Over the course of the last week, the Democratic debates have demonstrated in succinct form what has been known since at least 2016: The Democratic Party is shifting leftward. Or is it?
Certainly, the leftward flank of the party is ascendant now. On the heels of Bernie Sanders’ unlikely contest with Hillary Clinton, the ordained choice of most Democratic establishment types, the progressive wing is now the main driver of ideas. Whether those ideas are preferable or even feasible is beside the point; they’re out there, and they drive news coverage day after day.
The Democratic debates on Wednesday and Thursday reinforced this narrative. Far from being the lone lefty on stage, Sanders now stands with a number of candidates espousing policies more aligned with the Vermont senator than of an Obama or Clinton presidency.
Again, whether the policies put forward by the ascendant liberal wing are Good or Bad is not the question I consider here. I believe there are two particular outcomes, or at least scenarios, I see resulting from the progressive push in the party.
First: Losing the Middle
Beyond the feasibility of any given progressive policy preference, the question remains whether they constitute a large enough portion of the electorate to merit the focus. Though progressive voices seem to break through the noise more readily, it does not necessarily mean that their policies are any more popular or unpopular than a more moderate position. Polling on the question is difficult, too. A policy like Medicaid expansion in North Carolina is extremely popular, but when language surrounding cost enters the question, it clearly loses popularity.
It’s one thing to suggest any given policy in front of a friendly crowd, but to put the question to voters in a choice between two candidates is another entirely. Whoever wins the primary will almost certainly face President Trump in November of 2020. Irrespective of the nominee, Trump will label them a socialist and cast them as too radical for the nation. That much is for certain; the question is, will the American people agree with his assessment, or will the message from the Democrat align with the goals of the nation?
Media, both traditional and social, feed into the narrative that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is ascendant. I don’t doubt that it is, to some degree, but that’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Constant airtime and massive social media presence allow wunderkinds like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to drive the conversation.
I do not subscribe to the theory that Joe Biden’s steady position atop the polls, thus far, is solely based on name recognition. A significant share of the Democratic party, people who will vote in the presidential primary, are moderate. Consistently, polls of Democrats display a party that prefers moderation. That may not jibe with the talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC, but it is borne out by data.
If the majority of Democrats are moderate, how then does a strident progressive expect to win over a majority of the general electorate? It’s not impossible, sure, especially with the current resident of the White House, but it seems like the “safe” bet would be a moderate candidate.
There’s also the concept of an Overton window. By staking out positions outside what is considered the normal conversation, one side of an argument can stretch what is deemed “acceptable” toward their end of the spectrum. So if it is the goal of progressives to effect lefty policy, one way is to push the envelope and make a far more liberal position on health care, for example, the compromise as opposed to the extreme position. It pushes the conversation toward your end of the field, even if more gradual than one would hope. The risk, though, is overplaying your hand.
Second: Over-promise, under-deliver
Obviously, this is not an issue unique to any particular ideological bent. A far-left candidate runs as much of a risk as a far-right candidate in terms of whether they accomplish what they promise.
In the case of progressive politicos in the Democratic Party, consider this: Hillary Clinton lost three must-win states by fewer than the number of votes given to Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Progressive bona fides (or seriousness) aside for Stein, enough disenchanted liberal-leaning voters chose a quixotic candidate over a viable one. A nonzero percentage of them were Bernie Sanders supporters that saw Clinton and Trump as two sides of the same coin (a ridiculous position, in my opinion; far from being the same coin, they’re not even the same currency).
Would Bernie have won? Who knows, but it’s clear his policies have a determined following within the party. So much so that the lion’s share of candidates in the running for 2020 have shifted both rhetorically and policy-wise toward Sanders. So it’s clear there is at least ostensible political expediency in adopting his policies, since the progressives seem most excited and are the loudest in the primary. But what happens if their goals go unrealized?
It’s one thing to support this or that policy. In fact, you can support any policy verbally, but it does not at all ensure its success. That is the challenge any of these left-leaning Democrats would face, if elected. The president of the United States is far more powerful than the Founders hoped, but the office is not without its checks and balances; primarily, the legislative branch is supposed to write the laws which the executive enforces through agencies and departments. The president does not rule by executive fiat (at least not in theory).
Again, the trouble with over-promising and under-delivering is always there. But it does seem to be at least marginally more important to examine when the promises are so far-reaching.
First, basically every policy escaping the lips of a candidate on stage this week is dead on arrival in the Congress as it currently exists. The House Democrats have Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, at least, but even then the caucus is not always aligned. Remember, though AOC et al are the best known Democrats to hit the scene after the 2018 elections, they are by far the minority in terms of who won and where. The lion’s share of Democrats that brought the party back into the majority did so because they ran moderate campaigns in moderate districts. Expecting those same middle-of-the-road representatives to be all-in on progressive policies is a reach, at least to me.
Then, there’s the Senate. There are structural disadvantages with which the Democratic Party will have to reckon, and 2020 may not be the year it happens. The population centers of every state are the cities, and the population centers of the nation are the coasts. But even if a state like Wyoming or North Dakota diminished to a near-zero population, they would each still send two Senators to DC. This is true even while New York and California balloon in population, all while sending two Senators as well. This is not a critique of the system, per se, but an acknowledgment that Democrats will have to compete everywhere and win Senate seats in unlikely places (see: Doug Jones) to legislate effectively.
Again, even securing a majority (or, miraculously, 60 seats) in the Senate is no guarantee. The Affordable Care Act did not meet its potential in no small part because of a single person in the Senate: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut held his vote until a public option (something now considered a moderate step towards universal coverage) was removed. So majorities alone do not guarantee success.
The question, then, is if progressives are more or less likely to be disenchanted with politics because the policies they support are far less likely (in my opinion) to succeed. President Trump will enter re-election without achieving one of his marquee campaign promises: a wall on the border. That is a small, relatively, and tangible promise that went unfulfilled. Will voters punish him for it? Or is support based more on cultural positions and his general attitude? And could the same be said if a Kamala Harris fails to achieve universal health care coverage in the United States after her first term?
This is all, of course, speculation. But I believe it bears expression, to push back against the popular notion that progressives have consumed the party entirely. The Democratic Party’s strength is its broad coalition, even when the disparate pieces don’t always get along.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.