What do Democratic voters want?
Everybody knows that the Democratic Party has shifted to the left since losing the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016. Presidential candidates and charismatic House members are proposing big new government programs, including Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, along with creative and aggressive tax proposals. New York state has passed, and Virginia has considered, bold new laws to strengthen and expand abortion rights. Some are signaling a far more critical stance on Israel's occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
And as The New York Times has reported, it seems like every Democrat with national ambitions is apologizing for something. Sometimes it's a personal failing in the distant or recent past, but often it's simply a track record of advocating for policies that a few years ago were the consensus positions within the party but are now viewed as unacceptable compromises that demand fulsome expressions of shame and contrition.
Those are big changes, and I've been cheering them on myself, convinced that the party needs to make a strong play to capture and channel the populist, anti-establishment energies coursing through the country and the West. For America's left-leaning party, this means becoming more willing to champion those who feel abandoned by a political and economic system seemingly rigged to benefit the rich and powerful.
But is this really what Democrats want? Not the party's thousands of activists, many of whom spend their days shoving, dragging, and kicking the party to the left on Twitter. They're obviously very strongly invested in the change. I'm asking something different: Is a dramatic shift to the left what the Democratic Party's many millions of voters are calling for as we head into the 2020 presidential election?
The evidence, I'm afraid, is far more mixed than the recent trends would have you believe.
On the pro-left side of the ledger, we have plenty of polls showing very strong majority Democratic support for taxing wealth and upper incomes at higher rates, as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have proposed. Plenty of other polls reveal a great deal of anxiety about the cost of health insurance and medical care more generally, including strong support for a single-payer Medicare-for-all plan. (Although it's also true that when a pollster suggests that the institution of such a system could well result in the severe disruption of the private insurance market or increase wait times for treatment, support craters.)
But then there are surveys asking Democrats if they think their party should become "more liberal" or "more moderate," as a Gallup poll from December did. Leave aside the distinctively American absurdity of labeling any move to the left as "more liberal." (This would make a communist or democratic socialist "more liberal" than ... a liberal.) The poll's findings suggest that a majority of Democrats (54 percent) favor the party becoming more moderate, with only 41 percent wanting it to move further to the left. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans, by contrast, want their party to become "more conservative," with only 37 percent preferring it to embrace increased moderation.
These results echo and reinforce those of a comprehensive Economist/YouGov poll from last June, long before the many left-leaning proposals of recent months. This poll found that just 19 percent of Democrats believe their party is "not liberal enough," with 13 percent judging it to be "too liberal" and 53 percent considering it "about right" on ideology. By comparison, 37 percent of Republicans were prepared to describe their party as "not conservative enough," with just 10 percent calling it "too conservative" and 45 percent judging it to be "about right."
Taken together, those polls reveal a Democratic Party broadly content with its ideological stance and even a little worried about a leftward drift. (They also show us a Republican Party eager to keep marching to the right.)
But this needs to be considered the beginning of the story rather than its end.
Democrats are fond of "moderation." But what do they mean by the term? With policy-focused polls showing broad-based support for sharply higher taxes on the wealthy, it doesn't appear to mean that there's likely to be a groundswell of enthusiasm among Democrats for Howard Schultz's independent bid for the presidency, which seems primarily motivated by the desire to protect rich people from having to pay more in taxes. Other polls have shown a sharp move to the left among Democrats on immigration, no doubt catalyzed in large part by revulsion at the Trump administration's xenophobic cruelty on the issue.
How about social issues? A strong majority of all Americans, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats, are pro-choice on first-trimester abortions. But the numbers flip later in pregnancy. Then there are the fights over transgender bathrooms and other issues of "political correctness." Might these be disputes on which Democrats favor moderation?
Or perhaps Democrats are merely more likely than Republicans to say they favor moderation when speaking to pollsters — because they admire it in the abstract — but on actual policy questions their views have been rapidly evolving leftward. In that case, the meaning of moderation itself might be changing before our very eyes, with yesterday's moderate stance becoming today's stodgy conservatism and present-day moderation resembling something many Democrats would have dismissed as dangerously radical at the time Barack Obama was elected president.
Whatever the truth is, the Democratic Party — and especially its leading presidential contenders — need to figure it out. Democratic voters obviously want to take back the White House and control of the Senate. But to do what exactly? That is what no one quite seems to know.