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In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab seeks revenge on a great white whale that bit off his leg in a previous voyage. Even though his first mate Starbuck tries to restrain him, Ahab’s obsession becomes so great that his pursuit leads to the destruction of his boat and the death of all but one crewman (Ishmael). Today, the extremes of our two major political parties are like Ahab who are obsessed with the pursuit of a great white whale that threatens their party’s electoral standing. 

The modern left is obsessed with universal health care and fighting climate change. These are noble goals but the means that they are choosing to attain these goals, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, are unrealistic and/or politically self-defeating. Medicare for All is unrealistic because conservative financial estimates are that it would cost $33 trillion over 10 years and would require federal taxation to increase by 75%. Moreover, 71% of Americans are happy with their health care. As recent experience with the passage and attempted repeal of Obamacare demonstrates, people get upset if you take away their health care. The Green New Deal is not even a plan. It is just a set of unrealistic expectations that cannot be met within the next decade and would cost trillions more.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates have to know that these policies cannot pass or if adopted will cost the party its majorities and possibly their position as president. Yet since all the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left, each of the leading Democratic candidates for president have endorsed these programs so they can win the nomination.

Unfortunately, there is a twisted logic from the extremist’s perspective. In our polarized political environment, the other party will not work with them and incrementalism, like Obamacare, will cost them their majorities anyway. Consequently, why not use extremism to move the eventual policy closer to one’s ideal or lose for something big that one truly believes in?

Moreover, once adopted, these policies are unlikely to be repealed. Once benefits are extended to a group, it is extremely difficult to take them away as the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare demonstrates. Even President Obama’s repealed executive actions are still achieving their goals.  The courts protect Obama’s protection of DREAMers while utilities see the writing on the wall from Obama’s Clean Power Plan and are phasing out their coal burning plants and replacing them with plants that produces less greenhouse emissions.

The left is able to accomplish these goals because the country is ideologically left of center. This shift to the left actually incentivizes the left to push further left because they feel they are “on the right side of history” and/or want to solidify their gains before the eventual reaction sets in. This ideological shift is also why the far right failed in their pursuit of their white whale – repeal and replace of Obamacare – and continue their support of an unpopular President Trump so they can appoint enough conservative judges to protect their rights in this new environment.

The major difference that the extremists have from Ahab is that they do not pay the price for their extremism.  Those pushing these policies represent safe districts and are the Ishmaels who survive to fight another day while moderates in swing districts are the pragmatic Starbucks who pay the political price.

Dr. Sean Evans is the chair of the political science department at Union University. Reach him at 731-661-5237 or at sevans@uu.edu.

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