To talk about the Democratic Party in 2019, it seems, is to talk about a completely contrived “civil war” between the center and the left, with Bernie Sanders being the avatar of the supposedly out-of-control emboldened lefties who will scare away moderate voters and inadvertently help Donald Trump stay in the White House.
This is nonsense on stilts, but that has not stopped it from becoming part of the conventional wisdom. Some Republicans are at least somewhat honest about it. To take one example: “[N]ot that I have a say in the matter as a disaffected Republican, [but] I would prefer a Democratic nominee who appeals to centrists like me and not to the fringes of his or her party.” Yes, this redefines the words “centrist” and “fringe” into meaninglessness, but it at least concedes that some Republicans are hoping for Democrats to act like Republicans, even though there is no reason they should do so.
Most of the time, in fact, the claim seems to be, as I described in a recent Verdict column, that Republicans who are horrified by Trump should not have to give ground on policy to Democrats. It is always, for some reason, Democrats and liberals who are supposed to swallow hard and do what is needed to defeat Trump, not the people who enabled their party while it lurched onto a path that made Trump inevitable.
Even if Democrats actually had gone to their fringes, however, this would be a bad political argument, because their fringes are actually not advocating unpopular positions. Democrats have (as I put it in the Verdict column that I just mentioned) “clustered around a very popular and genuinely moderate set of views and policies—reasonable gun control measures, ending Republicans’ regressive tax giveaways, admitting that climate change is real, addressing the college debt crisis, and so on—that have their roots in policies that have worked in America in the past and can work again.”
How do I know that these policies are moderate and popular? I know that they are moderate because I have actually studied them and compared them to policies that we have lived with during recent times of prosperity, and I know what the economics and policy literatures say about the effects of these policies. There is nothing extreme about them.
And I know that these policies are popular because I can read public opinion polls—as opposed to, say, listening to some self-described “moderate” tell the world, without evidence, that policies with which she happens to personally disagree are unpopular.
In this column, I will offer some of the evidence about the popularity of supposedly extreme-left policy proposals. It will become very clear that the only danger that the Democrats will go “careening over a liberal cliff” is if pundits manage to convince people that moderation is extremism. And that very much includes the policies proposed by the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.
The Continued Degradation of Political Coverage in the Press
Before I get to Bernie Sanders, it is important to note that the media’s coverage of the nascent 2020 presidential race has so far been depressingly vapid. As I will explain, the major problem is that the press fails to understand that there simply is no real “left” in American politics, but even on minor issues, there are laughably bad analyses floating around.
Just as one odd example, consider this bit of reportage from two Washington Post writers a few weeks ago. Discussing the surprisingly strong early appeal of South Bend (Indiana) mayor Pete Buttigieg, these Post stalwarts wrote:
Some Democrats say privately Buttigieg may not be prepared to be president, given his youth and that he’s never served in national or even statewide office. (Buttigieg is a decade younger than [Beto] O’Rourke and was not born when former vice president Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate.) Trump’s tenure, they say, has soured Democrats on the notion of inexperienced candidates jumping into the presidency.
I do realize that the article claims merely to be reporting what some Democrats are saying “privately,” but please. This is a classic reportorial move, finding sources to endorse the writers’ own argument while taking the reporters out of the story.
But even if my cynicism is getting the best of me, and these reporters are honestly reporting someone else’s argument, what an argument that is! Trump’s presidency “soured Democrats on the notion of inexperienced candidates jumping into” the White House? That is what some Democrats have learned from Trump’s many depredations, that he is too inexperienced to be president—not that Trump is a bigoted, narcissistic, would-be dictator who is destroying the country while doing nothing about a foreign adversary’s attacks on US democracy?
I am not defending Buttigieg, because I have not formed an opinion about him or his candidacy. But for crying out loud, if the political conversation in this country is so vapid that his candidacy would be dismissed because he’s “too inexperienced, like—ya know—Trump,” then things are much worse than we ever could have imagined.
A much more standard type of terrible political analysis is false equivalence, in which journalists try to claim that “people on the left” are bad, too, which means that accurate reporting about Republicans’ extreme right-wing views requires some sort of balancing criticism of liberals.
The editorial page editor of The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt, offered a study in false equivalence in a recent piece, “How Contagious is Trumpism?” That column at least had the truth-in-advertising quality of being labeled an opinion piece (unlike the article about Buttigieg), but it was a perfect example of how a left-of-center keeper of journalistic standards has completely absorbed the mindset that leads to false equivalence.
Readers with strong stomachs can read Hiatt’s full litany of false comparisons for themselves, but here is a taste of that approach: “No candidate is likely to match Trump’s preternatural ability to see the traitor lurking within every friend while never, ever holding himself accountable. But if your candidate starts telling you that everything would be fine if we just went after billionaires, or big banks, or big tech, or . . . be nervous.”
Where to begin? Trump is acknowledged to be a McCarthyite conspiracy monger, smearing his opponents as traitors and worse. But the left? They would like it if we “went after” billionaires, banks, etc. Notice, however, that Trump’s violent fantasies have led him to “go after” desperate people who have legally presented themselves at the US border to request asylum, with Trump’s policies leading to families being forcibly separated, children put in cages, and desperate people sent back to the violence and desperation that drove them to the US in the first place.
What does the most left-leaning Democrat want to do when “going after” billionaires and big businesses? To make them slightly less wealthy and slightly less big and powerful. This comparison is similar to the claims from anti-tax extremists that taxing the rich is akin to Nazism, because progressive taxation also “targets” a minority of the population. (I am not exaggerating.) But Hiatt tells us to “be nervous” when a politician—I wonder who he could be thinking about—advocates policies that would afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. That is, apparently, just a bit too much like Trump for Hiatt’s taste.
