2018-11-10 00:01:56 UTC
How Far Have the Democrats Moved to the Left?
Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get lots of attention, but
the most significant shift is among voters, not candidates.
DAVID A. GRAHAM
NOV 5, 2018
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New
York, speaks during a campaign stop in Michigan for Democratic
gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed.PAUL SANCYA / AP
The future of the Democratic Party looks a lot like Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez. Once it was the party of patrician liberals like Franklin
Roosevelt; now women, people of color, and voters in big cities are the
demographics at the heart of the party.
The question is whether the future of the Democratic Party votes like
Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic socialist. Her June victory
over incumbent Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat
in New York City was perhaps the most heralded example of what has been
described as a burgeoning leftist shift in the Democratic Party. For
progressive activists, it’s a boon decades in the making; for moderate
Democrats, it’s a political headache; and for Republicans, including
President Trump, it’s both a worrying sign of creeping socialism and an
effective bogeyman for rallying supporters.
Read: An existential day for Democrats
“Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism
is making a comeback in American political discourse,” an October 23
report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers warned. In a
statement decrying the white paper, the Democratic Socialists of America
said, “DSA agrees with the White House ‘socialism’ report in one respect
— ‘socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse.’”
Despite all the noise, it’s hard to get a good grasp on what’s
happening. It’s not just progressives who are ascendant. Before
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, the previous Democratic it-candidate for the
cycle had been Conor Lamb—a moderate Democrat from rural Pennsylvania.
Ocasio-Cortez and Lamb are likely to be colleagues in the House starting
in January. Given the widely varying specifics of individual races, it’s
hard to come up with useful comparisons to measure the leftist moment.
Here’s what we can say: There’s clear leftward movement among Democratic
voters on a range of issues, and there are more progressive candidates
running than ever. But this doesn’t amount, at least yet, to the
socialist groundswell that advocates pine for and critics fear. The
actual policy positions, and number of leftist officeholders, will
remain limited—at least for now. What happens in 2020 could be more telling.
With Democratic enthusiasm at high levels this year, there’s a heated
debate about what’s motivating voters. The Harvard political scientist
Theda Skocpol recently told The Washington Post that members of the
anti-Trump resistance “are going to revitalize the roots of the
Democratic Party, and they are going to feminize it, but they are not
going to turn into Bernie Sanders.” Time’s Charlotte Alter found much
the same dynamic. “It’s not that the Democrats are being pulled left.
It’s more that Democrats are being pulled local,” she reported. “And
while ideas like ‘Medicare for All’ and ‘Abolish ICE’ have spread far
beyond the party’s left flank, the anti-Trump resistance movement is
ultimately more results-driven than ideological.”
Read: Young People Might Actually Turn Out for the Midterms
Much of the strongest opposition to Trump does seem to emanate from the
center-left, especially in cities and suburban areas. Many of its movers
and shakers are people who have voted Democratic, but were never
actively involved in politics—until the 2016 election activated them.
According to a Brookings survey, 60 percent of Democratic primary voters
cast their votes to express opposition to the president. Of course, that
leaves almost 40 percent who voted for another reason. Although
charismatic politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez get the most
attention, the most significant shift in the Democratic Party is among
voters, not candidates.
According to Pew data, 46 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning
voters now identify as liberal—up from 28 percent 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, the percentage who say they’re moderates has dropped from 44
to 37. The number of conservatives continues to drop, too. But these
changes most likely reflect the exodus of right-leaning Democrats as
both parties become more ideologically homogeneous. It doesn’t
necessarily mean that there’s been huge growth on the party’s left wing.
Then there’s the question of what it means to be “liberal.” Among
progressive pundits, there’s a debate between “liberals” (for example,
Obama Democrats) and “leftists” (progressives with more socialist
inclinations). But Pew, which maintains the best longitudinal data,
doesn’t subdivide that way, and it’s hard to know what voters mean when
they self-identify as liberal. For example, support for LGBT rights was
once a litmus test for American liberalism, notes Amy Walter, national
editor of the Cook Political Report. Now that view is the consensus
within the Democratic Party—and gay marriage is largely accepted among
Republicans, too. So what is liberalism now?
