Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after a rally Friday in Wichita (Jaime Green/Wichita Eagle/Associated Press)
Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity'.

The “insurgent left” is apparently a thing now.

The phrase refers to a growing block of voters that seeks, according to the New York Times, “to remake their own party as a ferocious — and ferociously liberal — opposition force. And many appear as focused on forcing progressive policies into the midterm debate as they are on defeating Republicans.”

I’ll get to the policies in a moment, but the insertion of the insurgents into the Democratic Party is allegedly creating anxiety among mainstream Democrats who worry that it provides the hard right with just the angle they need right now to hold onto power. When Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Kansas last week to support James Thompson, a progressive candidate for Congress, his opponent emailed this message:

“At this very moment self-described socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are hosting a rally in Wichita for Kansas Democrats. Their goal is ambitious, extreme and dangerous.”

No question: their goals are ambitious. But are they extreme and dangerous? Not at all, and in fact, the insurgents’ goals are directionally shared by moderates. The questions are how far to go and how best to get from here to there.

Ocasio-Cortez ran on, among other things: Medicare for all, free public college and trade school, a job guarantee, ending private prisons and abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Consider the motivation for these ideas:

  • Universal health coverage exists in every other advanced economy, so nothing extreme there. What’s extreme is the fact that we spend an average of twice per capita on health care relative to comparable economies, with no better outcomes. The extra spending doesn’t pay for higher quality or even much more quantity. It goes to much higher prices and excess profits of vested interests all along the health-care supply chain.
  • Americans are good with 12 years of public education. But that model was forged well over a century ago. Given workplace technological advances, it has long made zero sense to stop public education at 12. We can debate whether the right number is 14, 16 or 18. We can’t debate 12.
  • Even as we close in on full employment in the sense of a low national unemployment rate, there are people and places who’ve been left behind, making it clear that a direct job creation program is the only surefire way to achieve truly full employment, across both place and race.
  • The racism embedded in our incarceration system is as glaringly obvious as is the cruelty in our immigration system. We can argue about abolishing ICE. We can’t argue about whether separating migrant children from their parents is sensible immigration policy. If you’re looking for “extreme and dangerous” in contemporary policy — actual, not proposed policy — look no further.

But is the angst of mainstream Democrats well-founded? I’m not sure it’s even real.

Look at the policy agenda of moderate Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb, who won a congressional district that went for Trump by almost 20 points. He’s for jobs through infrastructure investment, increasing health coverage through building on the Affordable Care Act, raising wages through strengthening unions and reducing student debt through refinancing at lower rates and partial debt forgiveness in exchange for public service.

That sounds a lot more like Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders, but it’s a model that’s being applied in Trump districts from “North Carolina and Illinois to Ohio and Kentucky.”

It’s also an agenda that points in the same broad direction as that of the so-called insurgents. The difference between moderate and socialist Democrats is less about policy goals and more about path dependency.

Path dependency is the concept that where you end up is a function of where you start out. In this context, it means you can only get from the current policy regime to a more progressive one through incremental change. Medicare for More must proceed Medicare for All. Smaller, more customized job creation programs must proceed the guarantee of a good job for everyone who wants one. Public education must go to 14 years before it gets to 16. Don’t abolish ICE; fix ICE. Instead of universal basic income, make the child tax credit fully refundable for all low-income families.

Perhaps because I’ve been fighting trench warfare in the D.C. swamp for numerous decades, I recognize the logic of path dependency. In practice, that means you can’t assume away the power of the health insurance industry in blocking single payer. You can’t assume the federal government can handily employ tens of millions of people in what are now private-sector functions. Instead, you build a public option into the health-care exchanges and you extend Medicare eligibility to slightly younger people. You subsidize private employers to hire targeted workers.

At least, that’s where you start. It’s not where you end. Under path dependency, the efficiency of the public option, if it is properly supported, will start to claw back excess profits from the current health-care system. Support for labor standards, better jobs and unions will grow as direct job creation is seen as a viable solution for people in places where labor demand is weak even at national full employment.

The logic of social justice and the policy agenda it implies is deep and persuasive, especially in a society as diverse as our own. The problem is that the intersection of wealth concentration and pay-to-play politics is undermining representative democracy, thereby blocking the electorate from a chance to see real, progressive change in action.

The solution is for path-dependent moderates to coexist and work closely with those who would leapfrog the path to more quickly achieve their goals. Neither I nor anyone else can tell you who’s right, i.e., how binding the path is. That is an empirical question to be answered by a very different politics than we have today. To find that answer, we need to get to that new politics, and fast.