/The Democrats Aren’t a Left-Wing Party — They Just Play One on TV

The Democrats Aren’t a Left-Wing Party — They Just Play One on TV

The next Democratic president won’t be left to her own devices.
Photo: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Democrats on your television are more moderate than they appear.

On the debate stage last week, America’s center-left party sounded like a European one (only with 60 percent less racism). Almost all of the Democrats’ 2020 candidates lamented concentrated capital, celebrated labor unions, and vowed to insulate Americans from the slings and arrows of outrageous market failures through the expansion of social democratic institutions. On health care, the middle-ground position was a public option strong enough to drive private insurers out of business. On higher education, it was free public college for all children from working-class families. On wages, it was raising taxes on the wealthy to expand paycheck subsidies for working people.

The 2020 hopefuls paired these “centrist for Europe, but left wing for the U.S.” economic proposals with positions on (so called) social issues that would qualify as progressive in any country on earth. Virtually all contenders embraced federal funding for abortion, and expanding undocumented immigrants’ access to government services, while multiple leading candidates called for the decriminalization of illegal border crossing (a policy that is less radical than it sounds, but still signals a flat rejection of the party’s past commitment to projecting “toughness” on the border), and the revival of busing to desegregate America’s schools.

By all appearances, the arc of Democratic history was bending back toward George McGovern. Progressive activists walked away feeling triumphant; Never Trump columnists, aggrieved and concerned. But all could agree that this wasn’t your father’s Democratic Party anymore (assuming your father is a neoliberal shill).

And yet: If you turn your gaze from the Democrats on the debate stage to the ones actually governing in Congress, you’ll see a party fit for David Brooks. Hours before Team Blue’s 2020 hopefuls endorsed decriminalizing illegal entry, its House caucus approved $4.5 billion in new funding for the border crisis — without imposing strict standards on how that money can be spent. In doing so, House Democrats didn’t merely embrace a position to the right of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, but one to the right of Nancy Pelosi’s. The House’s proudly moderate “Blue Dog” and “Problem Solvers” caucuses called the tune. They wanted bipartisan compromise without delay, and they had the votes to get it, their Speaker’s wishes be damned.

This wasn’t an aberration. Liberals may set the pace in Democratic discourse and presidential debates. But on Capitol Hill, the centrists often take the wheel. In May 2017, Pelosi vowed that House Democrats would pass a bill raising the minimum wage to $15 within 100 hours of taking power. It has now been six months, and that bill’s fate is still uncertain.

The left has a lot of controversial ideas for reducing economic inequality. But the $15 minimum wage isn’t one of them. The policy is overwhelmingly popular in opinion polls. It has proven successful at the state and local levels. What’s more, the House’s $15 minimum-wage legislation phases that rate in over a period of five years, at which point it will really be $13 in today’s money (or $12 in 2012’s, the year when the Fight for $15 kicked off). Moreover, given GOP control of the Senate, moderate Democrats who favor a more modest minimum-wage hike could vote for this messaging bill in full confidence that it would never take effect. Despite all this, a critical mass of House centrists have refused to do so. Meanwhile, in deference to the party’s burgeoning contingent of high-income, blue-state suburbanites, Pelosi’s caucus spent much of last week pushing to lift the cap on the State and Local Income Tax (SALT) deduction — in other words, pushing a tax cut that would deliver more than half of its benefits to households making over $1 million a year.

As many pundits have pointed out in recent months, the Democratic primary electorate is far from uniformly liberal. In fact, the median Democratic primary voter is largely insensitive to intraparty ideological divides (the most popular second choice among Joe Biden voters is Bernie Sanders, and vice versa).

But the median Democratic voter – who closely monitors primary campaigns eight months before the first Iowans cast their ballots – is a different animal. Democrats who pay a lot of attention to politics tend to be more ideological, and ideologically left wing, than those who do not. And these high-information, highly progressive voters include potential campaign volunteers, activists, policy staff, partisan pundits, and small-dollar donors— people whose power to influence the primary’s outcome extends well beyond their behavior in the ballot box. This predominantly progressive voting bloc can shape media narratives, staff get-out-the-vote operations, vouch for a candidate with broader constituencies, and help keep a campaign funded. Before the advent of small-dollar digital fundraising, the influence of money in politics was the bane of the left’s existence; in the 2020 primary, it’s arguably a source of left-wing strength.

For these reasons, Democratic candidates have some incentive to favor the strongly held preferences of their party’s highly engaged, progressive minority over the (often weakly held) moderate preferences of its broader base on issues where there is a divergence between the two.

