If you don’t read the New York Times, or if you read only the print newspaper, you may not be familiar with Thomas Edsall, a veteran journalist who has written several valuable books on US politics and contributes a consistently excellent weekly column to the Times on line. American party politics and voter behavior continue to be Edsall’s main topics. His work is noteworthy for drawing heavily on hard data, including data generated by current political science research, to produce analyses that are rigorous but accessible to readers who don’t habitually plod through academic journals.
In his latest article, Edsall grapples with a conundrum that I have dealt with in a couple of my posts, including my last one: Do Democrats have better winning chances going left, with an exciting, aggressively progressive agenda? Or are they better off hewing to the center, to win over moderate voters who could swing in the direction of either party? Characteristically, Edsall finds and presents evidence for both sides. He doesn’t come out clearly for either, suggesting (as I did) that different approaches will work better in different parts of the country.
I did think that Edsall was off the mark in his assessment of one poll result he cited in this article. The poll was by the Third Way, an organization that promotes centrist perspectives in the Democratic Party. Third Way asked its respondents to indicate approval or disapproval of each of two statements, which I ‘ll call A and B:
A. It’s getting harder and harder for people to earn the life they want. That’s because the economy has changed dramatically, but government is stuck in the past. To solve this, we need an opportunity agenda for the Digital Age so that everyone everywhere has the opportunity to earn a better life.
B.The American people must make a fundamental decision. Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy? This is the most important question of our time, and how we answer it will determine the future of our country.
Statement A much more nearly describes Third Way’s perspective, and we can assume they were hoping that the poll would show that it was strongyly preferred. Instead, as Edsall puts it, the result was basically a draw. While A got a slightly higher approval rating (75% to 17% disapprove) than B (69/19), a higher per cent agreed “strongly” with B. What Edsall misses is that the two statements aren’t at all incompatible. Indeed, A is so safely unobjectionable that it’s hard to see how anyone could seriously disagree with it. (A more useful question would have been to ask respondents which of the two more nearly represented their views, instead of asking them to rate them separately.) What is remarkable is that B, a hard-edged assertion redolent of that bugaboo, class warfare, got such an overwhelmingly positive approval rating.
I think that B tells a story that can excite people about politics. It’s a story that resonates because it’s basically accurate. American politics in recent decades really has been a story of a growing maldistribution of political power and hence of economic inequality. A major problem with Barack Obama’s presidency—and with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—is that they didn’t have a story—a broad explanation of what is wrong with America today and what needs to be done to fix it. Sure, both had good policy initiatives and ideas, but no broad narrative to tie them together. Hillary’s laundry list of worthwhile proposals was outgunned by Donald Trump’s simple story: the politicians—swamp dwellers—have sold out average Americans in the interests of the globalists who want to turn our country into various shades of non-white. It’s a story that captures the popular disenchantment and anger with our political elites that is so widespread. Democrats need a counter-narrative that is equally forceful and understandable.
There are some politicians who favor Story B. One of them—Bernie Sanders—nearly captured the Democratic presidential nomination from the odds-on presumptive favorite to win. Would it surprise you to learn that Sanders is the most popular politician in the country? No, I’m not advocating Bernie for 2020 (though I’m not opposing that either, at this point), but I do think that Democrats would do well to coalesce around some version of Story B.