Friday 2 August 2019 5:35 am

Populism is back, and the Democratic candidates are veering left

Kate Andrews is associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The Democratic primary is heating up – and some of the policy proposals are as red as fire. This week, 10 hopefuls took to the stage in Detroit, for the second debate leading up to the 2020 presidential election. And what we saw was an extreme ebbing and flowing of liberalism and socialism, raising serious questions about the future of the Democratic party.

The centrepiece representative was Joe Biden. The former vice president was broadly considered to have dropped the political ball in the first debate, coming across as underprepared, low energy, and missing some of the pizazz he historically brought to public office.

This time was different. Still clearly older than he once was, and a bit out of sparring shape, Biden fended off the criticism and attacks coming from all angles, especially when it came to the first debate topic, on expanding healthcare coverage to all Americans. 

In a clash between centrism and more extreme policy, the proposal for “Medicare for all” (a universal expansion of one of America’s state-run health programmes) thrown at Biden by senator Kamala Harris and others as the future for US healthcare was rightly shot down by him as unrealistic, unaffordable, and essentially a pledge to hike taxes on middle-class Americans. 

But frustratingly, Biden then proposed an expansion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), which has also proven expensive and bureaucratic. The cost of insurance for Americans has shot up since Obamacare was introduced, while millions still remain uninsured.

Clearly, all the Democratic candidates have fallen into the trap of considering only the US healthcare system and the centralised UK model. The problems with the British NHS structure – not to mention the benefits of the social health insurance systems throughout the rest of Europe – seem to be just as lost on American representatives as they are on MPs in the UK. 

There was slightly more liberalism on display when it came to other issues, however. On drug reform, Harris herself came under fire from rivals for not practising the progressive policy she preaches. Despite claiming now that she supports policy changes on cannabis, she had to answer for her record of locking up Californians for drug use when serving as the state’s attorney general. 

And on immigration, all the candidates painted themselves in stark contrast to Donald Trump, taking sympathetic and liberal positions to varying degrees. 

There is no doubt that these contenders are making their appeals to the grassroot Democratic voters, who will decide which of the staggering 25 candidates will get to run against President Trump in November 2020 – although only 10 made it to the debate stage. And on a few occasions, liberalism shone through.

But overall, few candidates seemed to put their finger on the pulse of the nation at large, which is far less radical than this new era of the Democratic left.

Regardless, the increasingly polarising Democratic and Republican parties will be going to the polls next November, asking voters to pick a side. Hang on tight – for all we know, it could be 2016 all over again, with an extra shot of populism.

Main image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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