“Is it the Bernie Sanders view on economic issues? Is it views on social
issues?” Walters asks. “Can you have progressive views on social issues,
but if you don’t agree with Bernie Sanders’s opinion on government size,
are you not a liberal?”
Still, digging into Pew’s data on specific positions can provide a good
sense of how Democrats are moving leftward on certain issues, especially
immigration, economics, and race. Most astonishing is immigration. As my
colleague Peter Beinart has reported, leaders in the Democratic Party
have undergone a dramatic shift toward unalloyed support of immigration,
including to a certain extent illegal immigration. But voters have moved
as well. In 1994, just 32 percent of Democrats said that immigrants
strengthened the country. Now 84 percent do.
On economics, three-quarters of Democrats say that the government
doesn’t do enough to help poor people, up from half in 1994. Two-thirds
say that government should regulate business more, again up from half in
1994. Conversely, in 1994, two-thirds of Democrats believed that people
could get ahead if they were willing to work hard. Now only half do. The
percentage of Democrats who believe that corporations make too much
money is up 12 points. But the movement is not uniform. While the
portion of Democrats who say that the government should do more to help
the poor, even if it requires taking on debt, rose from 58 percent in
1994 to 71 percent in 2017, it is still below the peak of 77 percent, in
Peter Beinart: How the Democrats lost their way on immigration
There’s also dramatic movement on race, which may more than anything
reflect the exodus of conservative whites as the Democratic Party
becomes more minority-heavy. The percentage of Democrats who say that
the government needs to do more to fight racism has risen from 57 to 81
since 2009. In 1994, four in 10 Democrats said that racial
discrimination was the main reason black people couldn’t get ahead; in
2017, more than six in 10 did. White voters have moved especially
dramatically, as Thomas Edsall notes: On both of these indicators, white
Democrats are actually further left than black ones.
This is in large part because the whites who are members of the
Democratic Party have changed. Non-college-educated whites have shrunk
as a portion of the base by 20 percent, versus big gains from voters
with at least a four-year degree, both white and nonwhite. The better
educated voters are, the more likely they are to be more liberal.
Assuming the party continues to change demographically the way it has,
it’s likely to get only more liberal.
“I think there’s a significant shift,” says Robert Borosage, president
of the Institute for America’s Future and an adviser to Jesse Jackson’s
1988 presidential campaign. “You can see it in the war of ideas, where
more and more Democrats at least nod their heads at Medicare for all.
You even have President Obama saying it’s time for big ideas like
Medicare for all and a jobs guarantee.”
If anything, the party’s candidates still appear to be to the right of
the base—at the least candidates who win nominations. Brookings’s
Primaries Project recorded the astonishing growth in the number of
Democrats running for House seats this year—1,077, up from 646 in 2014
and 700 in 2016. (In contrast, the number of GOP candidates rose from
755 four years ago to 874 this year, a much more gradual increase.)
Brookings’s Elaine Kamarck and Alexander R. Podkul categorized these
Democrats as either “progressives” or “establishment” Democrats and
found a roughly equal share of candidates. (Moderates compose a small
and shrinking third wheel.)
That meant that a greater number of incumbent Democrats, many of them
more establishment, faced primaries—45 percent, up from fewer than 28
percent in 2014. Yet despite the understandable attention paid to wins
by Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who defeated Representative Mike
Capuano in a Boston-area district, most of the challenges fell short.
According to the Primaries Project, “Compared to 2016, primary elections
this cycle were actually slightly less competitive for incumbents.”
Kamarck notes that efforts by the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee, while widely derided by progressives, had their desired
effect of nominating establishment-backed candidates in close districts,
with a 39-for-41 record.
Furthermore, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley will both replace reliably
progressive votes in the House, so while both are women of color and
therefore more in step with the Democratic Party’s evolving
demographics, they’re likely to end up largely the same on the issues.
Otherwise, Brookings found, progressive candidates were more likely than
their establishment colleagues to win nominations in more strongly
leaning Republican districts—meaning that anything short of a blue
tsunami is likely to leave them high, dry, and at home.
