The Democrats' endless unicorn hunt: #TooFarLeft, or not nearly left enough?

Deval Patrick and Mike Bloomberg are not the answer: Committing to a coherent set of progressive principles is

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 17, 2019 12:12PM (EST)

Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick and Bernie Sanders (Getty Images/Salon)
Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick and Bernie Sanders (Getty Images/Salon)

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Dan Solomon of Texas Monthly neatly summed up two key findings highlighted in the New York Times' Nov. 1 Iowa poll this way: “[M]ajorities of Iowa voters want a moderate, common-ground candidate who will use those traits to bring fundamental, systemic change to American society,” along with this graphic:


On its face, it’s clearly a unicorn hunt: a self-contradictory wish, as Barack Obama regrettably discovered. Arguably, he could only have become our first black president by presenting himself in just such contradictory wish-fulfillment terms. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America," Obama declared in his breakthrough 2004 keynote speech that introduced him to the nation at that year's Democratic National Convention. Four years later, he was elected president on the promise of “Change You Can Believe In.” He couldn't deliver — not because of any personal flaw, but because it was a fantasy.  

As Robert Draper described in the prologue to "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," Republican leaders met on the night of Obama's inauguration and mapped out a strategy of total resistance to block him — and despite their inability to block Obamacare (with its 188 GOP amendments), it ultimately worked. The election of Donald Trump was proof enough of that. Obama’s naive hope that “the fever might break” after his 2012 re-election, “because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that,”  proved to be made of fairy dust. (Even releasing his long-form birth certificate only ended up increasing GOP belief in birtherism.)

The Edmund Burke-style conservatism Obama saw in the GOP was illusory, a projection of his own temperament and desires. As Corey Robin argued in “The Reactionary Mind,” Burke himself was no Burkean. It’s only Democrats who are Burkeans nowadays, and Burkeans by definition do not believe in fundamental sweeping change.

In short, if ever there was a president who tried to bring sweeping change by seeking common ground, Barack Obama was the one. He was a supremely gifted politician. If he couldn’t do it, no one could. Because it’s simply impossible.

Yet, seen from a different angle, it’s not. There is such a broad desire for systemic change that it does appeal to common ground across party and demographic lines. That’s one reason Obama was elected in the first place and why Trump was elected president after him: Along with his dog-whistle racism, Trump promised to ditch some of the GOP's very unpopular positions — attacking Medicare and Social Security, for example. 

Of course Trump didn't follow through on those promises — he’s a con man, after all. But the appeal it held for voters was real, and both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren could actually deliver what Trump only gaslighted about. Sanders has a long history of getting GOP support in his home state for just such reasons — the little guys and gals he has fought for include many rural  Republicans, while Warren has her own personal history and family relations to draw on in connecting with more rural, GOP-identified voters who have common economic concerns. But there’s a broader logic supporting them (and candidates like them) as well.

The way to get a handle on this is to take a closer look at the second pair of options in the graphic above: Forty-three percent for "a bold agenda" vs. 55 percent for "common ground." But what if they're one and the same thing? It's not a new idea now, and it wasn’t a new idea when I wrote about it in July 2015, shortly after Sanders entered the 2016 race.

“Sanders is right to think that Scandinavian socialism would be popular here in the U.S., if only people knew more about it. And he’s right to make spreading that awareness a goal of his campaign,” I wrote. “In fact, on a wide range of issue specifics Sanders lines up with strong majorities of public opinion — and has for decades.”  As an illustration, I pointed to the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute, with the following list of progressive proposals, all of which received 70% support or more:

Those results were generated in January 2015, almost five years ago. That same month, I wrote a story here, pushing back against an attack on Elizabeth Warren by Amitai Etzioni, who argued she was sure death for Democrats in an essay called "The Left's Unpopular Populism." Railing against the elites was popular, he argued, but everything changes “once leftist themes join the mix. ... "There is little support for policies that look like wealth transfers." In fact, decades of data say otherwise.

One vivid example I cited was the paper Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” which found that all demographic groups, even Republicans and the wealthy, desired more equal wealth distribution. Comparing three different distributions of wealth by quintile — the U.S., complete equality and Sweden (using incomes, not wealth) — the authors found that people overwhelmingly favored the Swedish model over the U.S., 92 percent to 8 percent, and even favored complete equality by an overwhelming supermajority of 77 to 23 percent.

