The question that I’ve raised in earlier posts—whether Democrats’ political prospects are better advanced with a relatively centrist or with a more leftist, progressive policy approach and strategy—has continued to generate controversy. Even the normally lay-back Jimmy Carter got into the discussion, warning that if the Democrats veer too far to the left, they risk alienating moderate, independent voters who otherwise would like to dump Trump. Carter isn’t alone. The idea that the Democrats might just be shooting themselves in the left foot for 2020 is a common theme in the mainstream media.
Unlike some on the left, I’m not inclined to dismiss such concerns out of hand, but I still want to push back. The anxiety about the Dems’ leftward lurching reflects a way of looking at politics that is common among pundits and intellectuals, but much less so among the broader populace. I’ll call it the spectrum-sensitive perspective. The at least implicit assumption is that the typical voter sees politics in terms of a left-right spectrum and places him/herself more or less consciously at some point on that spectrum—say, in the center, or a bit to the left or right of center, and so on. The voting decision, then, involves assessing where the various candidates stand on the left-right spectrum and favoring a candidate that is close to the voter’s own place on the spectrum.
A competing perspective is what I will call issue-sensitive. Voters respond to candidates’ positions on specific issues and choose candidates whose issue-positions they find most appealing without necessarily caring about where they stand on the spectrum.
I don’t mean to imply that these are the only two ways of understanding voting behavior–partisanship, ethnic loyalties and various less than rational motivations are also at play—but these are the two perspectives we need to look at in deciding whether the Dems are in danger of lurching too far to the left. I’m going to argue that an issues-sensitive perspective makes more sense for 2020, and that an aggressively progressive Democratic Party can be extremely competitive. Consider the following “leftist” planks for the 2020 Democratic Party platform:
— a sharp escalation of progressive taxation , with a big increase in the top marginal rates and a wealth tax for the very rich
— a major revival of anti-trust policy, aimed at reversing the decades-long trend toward extreme concentration in our economy. Tech giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google would come under intense scrutiny.
— an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour
— major steps toward universal healthcare coverage, including a public health insurance option available to all comers (call it “Medicare for all”)
In combination with other major initiatives that shouldn’t be controversial among Democrats (e.g., a massive, trillion-dollar infrastructure program, aggressive campaign finance reform), a Democratic platform featuring these policy positions would be the most leftist since 1972. If fully enacted (a big “if,” needless to say) it would have huge positive consequences for American society. And it would be popular: all of these issue positions poll well. Even a lot of Republicans, for example, think rich people aren’t taxed enough. And who wouldn’t be happy to see Facebook and Amazon taken down a peg or three? When you ask them specifically what they want, people are inclined to support “leftist” policies without necessarily wondering how far “left” they are.
But note some leftist policy positions I haven’t included in this list. A major, wide-ranging assault on climate change is a moral imperative and should be in the Democratic platform, even though public opinion is ambivalent. Another omission is single-payer healthcare, popular on the left but for reasons I’ve already explained, politically risky: I wouldn’t want to see it in the Democratic platform. Another idea that is gaining some currency on the Democratic left is reparations for African Americans. Whatever its objective merits, a Democratic platform call for reparations would be politically suicidal—Donald Trump’s best hope for a second term.
So, maybe the title of this and previous posts of mine implies a false binary, a need to choose between alternatives that in fact aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be quite leftist without necessarily advocating every left position that’s in the air and without scaring off moderates. You can go seriously left and still hold the center.