“Six months ago, a lot of Democrats were worried that the process was
going to make the task of regaining the majority in the House more
difficult by nominating some candidates in swing districts who were too
progressive for those districts,” says Bill Galston, a colleague of
Kamarck’s both at Brookings and in the Clinton White House. That hasn’t
been the case, he says. “Progressive victories have been scored in
places where almost any Democrat would be the odds-on favorite to win,”
like in Ocasio-Cortez’s district.
Borosage dismisses the poor record of progressives challenging
incumbents as beside the point. “This is the way movements work. Of
course they would lose more,” he says. “The fact that they challenge
puts people on notice. There’s no sitting congressperson who’s got any
brain that doesn’t make a calculation: Am I vulnerable on my left? What
do I have to do?”
The best place to measure leftward shift might be at the state
legislative level. Not only are there more than 6,000 races—a more
meaningful sample than the few high-profile contested U.S. House
primaries—but it’s much easier for progressive, outsider candidates to
run at lower levels, because there’s less money and institutional
support required. And since most candidates for statewide and national
office begin at lower levels, these races should give a good sense of
where the Democratic Party’s grass roots are heading.
The problem is that with so many races, and so many specific
circumstances in each race, grasping all of them is effectively
impossible, but some ways to measure state-level action do exist. As I
reported in August, hundreds of progressive first-time candidates are
running for state legislatures around the country, many of them
espousing strongly left-wing stances, and often emerging not from
traditional Democratic Party structures but from social-activist groups
Read: How a blue wave could crash far beyond Washington
Some of the effects are visible even before the midterm ballots are
counted. Virginia holds its legislative and gubernatorial elections in
odd-numbered years, and in 2017 Democrats made a strong showing in races
for the General Assembly, losing out on control of the House of
Delegates only through a random drawing that resolved a tie. Many of the
new members are strong progressives. A baker’s dozen won while refusing
to take donations from Dominion Power, typically a major power broker in
the state. The new crew also helped to push through an expansion of
Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which had been stalled for
years. In New York, the “Independent Democratic Caucus,” a group of
renegade Democrats who caucused with Republicans, pulled the nominally
liberal state’s governance to the center. Though the group disbanded
earlier this year, six of its eight former members lost their primaries
to more progressive challengers.
It’s impossible to precisely and concisely diagnose the cause of the
Democratic Party’s current leftward movement. A good starting point is
the 2008 financial crash and the resulting recession, which shook many
Americans’ sense of security. The crash is often cited as a contributor
to Donald Trump’s supposedly populist movement, but it also helped drive
Sanders’s support. So did Barack Obama’s relatively moderate,
corporate-friendly response, which created an opening for alternative
visions of what the party could be. Meanwhile, the moderate and
conservative Blue Dog Democrats were largely washed out of office in
2010. That cleared the intellectual field in the party and made
intramural debates starker.
“The New Democrats,” says Borosage, referring to Hillary Clinton, Joe
Biden, and other establishment party leaders, “are still there, but they
are remarkably bereft of any compelling ideas. It’s not a compelling
ideological alternative. They’re just a little less.”
To be fair, some of the ideas that the new progressives are offering
aren’t all that new. Medicare for all has a sheen of novelty to it, but
as Kamarck notes, universal health care has been a stated goal of the
Democratic Party for decades. But others are fresher, from marijuana
legalization to a $15 minimum wage to a universal basic income.
Some of the shift may also be the result of a feedback loop between
voters and candidates. For example, voters may have been attracted to
Sanders in 2016 less for his avowed leftism and more for his bluntness,
lack of polish, and perceived honesty as compared with Hillary Clinton.
The political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels analyzed
data from the 2016 American National Election Study and concluded that
Sanders voters weren’t necessarily any more progressive than Clinton
backers. That could change, though.
“Over time, some of the ideology rubs off on the adherents,” says Larry
Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “They know
they like Bernie Sanders, and over time they learn what Bernie Sanders
stands for and they like that. There’s some lingering effect.”
Read: Trump is radicalizing the Democratic Party
But the 2016 candidate who did the most to push the Democratic Party
leftward may not have been Sanders but Trump. Although the Pew data
suggest a gradually more leftist Democratic electorate on a slew of
issues, some of the most dramatic changes, as I have previously written,
emerged shortly after Trump’s entry onto the political scene. Take
immigration and race, two of the issues on which Trump was most
outspoken as a candidate. The number of Democrats who say that racial
discrimination is the main challenge to African Americans today jumped
from 47 percent in late 2015, early in Trump’s candidacy, to 64 percent
by June 2017. The portion saying that immigrants strengthen the country
leapt from 66 percent a month before Trump kicked off his campaign to 84
percent by July 2017.
The scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have concluded that
although American politics is highly polarized today, the polarization
has been asymmetric. While both parties have become more homogeneously
conservative, in the case of the GOP, or liberal, in the case of the
Democratic Party, there are more very conservative voters in the
Republican Party than there are very liberal voters in the Democratic
Party. One result of that rightward shift has been an increasingly
gridlocked Congress, where the far right has become a powerful
obstructionist faction—much to the chagrin of Republican Speakers John
Boehner and Paul Ryan.
Democrats have not polarized as radically, but if they continue to
become more liberal, could they produce a similar effect? Could the
Congressional Progressive Caucus act as a mirror image to the House
Freedom Caucus? Kamarck thinks that won’t happen, betting that the
difference in ideology means even more progressive Democrats will be
willing to compromise. Conservatives are willing to obstruct action in
Congress because it’s congruent with their view that government action
is suspect. Progressives are less able to justify stonewalling.
“Because Democrats are the party of government, they will not get too
crazy. They will want to actually pass things,” Kamarck says. “You may
get some radicals, but in the end if they really want health care for
all, they’re going to be hard put to explain to their people why they
voted down something that gave health care for, say, 83 percent.”
Norm Ornstein: Yes, polarization is asymmetric—and conservatives are worse
In other words, they’re going to have to compromise. The test of her
theory will come after the election. In fact, some of the best questions
about the future of the Democratic Party will only begin to be answered
starting November 7. Those include considering who got elected; seeing
how they behave in office; and then watching the way the 2020
presidential primary, which will start almost immediately, begins.
Should Democrats fail to win control of the House, it will likely
trigger a vast tremor throughout the party, with unpredictable results.
(The Senate appears out of reach, though a surprise is possible.)
If candidates like Andrew Gillum, the very progressive Democratic
nominee for Florida governor, win, it will provide proof that a
left-wing candidate (and an African American one at that) can win in the
South, tempering the “electability” argument that has sometimes lifted
center-left Democrats. If Gillum loses—even if the race is close, and
despite local factors—it could turn voters away from candidates like him.
And if Democrats do win the House, they’ll have to decide how to wield
their newfound control. Most progressive legislation emanating from the
House would be largely symbolic, since a Republican Senate and president
would block any action. A Democratic majority would likely include a
good number of seats won by Democrats in historically Republican
districts, and certainly in districts that Trump won in 2016; it would
also probably include a larger Congressional Progressive Caucus. If the
more progressive wing of the party puts forward strongly progressive
bills, will freshman Democrats who represent suburban districts where
formerly Republican white women have flipped their votes balk, or will
they go along? And if they go along, will they end up pulling their
districts leftward with them, or simply doom themselves to one-term
status? (An Axios analysis found that among 44 Democrats with a good
chance to flip GOP districts, very few rule out voting for a Medicare
for all bill, and some specifically affirm their support for it.)
Meanwhile, the scramble for the presidential nomination will be underway
nearly from the moment the polls close on Election Day. There is already
a crowded field of possible contenders, from lefties like Sanders and
Warren to old-school hopefuls like Joe Biden, including everything in
between. There are signs that some of the younger, less ideologically
committed figures who are interested in the race are betting on
progressive ascendancy. Borosage notes that Senators Kirsten Gillibrand,
Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, all of whom tended toward the center
earlier in their careers, have already begun taking up progressive
stances like universal basic incomes and abolishing ice.
“As a national entity, the Democratic Party comes to life during the
presidential nominating process,” Galston says. “To make a judgment
about the party as a whole, one would have to make a prediction about
the balance of power in that process.” And even then, he says, a shift
is ratified only if a president wins reelection.
In other words, the Democratic Party is moving left, but it might not be
clear quite how far left for two or even six years. The revolution is
coming more slowly than its champions hope and its critics fear.
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DAVID A. GRAHAM is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers U.S.
politics and global news.