Taking those results seriously, I said, “we can say that the American people want a much fairer society than they live in, but that the means for articulating this desire — the stories, concepts, policy proposals, etc. — are in scandalously short supply.”

That’s no longer true, thanks both to Sanders’ 2016 campaign and the diversity of social movements articulating economic justice concerns in different contexts. A lot has changed since then, with Sanders and Warren leading the way. But they’re hardly alone. The Democratic presidential race as a whole reflects this more progressive potential to a degree that the pundit class fails to realize, as I’ll discuss further below. And the foundation of that lies in public attitudes — among Democrats, independents and Republicans as well.

On the eve of the Virginia off-year election, for example, as I reported last week, a Data For Progress poll showed that a range of progressive policies were more popular than Democratic candidates for state senate. “Two health-related policies were particularly popular: Support for free insulin and enabling Medicare drug price negotiations registered 79% and 73% support, respectively, with little variation across district lines,” I wrote. Data For Progress itself reported, “This suggests candidates can win even in the battleground running on an agenda Beltway pundits consider ‘too liberal.’”

They weren’t alone. The Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report joined forces in the “Blue Wall Voices Project,” polling registered voters in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They found strong Democratic support for a progressive agenda, and while of course not everyone agreed with everything, “Few Democratic voters see progressive positions as deal breakers.” In contrast, significant numbers would not vote for a candidate who didn't support progressive positions on assault weapons bans (20% for future bans, 15% for buybacks), a Green New Deal (13%) and a pathway to citizenship (11%), among others.

Support seems to cluster in two tiers — super-popular policies with over 80% support and more modestly popular policies with support in the mid-50s or slightly higher. When you then factor in swing voters, the former set of policies continue to draw majority support, while the latter do not:

There are several possible ways to read these results: Democrats should embrace the top-tier progressive policies, and abandon the rest; they should put them on hold rather than abandon them; they should embrace the top tier and look for other policy approaches toward the same ends, or new lines of argument to make; they should take different approaches to different issues. All of these are arguably reasonable conclusions, and I’ll have more to say about building support below. What’s not reasonable is a wholesale rejection of progressive policies, and an insistence on chasing after illusory bipartisan solutions that Republicans will vote for. A significant number of Democratic voters will rebel against that. It’s just that simple.

In short, like it or not, the Democratic establishment has to take progressives seriously. There has to be a thoughtful debate about the way forward for the party. Looking for unicorns will no longer do.

The unicorn-hunters have one last card to play: The quest for a candidate “who can beat Trump.” The week after the Times published its Iowa poll, the paper ran a series of stories based on its results. All of them were more or less misleading, basically reading establishment assumptions into ambiguous results, while ignoring contrary evidence. I mentioned three of those last week, but the fourth took the cake with the claim: “Democrats in Battleground States Prefer Moderate Nominee, Poll Shows.” As pointed out by FAIR, the stories’ lead graphic told a different tale, if you look at the top progressive vs. moderate candidates:

New York Times poll for Democratic primary in battleground states

The two moderates combined lead by two points (within the margin of error) in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, trail by two in Arizona and run even in Florida — a very slight edge overall. But wait! They run five points behind in Michigan and a whopping 17 points behind in Wisconsin! Which also happen to be the two most likely states to decide the 2020 election. So, the Times headline is, quite simply, not true.

As FAIR goes on to note, the article’s analysis appears based on another question: “Would you prefer a candidate who would be more moderate than most Democrats or more liberal than most Democrats?” Respondents favored the former, by 55% to 39%. But there are all sorts of problems with that question, not least the fact that “more liberal” and “more moderate” are not balanced alternatives: “more liberal” and “more conservative” are. This would get you a failing grade in Polling 101.

Data for Progress also responded, in a piece titled simply, "Democratic Voters Prefer Progressive Policies, Not Centrist Policies":

Polling from Data for Progress and YouGov Blue tell a different story. We find that when voters are given the choice between a progressive and a more centrist policy, they overwhelmingly prefer the more progressive options. A previous Data for Progress and YouGov Blue conjoint experiment showed similar results, with Democratic voters supporting an outsider candidate over an establishment candidate and ambitious climate policy over a more centrist options.

