single Payer system has now become a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2020.
Across many issues, the pattern remains. Democrats under Obama supported moderate policies and positions. Along comes Trump, and Democrats move to the left to oppose him as strongly as possible. Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign platform embody this trend, and now it “represents the future of [the] party.”
Yet when it comes to foreign policy and support for the U.S-led liberal, international order, the pattern stops. On domestic policy, Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is filled with aggressive stances opposing Trump, and yet there is no mention of his tariffs jeopardizing the global network of free trade, no position on Russian election interference constituting a threat to American democracy and democracy worldwide, and no reference to Trump’s rhetoric and actions against NATO threatening the Western-democratic alliance. What explains the dichotomy?
Given the lack of criticism Trump has received from Ocasio-Cortez for his actions, it has become clear that the far left is willing to go along with the President in renouncing America’s role as the world’s leading economic, democratic, and military power. For instance, Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of opposition to Trump’s tariffs and potential instigation of a global trade war can be explained because, like Trump, progressives have their own issues with free trade. President Obama championed trade deals through pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S-Korea Free Trade Agreement. In contrast, Bernie Sanders said in 2015 that agreements like these “have been a disaster for the American worker,” because “corporations that shut down here move abroad.” Later in a Democratic primary debate, Sanders even touted his “being on the picket line in opposition to NAFTA” in the 1990s. And Sanders is not alone. A number of left-leaning economists such as J.W Mason and Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Policy and Economic Research, have also spoken out strongly against the benefits of free trade. Therefore, Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of criticism towards- and agreement with- the President’s trade policy is actually in line with her fellow progressives. What’s notable is that just as Trump’s victory represented the triumph of protectionism within the GOP, Ocasio-Cortez’s has done the same for Democrats.
Second, similar to her silence on trade, there is not a word in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, criticizing Russia’s efforts to sway the result of the 2016 Presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Likewise, I have yet to hear her denounce President Trump’s denials of what unquestionably constitutes a foreign threat to the strength of American democracy, or comment on how the President’s partisan attacks against the Justice Department, FBI, and the media over investigating those threats are eroding public faith in American institutions. Moreover, Bernie Sanders– for all his vocal support and outspoken appeals for progressive policies–has not really spoken strongly either about the dangers Russian meddling poses to democracy worldwide. Why is that?
I suspect it stems from the fact that many on the far left have long seen American democracy and its institutions as intensely flawed, and therefore don’t view them with much essential value. If the American political system was not valuable to progressives to begin with, then attacks by foreign adversaries against it are not perceived of as being particularly threatening. Similarly, if the U.S can’t reasonably claim to represent democratic ideals, then it has no moral right to tout democracy around the world. Though conservatives always questioned whether or not President Obama “loved America,” he never failed to speak glowingly about the country and its political system, saying “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” and “in no other country is my story even possible.” Certainly those statements illustrate a belief in a system worth protecting from foreign threats. Yet as Peter Beinart noted in The Atlantic on July 4th, it is hard to imagine Ocasio-Cortez, or any progressive of her caliber for that matter, saying something similar. Thus, unlike Trump’s immigration policy, his passivity regarding defense of democracy and actions in assistance of its demise have failed to provoke Ocasio-Cortez and others on the far left to speak out.
When President Woodrow Wilson announced America’s entrance into World War I with the intention of making “the world safe for democracy,” he became the first U.S. President to articulate a belief in defending the American system of government both at home and abroad. Trump’s victory however symbolized the end of a Republican Party that cared about Wilson’s conviction of protecting American ideals and institutions in the face of foreign threats. Apparently this view now constitutes “the future” of the Democratic Party as well.
Third, Ocasio-Cortez’s platform lacked criticism of Trump’s dismissal and undermining of American multilateral military alliances such as NATO. Additionally, she has not discussed in any of her post-Election Day interviews the effect those actions have had on weakening and eroding the U.S.-led liberal order that every post-War President, including Barack Obama, has strongly supported. On the campaign trail Trump consistently complained about NATO, lamenting the fact that our European allies weren’t paying their fair share towards their defense and that the distribution of costs was “unfair, economically, to us.” Just this past week in advance of the NATO summit in Brussels, the President levied criticism at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming Germany free rides off U.S security guarantees and threatening to pull back the 35,000 U.S troops deployed to Germany. Such actions are indicative of Trump’s belief that America is getting a raw deal when it comes to NATO and that the U.S would be better off avoiding the international entanglements and obligations that come with the alliance.
When it comes to scaling back U.S military commitments abroad, progressives like Ocasio-Cortez often agree with Trump. Bernie Sanders has long sought to cut American defense spending and once criticized President Obama’s plan to combat ISIS for not encouraging Middle Eastern states to “step up their military efforts and take more responsibility for the security and stability of their regions,” a statement with echoes of Trump’s rhetoric towards Europe. To quote Reihan Salam, the executive editor at the National Review, Ocasio-Cortez is actually “keeping with the fact that many on the hard left have their own objections to the status quo in U.S foreign policy.” Whether it be military interventions or alliances, progressives aren’t shy about their belief that the U.S should take a less activist role. So just as Trump has cowed the GOP into reversing and renouncing its history of support for multilateral agreements and mutual defense, if Ocasio-Cortez’s politics truly constitute the future, then the Democratic Party will soon do the same.
In 1947 when Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg declared that partisan politics should stop “at the water’s edge,” he solidified a bipartisan consensus behind Democratic President Harry Truman’s proposals to drag the U.S from its isolationist past towards an internationalist future. However President Trump’s takeover and transformation of the GOP into an inward-looking party hostile to globalization has threatened the strength of this internationalist consensus. Moreover, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the likely soon-to-be Democratic-Socialist Congresswoman from New York, who openly and proudly opposes Trump on domestic issues, has yet to criticize the President and GOP for this radical shift. If the Republicans are the party of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez is the Democrats’ future, then there may yet be a bipartisan consensus on foreign affairs. It just isn’t the one Truman and Vandenberg had in mind.
The belief that the U.S should abdicate its world leadership arises for different reasons on the Trumpian Right and the Progressive Left. While Trump believes America is better off when it doesn’t concern itself with the interests of the rest of the world, progressives believe the world is better off when America doesn’t. Both positions however are intensely flawed. There is widespread agreement amongst economists on the benefits of free trade for all parties involved. American democracy, imperfect as it may be, is a stronger force for good in the world than Russian or Chinese autocracy. And without military alliances to defend Western liberalism from Moscow and Beijing, there is no way to guarantee its survival. Hopefully one of America’s two parties will recognize this reality before it’s too late.

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