Liberals and Leftists Have Similar Goals but Different Plans to Achieve Them

Moderates and progressives both want change; progressives just fail to look at the bigger picture.

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I am used to hearing “liberal” as an insult. Ever since I was singled out for being the only kid to vote for Barack Obama in my fourth-grade mock election, I have understood that the connotation of “liberal” depends entirely on the person saying it. However, I am now seeing “liberal” being used as an insult in both leftist and conservative spaces. From a leftist perspective, liberals seek to preserve the status quo and are unaware of or unwilling to address the structural issues that face America. This dynamic was on full display in the 2020 Democratic primary. In an early debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D - Mass.) lambasted Representative John Delaney (D - Md.) for refusing to adopt a more ambitious platform. After Representative Delaney claimed that her policies were unrealistic, Senator Warren responded by saying, “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” This remark essentially torpedoed Representative Delaney’s struggling campaign and cemented a “revolution vs. reform” fight between leftist and moderate Democratic candidates.

However, the animosity between liberals and leftists seems unjustified when one evaluates where the 2020 candidates actually stood on major issues. For the sake of comparison, let’s use Senator Warren as the sample progressive and Pete Buttigieg as the sample moderate. Both candidates supported a $15 federal minimum wage, canceling student debt for low-income students and those who engage in some form of national service, ending cash bail, and legalizing marijuana. Even where they support different policies, the differences are minute. Buttigieg called for a top marginal tax rate of 49.99 percent while Warren called for a two percent wealth tax on those worth more than $50 million. Both of these policies would increase the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans. For Buttigieg, all Americans above a certain income threshold would see all of their income above that threshold taxed at 49.99 percent. This would be a departure from the tax policy of every president since the Reagan era, as top marginal tax rates have not exceeded 40 percent since then. Warren’s plan would instead tax the wealth that rich people hold. This policy only applies to those with a net wealth exceeding $50 million, so if someone is worth $52 million, that extra $2 million is taxed at two percent. While these policies certainly differ in some respects, they are nowhere near as different as leftists claim nor do they come from two candidates with opposing ideologies.

There is, however, a clear disparity in the popularity of progressive and moderate policies. For example, Joe Biden’s plan to combat climate change bears a strong resemblance to the Green New Deal. The founder of the progressive Sunrise Movement even claimed that Biden’s plan represents a “seismic shift” in climate policy at the federal level. Joe Biden’s own website cites the Green New Deal as a crucial framework in addressing the climate crisis. Despite the similarities, Biden’s plan has a 66 percent approval rating, while only 43 percent of Americans support the Green New Deal. There are clear differences between the policies. Biden phases out fracking while the Green New Deal bans it outright, and some critics, such as President Trump, have claimed that the Green New Deal is far too hostile toward cows. Most notably, the Green New Deal has been at the core of Republicans’ fear-mongering, while Joe Biden’s plan has mostly flown under the radar. Nonetheless, it is shocking that there can be such a large polling difference between two policies that are so openly linked.

Ultimately, these polling differences are caused by the way progressives advertise their policies. The Green New Deal and a wealth tax are seen as drastic steps to reinvent life in America for the better. Reasonable Americans have come to a consensus that climate change and income inequality are major issues, yet leftists force giant wedges into these fundamental agreements. They tie popular ideas to unpopular specifics, then disparage those who try to build on bipartisan truths. There is no reason to insist that aggressive spending on climate change or taxing the rich needs to feel radical. There is no reason to say that a literacy program would be a good thing for America, and then point to Cuba as a great example of how to implement it. We could enact real change in this country if we sought a more moderate tone when discussing these issues. When we turn allies into opponents and isolate ourselves on an island of moral purity, we fail to enact the policies we insist are necessary.

I support a great deal of progressive policy, but I support very few progressive candidates. By and large, progressive candidates regularly tie moral positions to specific policies and make big fights unwinnable. Even if the Green New Deal is the best way to fight climate change, it is still the most divisive. We have just over a decade to get a grip on climate change, and I do not want to spend seven of those years fighting Republicans on fracking. I want fracking to be banned just as much as any other young person who is scared for their future in a world altered by climate change, but I know that it will take a lot of time and a lot of work to get it done. In the meantime, we should work on getting basic victories on limiting carbon emissions and green energy. If every climate change policy has a fracking ban in it, we will be fighting in Congress while the sea levels continue to rise and California continues to burn. The notion that being willing to settle for a less perfect but easier to implement policy makes you less concerned about these issues is absolutely ridiculous. I would argue that working to make incremental progress on climate change instead of sending hate tweets to Joe Manchin until he supports the Green New Deal reflects a sense of urgency, not a concession to the right.

Frankly, I think a fair amount of leftists do not understand what liberals stand for. Very few of us embody the stereotype of the rich millennial who “just wants to get back to brunch” or the out-of-touch boomer who hates Trump but misses the Reagan era. Yes, I am a liberal, but I am a liberal who wants universal healthcare, aggressive climate change policy, substantial criminal justice reform, and nearly every other thing that progressives and leftists support. I just believe that there are several paths to these goals. A jobs program that would make us the world leader in green energy may not feel as radical as the Green New Deal, but it achieves many of the same goals. The desire to strip policies of their most gratuitously divisive elements and sell massive changes as common sense is not a concession to the right, but a drive to get things done in a polarized nation. Liberals and leftists agree more than leftists realize, and it is time for us to build on our similarities to work toward our shared goals.