How moderate Democrats may reimagine themselves as Abundance Democrats — and why governing-minded Republicans will take a different path.

This essay is from the June 2024 edition of Hypertext, the Niskanen Center’s journal of liberalism, political economy, and policy. Every month we publish a series of essays – featuring thinkers with a wide variety of viewpoints – that defies the tired dichotomy of left and right while engaging with a vision of America where competitive markets, robust public goods, and an effective state reinforce one another.

Steve Teles and Rob Saldin have provided a very useful reformulation of ideas to give more ideological clarity to the moderate factions of one or both parties. In their essay, in which they identify as moderates, they claim that “moderation is a dead end,” and make a hard(ish?) pivot to an “Abundance Agenda” that should be driven by a national elite. 

But I was somewhat puzzled by the hardness of the pivot and the nationalization of the story. I don’t read their essay from the point of view of a political scientist or political theorist, but from that of a political practitioner and participant-observer (I was in a PhD program in anthropology and linguistics, actually). And with that background, I see political ideologies emerging somewhat differently than they do.

In my experience and study, leaders, identities, and groups precede political ideas. A group of political actors comes together, most often in contra-distinction to other actors, differentiating themselves from others. That gives them an initial sense of “groupiness” that is only later consolidated into a political and factional identity. And only after that identity emerges do they undertake the intellectual effort of refining it into ideology — a sort of post-hoc rationalization of what binds them together. Furthermore, this work is often more bottom-up (local to state to federal) or margins-in.

I see the Teles-Saldin essay as accomplishing that final stage in the process. However, from my perspective, they are, in essence, giving intellectual structure to things that are already occurring, mostly in the Democratic Party. Invoking Hans Noel, Teles and Saldin correctly observe that “at any one time, there are multiple ideological syntheses that are possible given a set of political and material interests” — hence the power of the ideology-makers. 

But to be viable, any synthesis must be attentive to the fact that “political and material interests” manifest as actual people with existing identities and group attachments. It’s not an accident that self-described moderate Democrats are attracted to abundance arguments. Existing demographic shifts within the Democratic Party have made fertile ground for the shift that Teles and Saldin call for. 

The remainder of this essay will discuss the predecessors to the formation of this abundance agenda in the Democratic Party. And I will point to some early glimpses of a new faction emerging in the Republican Party, too. That will have substantial points of policy agreement with abundance Democrats, but ultimately be grounded in different intra-party contrasts. 

The path from moderate Democrats to Abundance Democrats

The modern Democratic Party is a coalition of interest groups, and the leaders of the party often cast themselves as champions of those interest groups. Forty years ago, you would start that story with the labor movement with various civil rights coalitions layered on top, and an intellectual class explaining how the pieces cohere (Marx referred to the “intellectual allies”). 

One of the primary changes to this story has been the movement of white college-educated voters into the Democratic Party. This was already starting in the 1970s. Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to a shift from a solidarity politics of “we” to an emerging politics of “you,” as the educated NGO- and government-worker class came to prominence and power in the party. He worried that this shift would come with an element of condescension and socioeconomic and, ultimately, political distance. He viewed this as a potential weakness of the party. 

In his book Miles to Go, Moynihan describes a discussion he had with Senator Bill Bradley, who challenged Al Gore for the 2000 Democratic nomination. In this conversation, Bradley challenged Moynihan’s votes on trade. Moynihan said that, of course, Bradley was right to support a freer trade policy, but Moynihan had to stand with his voters, the labor unions of New York. In some ways, you can see in Bradley a proto-Abundance Democrat. 

Ultimately, many of those white labor union members moved to the right (everywhere in the rich world), and Moynihan was replaced by Hillary Clinton, whose husband had signed NAFTA into law. Meanwhile, the expert class flooded into the Democratic Party, and Democrats started to do well in middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs. 

Many of the new voters came from the financial services and creative-class sectors. Don Draper and his advertising firm were all Republicans in the 1960s. Now, they are all Democrats. And Wall Street became much more Democratic. 

But what did the moderate Democrat these voters helped into office actually stand for? The new voters were driven more by cultural interests than economic ones, but Democrats needed to represent the economic interests of their voters, too. Thus, they were open to international trade and to the needs of an educated class and friendly with corporate America. But was this an ideology? No, more of a default to a framework that already dominated. Tony Blair deleted the “means of production” from clause IV of the Labour Party manifesto, but he didn’t really add anything new. A similar thing happened in the United States. 

The backlash to this politics emerged during the Obama years, when progressives started to use “neoliberal” as a slur against Democrats, especially the corporate-friendly Democrats in the administration.

But a funny thing happened during the Trump era. 

First, the Trump presidency accelerated the movement of educated and affluent voters into the Democratic coalition. (The move from Obama committing to not raise taxes on families making more than $250k per year to Biden making that promise for families making more than $400k per year is an extraordinary way to see this.) 