Here’s a chart summarizing those findings:

As I noted above, the Democratic presidential primary reflects this more progressive orientation in ways the pundit class fails to realize. This is particularly clear when it comes to climate policy. This week, Data for Progress reported that Democratic candidates as a whole had significantly increased their 10-year federal spending plans for a Green New Deal, rising from an average of $2.2 trillion in June 2019 to $3.5 trillion in September, an increase of 59%. That’s not just about the size of commitments, it’s about what went into them, as the plans became significant more detailed and robust.

Data for Progress initially identified 48 elements of a Green New Deal that candidates should acknowledge and address. The median score for plans increased from 15.5 in June to 30.5 in September, despite the fact the candidate with the most detailed plan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, had left the race. In addition, Data for Progress had a 14-element environmental justice component, and four candidates addressed the vast majority of them: Sanders (14), Warren (13), Booker (12) and Harris (11.5).

A few days earlier, Data for Progress released a polling memo, “Climate Ambition Is Popular,” showing stronger support for a significantly more ambitious climate plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions than for a more modest one. While 32.5% supported a $1.7 trillion plan to reach net-zero by 2050 that would “fund renewable energy research development, invest in clean energy infrastructure, expand the nation’s energy grid, and enforce limits on carbon pollution investment,” a larger number, 38%, supported a $10 trillion plan to reach net-zero by 2030 that would “create a clean energy jobs guarantee for anyone who can’t find employment in the private sector, modernize the nation’s clean energy infrastructure, create a renewable energy mandate, and clean our air and water.”

OK. So Democrats are moving left on climate. But does that mean they can win in the general election, particularly in battleground states and districts?  The best indication so far is that they can. Remember that Virginia poll? While support for a Green New Deal was significantly less than for free insulin, it outpaced Democratic candidates where they were weakest. There were some districts where it might conceivably have cost some votes — but those were solid Democratic districts where that didn't matter. Here are results from the eight state Senate districts where Democrats were weakest:

Given the climate politics of today’s youth cohort, these numbers can only be expected shift in one direction in the years ahead.

There’s a similar story on other issues as well, sometimes dramatically more favorable to progressives. Take tax policy, on which Data for Progress reported in October. Here’s what the plans look like as presented in their poll:

Given the findings in “Building a Better America,” it’s no surprise that Sanders' and Warren’s tax policies are dramatically more popular than Biden’s or Trump’s. What is a bit surprising is bad news for the moderates: Biden’s plan is less popular than Trump’s!  Meanwhile, Warren’s plan is more popular than Trump's, even with Republicans! Take a look:

Given that tackling inequality and taxing the rich are central flashpoints in the battle between progressive and establishment Democrats, these findings should be decisive: The progressive position is much more popular than the “moderate” alternative. 

Given America’s horrific history of mass incarceration, a more challenging policy area is criminal justice reform. But there are significant factors here favoring progressives. First, it’s not just Democrats whose views are changing. Even Republicans favor ending mandatory minimum sentences, for example:

That’s just one of 16 items polled by Data for Progress as part of the People’s Justice Guarantee, described as “a comprehensive plan for the federal government to take the lead in rebuilding the criminal legal system so that it is smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane.” It has three main components:

  1. To make America more free by dramatically reducing jail and prison populations.

  2. To make America more equal by eliminating wealth-based discrimination and corporate profiteering.

  3. To make America more secure by investing in the communities most destabilized by the failed policies of mass incarceration.

The second factor favoring progressives is that, although there’s a significant range of popularity — from around 40% to almost 80% support — only two items have majority opposition. The closely-related third factor favoring progressives is that this provides an obvious logic for the Democratic Party to pursue. You don’t have to move right (or “to the center,” in pundit-speak) to gain support. Just start with passing the more popular items first, building support as they produce welcome outcomes and allay existing fears and concerns:


As just described, the logic of how to build support and overcome initial resistance can be relatively simple and straightforward, at least broadly and in principle. But even when it isn't, initial popular resistance is just a fact that needs to be dealt with. If something is right, you fight for it, whether it’s initially popular or not. It only makes sense to fight in different ways, depending on how popular a policy is, and with whom. Idealism and pragmatism are complementary, not fundamentally opposed, as are the tactics of fighting for a bold agenda and seeking "common ground." When you understand that, you need never go unicorn hunting again: The unicorns will come find you.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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