And yet, if progressives are overrepresented in the political discourse and presidential primary debates, they are systematically underrepresented in Congress. Democrats were able to overcome the pro-Republican bias of the House map last fall. Nevertheless, the combination of GOP gerrymandering, and the clustering of progressive constituencies in high-density urban areas, ensured that right-leaning voting blocs would retain disproportionate representation in the House, and thus, in Pelosi’s majority.

Since America’s most left-wing voters tend to be concentrated in cities, their votes end up largely “wasted,” delivering landslide victories to liberal Democrats in a few districts, instead of narrow ones to such candidates in many districts. As a result, Democrats must win far more than half of all House votes to secure a governing majority. Which means that the party must secure significant support from affluent suburban areas that lean right on some economic issues, and/or low-density districts where voters lean right on immigration, guns, and other culture-war issues, and/or districts where partisan affiliation is so evenly split, weak-willed Democratic incumbents feel compelled to prostrate themselves before the area’s business interests.

And matters are even bleaker for progressives in the Senate, where predominantly white, rural states wield obscenely disproportionate influence over policy-making (Wyoming’s 578,000 residents, and California’s 39.5 million have the same number of votes in the upper chamber).

These realities invite a question: Are progressives winning anything substantial by pushing Democratic presidential candidates to the left? If the biases of our archaic Constitution — and the dynamics of urban-rural polarization — ensure that the next Democratic president will be exactly as liberal as the Stephanie Murphys and Joe Manchins of the world allow her to be, then what’s the point of pressuring Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris to endorse the abolition of private insurance, or decriminalization of illegal border crossing, or reparations, or any other progressive policy that does not poll well? Why should Democrats take the political risk inherent to promoting such measures, if they have no hope of implementing them? Given that the under-insured, the undocumented, and African-Americans are among the constituencies that have the most to lose from protracted Republican rule, doesn’t representing their interests require prioritizing electoral victory over promoting quixotic ideological goals (no matter how theoretically sound and just those goals may be)?

The question of how the left should balance electoral pragmatism with ideological fidelity is a serious one. It is true that many putatively “radical” ideas enjoy broad public support, and that there is no tight correlation between where a policy or politician sits on a unidimensional left-right ideological spectrum and how “electable” she is. But it is also true that some progressive ideas are (currently) very unpopular, and that ideologues of any stripe are bound to endorse more politically suboptimal ideas than opportunists who give pollsters veto power over their platforms. Given the stakes of partisan conflict in the U.S., progressives can’t afford to give zero weight to “political reality” when formulating policy demands.

That said, “political reality” is a social construct. What qualifies as a “moderate” or “conservative” position on any given issue varies across decades and national boundaries. The left’s power over presidential primary discourse may be greater than its power over the Democratic Party writ large. But the discourse matters.

Today’s congressional Democrats are more liberal than yesterday’s. A decade ago, Pelosi’s moderates pushed for entitlement cuts; in 2018, they ran on protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits. Fourteen Senate Democrats voted for the Bush tax cuts; none voted for Trump’s. Blue Dog Democrat Dan Lipinski used to feel comfortable opposing citizenship for Dreamers and LGBT rights; this year, he voted for both the Dream and Equality Acts. And although Pelosi failed to deliver on her minimum-wage promise, her caucus has passed a long list of progressive (if typically small-bore) bills on voting rights, health care, consumer protection, pay equity, and the environment, among other things. In 2019, there are very few issues where moderate Democrats want to move the country right. In most cases, the intra-Democratic debate is merely over how far and fast to move policy left. It seems unlikely that these developments are wholly unrelated to progressives’ burgeoning influence on political discourse in the age of social media, or the left’s influence on the Democratic Party in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly successful 2016 campaign.

Considering the malleability of public opinion, the tenuous connection between policy positions and election outcomes, and the significant evidence that presidential primary rhetoric can change the terms of America’s political debates (a.k.a., “move the Overton window”), there’s nothing inherently irrational about pressuring Democratic candidates to endorse policy goals they cannot hope to get through Congress. There are no small number of moderate House Democrats’ whose current position on health care lies to the left of Hillary Clinton’s initial one in 2016. Ostensibly, Sanders’s advocacy for single-payer helped make a strong public option appear more centrist. It’s plausible that Harris’s endorsement of “busing” could have a similarly beneficent effect on the debate over equality in education, or that Warren’s support for repealing section 1325 could have such an effect on the debate over immigration. It is also possible that these policy positions could turn off the low-information white swing voters who largely control our republic’s fate.

For the foreseeable future, there is likely to be a discrepancy between how Democratic presidential candidates campaign in primaries, and how their majorities behave in power. But the precise, ideological contours of the divide are subject to political contestation. Much depends on how wisely progressives mind that gap.