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The outer bounds of our political discourse seem to be stretching further afield. Elon Musk tweeted a cartoon reflecting this at the end of April.
In short, it shows Musk as a center-left, self-described “liberal” in 2008. Fast forward to 2021, the left flank is so far away that Musk is now center-right, despite not having changed his position. It’s a modern take on Ronald Reagan’s famous quote: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
For political science nerds, the arena of mainstream political debate is called the “Overton window.” The quips from Musk and Reagan suggest that the Democrats are moving further left and once-mainstream Democrats are now on the right side of the political spectrum.
Anecdotes seem to prove that out. John Martin – the Earl of Eagle Lake – was once one of the most powerful Democrats in the state. For decades, he led the Maine House as speaker and held a firm grasp on his caucus. If you wanted to get Democrats to do something, the road went through Martin.
Now, he is seemingly retiring from service in Augusta. And according to the Bangor Daily News’ analysis, he was one of the Democrats most likely to buck his party over the past two years.
That is a world of difference.
History is instructive as well. Reading the national Democratic and Republican Party platforms from 1996 gives context. Democrats back then stated unequivocally “the first responsibility of government is law and order.” Their solution? “Nothing is more effective in the fight against crime than police officers on the beat, engaged in community policing.”
That is a far cry from “defund the police.”
Democrats in 1996 stated “[w]e cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.”
They proclaimed they had “worked hard over the last four years to rein in big government, slash burdensome regulations, eliminate wasteful programs, and shift problem-solving out of Washington and back to people and communities who understand their situations best.”
This was good stuff.
Polling also hints that today’s Democrats are further left than their forebears. Pew and Gallup have decades of data to fall back on.
In 1997, 28 percent of Democrats believed abortion should be legal under any circumstance. That number spiked to 49 percent in 2020. Nineteen percent of Republicans believed it should always be illegal back in 1997; that increased to 27 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, 59 percent of 2020’s Republicans believed it should be legal in some circumstances.
In 2001, 72 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats believed taxes were too high. In 2021, 60 percent of Republicans still held that view – a 12 percent drop – while only 39 percent of Democrats felt the same, a 21 percent decrease.
There are some places the GOP has shifted leftward – gay marriage and cannabis, most notably. I can’t find any policy where Democrats have, on average, moved rightward.
It creates an interesting dynamic. Departing state Sen. Chloe Maxmin – a clear progressive – will be hitting the book circuit with her new tome entitled “Dirt Road Revival.” I’m looking forward to reading it; it is reported to be the handbook for Democrats to recapture rural communities like the majority of Maine.
Whether Maxmin’s prescription is effective – or even heeded – is yet to be seen. The recent poll on Maine’s upcoming election was telling. Diving into the details shows voters outside the major parties breaking 39 percent to 32 percent in favor of former Gov. Paul LePage.
The Overton window is about as wide open as it has ever been. Democrats have pushed towards the left flank. Will they extend too far and defenestrate themselves? Or do progressives have a handbook to bring voters along with them?
We’ll find out. But we are in a world where John Martin is among the most likely to oppose the Democratic Party, so anything can happen.