The Bernie Slander: Attacking Sanders as Too Extreme
To be absolutely clear, I am not defending Bernie Sanders or endorsing his presidential candidacy. Although there are many things that I like about his policy proposals, and although I am in awe of his ability to move the needle politically, I continue to believe (as I concluded during the 2016 primaries) that he would not be an especially effective president and that there are better choices.
That is not to say that he would be a bad president, of course. I am merely saying that, although I could imagine ultimately getting behind Buttigieg or any of a dozen other candidates as my first choice in next year’s nomination race, it is clear now that Sanders will not be in that mix for me. My reasons are not relevant here, but it is important to understand that responding to attacks on Sanders’s supposed too-far-leftishness is not at all the same thing as endorsing his candidacy.
In addition, it goes without saying that Sanders would be categorically superior to Donald Trump; so if Sanders wins the nomination (as he might), it will be easy in the general election to focus on the positives and accept that we do not always get our first choice.
But again, it is not only Hiatt (who did not mention Sanders by name) who plays this game of pretending that the Democrats have veered left. Another reporter in Hiatt’s paper recently described an event at which Barack Obama “gently warned” freshman Democrats in Congress to be worried about the costs of various liberal policy ideas.
Although I think Obama incorrectly analyzed the issue (which fits with his history of playing to self-styled centrists like Hiatt), what is notable is that the reporter described the targets of Obama’s comments as “the emboldened far-left,” using that term as if it is simply an uncontroversial descriptor. Either that reporter or her headline writer (or both) thought that this was not a subjective assertion.
The fact is, however, that there is no far left in the United States. By comparison, there actually is a far left in Britain’s Labour Party, which is currently engaged in an intraparty struggle with the party’s center and left. I am not endorsing or condemning Britain’s far left (although I will say that those on Britain’s left who have revealed themselves as anti-Semitic must be condemned), but I am saying that that country actually has a far left. In the United States, no matter what reporters and pundits say, there is nothing to the left of moderate liberalism (which we sometimes call progressivism).
To be clear, there is always the dodge that “the far left is whatever is farthest to the left”—that is, that these things can only be described in relative terms. But that is ultimately an empty defense, because this is all being used in the context of saying that the policy proposals are themselves so far to the left that they are politically untenable.
That, however, is a rather unusual view of public opinion. People will reject a policy idea that they otherwise would embrace if they find out that there are no politicians offering an alternative that is more liberal? That might be accurate, I suppose, but it seems like an odd way for people to think. At the very least, such a claim would need to be vigorously defended, not offered in passing as a way to categorize the Democrats’ progressive wing as too extreme.
The Popularity of the Progressive Agenda
All of which brings us to the bottom line. It turns out that Americans either consciously embrace progressives’ “far left” ideas, or they do not actually view those ideas as far left at all. As I noted above, there is nothing on offer from any category of Democrats that counts as either extreme or unpopular.
If Sanders is the stand-in for what counts as the extreme left, here is a useful summary of the issues and policies on which he is basing his candidacy:
[Sanders’s agenda] includes: reducing wage and income inequality; Medicare-for-all; free public college tuition; a national $15 an hour minimum wage; a trillion-dollar infrastructure program; overturning Citizens United and moving to public financing of campaigns; an aggressive climate change action program that includes going after the fossil fuels industry; comprehensive immigration reform; criminal justice reform; an end to private prisons; breaking up the big banks; taking on the pharmaceutical industry; universal affordable child care; expanded Social Security benefits; a federal jobs guarantee; rebuilding rural America; new gun control legislation.
It is true that this summary includes some fuzzy words like “reform” that can mean different things to different people, but Sanders has been second only to Elizabeth Warren in bluntly telling people what he would like to do. The question here is, is it popular?
At my request, my stalwart research assistants sent me some representative polling results (for which I am not providing links, because those citations can be found online, and any interested reader can readily find still more polling results that demonstrate the fact that Sanders’s agenda is quite popular):
- Reducing Wage and Income Equality: A Gallup poll last year shows that “only 32% were satisfied on the way income and wealth were distributed in the US, with 66% dissatisfied.” A Pew poll the same year found that “63% of those polled say the nation’s economic system unfairly favors powerful interests, compared with 33% who believe it is generally fair to most Americans.”
- Medicare-for-All: Gallup earlier this year said that “57% said healthcare coverage is a government responsibility; while 42% said healthcare coverage is not a government responsibility,” and in 2016, “58% favored replacing the ACA with a federally funded healthcare program providing insurance for all Americans, with 37% opposing.”
- Free College: Democratic support – 78.9%, Republican support – 41.1%, total support – 60.1%.
- Fifteen-Dollar Minimum Wage: Pew in November 2016 concluded that “58% of the 2,010 Americans polled favored raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour; 41% opposed.”
Those are only four of the items on Sanders’s agenda. In a future column, I will offer a continuation of the polling results for the other items noted above, but the overall lesson is that the results are actually quite spectacular from the Democrats’ standpoint.
I am fully aware of the shortcomings of public opinion polling, but this is a landslide. If the “far left” were truly in danger of driving Democrats into oblivion, the polling results would be strongly skewed in the other direction, leaving Sanders and others to claim that “the people don’t understand yet,” or the polls are skewed, or something like that. In other words, they would be in the “if you’re explaining, you’re probably losing” mode of politics—which is exactly where their opponents are now.
But those who oppose the moderate liberal agenda that Sanders and others have proposed are also relying on the old trick of simply mischaracterizing their opponents as extremists. The American people might not like the idea of extremism, but they like what they like. And they like the supposedly far-left policies that the Democratic Party increasingly embraces.