Second, a variety of actors in the Democratic Party ecosystem responded to the backlash by embracing the term neoliberalism. One of the response essays in this forum is from the Democratic grassroots organizers who took on the slur, tongue-in-cheek, and built a community around it, first online during Covid, and then offline. The Neoliberals became the New Liberals and are now associated with the Progressive Policy Institute, one of the pillars of moderate Democrats. And they are mobilizing for and winning Democratic contests at the local and state level based on these messages. We should note that these “Neoliberals turned New Liberals” are not neoliberals in the caricatured sense of a deregulated private sector. Instead they believe in a more deregulated public sector with a vital role for the private sector. 

Third, a set thinkers and writers associated with the Democratic Party, like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, also embraced this positioning, focusing on the need for hard, expert-driven change in healthcare and urban policy.

Fourth, the persistent policy challenges in blue states around the high cost of living, homelessness, crime, and related issues have created a degree of self-doubt and innovation. Like the New Liberals, we have seen the growth of a YIMBY movement in (mostly) cities that has been providing an abundance argument in many of these spaces. In this essay series, this work is represented by Misha Chellam

And fifth, the realities of implementing the Inflation Reduction Act have forced the Democratic Party’s expert class to start to wrestle with the policy cruft that has emerged. Many of these critiques of government bureaucracy have echoed conservative critiques of government inefficiency. 

I read the Abundance Agenda that Teles and Saldin describe as an important consolidation of the political, policy, and intellectual journey of a part of the Democratic Party. This trajectory was accelerated by Trump, but it has been long in the making. 

As Teles and Saldin note, an abundance agenda accomplishes several things for Democrats. It provides a framework for governance at the federal and state levels. It provides a message for mobilizing voters in primaries at the local and state levels. But we don’t yet know if it is a viable national message.

Where are the Republicans in this story?

So far, this story has been primarily centered on Democrats. The movement of affluent, educated, technocratic voters into the Democratic party robbed moderate Republicans of their base at the same time that non-college-educated voters moved into the Republican Party. 

Prior to Trump, moderate Republicans were a mix of cultural moderates, economic moderates, and sometimes both. They were often caught between a well-organized conservative movement to their right and Democrats to their left. Some of these moderates are still surviving, like Brian Fitzpatrick, the only remaining “Collar County” Republican around Philadelphia. But many of the old establishment GOP areas such as Oakland County, DuPage County, and Orange County have turned blue. 

The question is how moderate Republicans and Republicans overall respond to these political forces. The responses come on several levels: governance, general election messages (against Democrats), and messages in primaries (against Republicans). 

On the governance side, it seems likely that Republicans and Abundance Democrats will agree on many issues, such as permitting and siting reform, building energy infrastructure, etc. The Financial Times’ John Burn-Murdoch has recently written on how Texas outstrips California on deployed green energy. It’s just easier to build in Texas, in many cases because permitting authority lies at the state, not local, level. While Republicans may not be in favor of a broader “state capacity” agenda, you could see points of agreement on accountability and increased efficiency in government services (and it is an open question how Democrats will respond to an accountability agenda around government employees — as reliable a constituency as Black voters for the party). Recently, the Republican-led House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed the YIMBY Act to encourage construction. There’s definitely shared space to govern.  

However, the test of whether a Republican Abundance faction emerges isn’t whether Republicans agree with the agenda or act on it. The factional test of a Republican abundance agenda is whether Republicans can use it to expand their coalition within the GOP.  Does a potential Abundance Republican take political support within the party from others by using that message versus another?

Here, I am more skeptical. The current proto-factional divide is between “Governance” Republicans (the name of the moderate GOP faction in the House is the Republican Governance Group) and more populist Republicans. For much of the Abundance agenda, you can easily imagine a populist formulation that allows you to shade small differences and support the policy in the end. While an abundance agenda may be anti-bureaucracy, a similar, more populist message could be anti-bureaucrat. And where these differences can’t be shared, it likely reduces to the current divide between governance and populism. 

The real power of an abundance agenda is in consolidating a governing ideological space. It gives a stronger framework and message to moderate Democrats for use in separating themselves from their co-partisans to their left. If you really care about climate change, you have to build things. If you really care about delivering government services, you need to focus on effectiveness. If you really care about economic mobility, you need good schools. 

At the same time, it likely doesn’t alienate Republicans who will substantially agree with the agenda. So it would give space for governing at the state and possibly federal level. 

The open question, as always, comes down to politics and coalitions. In my story of moderate Democrats becoming Abundance Democrats, the primary actors have been substantially white. But that’s not today’s Democratic party, and especially not moderate Democrats. As we saw when Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, the bulk of moderate Democratic voters (as opposed to elites) are Black and Hispanic voters, who are often more religious, not the secular white voters who dominate these policy debates.  

At an intellectual level, I can easily imagine Democratic Party agenda built around affordable housing, effective public services, and safe communities could appeal to the bulk of the Democratic Party and provide a multi-racial and bipartisan governing framework for the country.  But can Democrats actually do it?