Why Democrats Should Keep Moving Left

Mitt Romney said Democrats will nominate someone “out of the mainstream” in 2020. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Photos by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images, Lisa Lake/Getty Images for MoveOn.org.

In comments made to GOP donors last week, former Republican presidential candidate and Utah’s likely next senator Mitt Romney predicted that President Trump is likely to win re-election in 2020. “I think President Trump will be renominated by my party easily, and I think he’ll be re-elected solidly,” he told the audience at his E2 political summit. “I think that not just because of the strong economy and because people are increasingly seeing rising wages, but I think it’s also true because I think our Democrat friends are likely to nominate someone who is really out of the mainstream of American thought and will make it easier for a president who is presiding over a growing economy.”

Trump’s popularity among Republicans suggests Romney’s not wrong to assume Trump will be nominated again. He’s not wrong, either, to assume that the odds will be in Trump’s favor for the general election. Incumbent presidents are typically re-elected, and Trump may be rewarded by voters if the economy continues to hum along, even though the hardships still facing millions of Americans aren’t fully reflected by rosy jobs numbers and the administration hasn’t actually done anything to substantially boost growth.

Romney goes wrong, though, in his speculation about whether the Democratic nominee in 2020—likely a candidate running to the left of Hillary Clinton given the recent moves leftward by potential candidates like Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders’ enduring popularity—will be “out of the mainstream of American thought.”

In fact, actual data on the policy preferences of the American people shows that moving leftward is likely to bring Democrats closer to mainstream public opinion, not further. Last April, Pew Research found that a 48 percent plurality of Americans prefer a bigger government providing more services, while 45 percent of Americans prefer smaller government. “This marks the first time in eight years,” the center wrote, “that as many Americans have expressed a preference for a bigger as a smaller government.” In fact, the proportion of the population in support of big government is roughly the same now as it was during the mid-1970s.

Other data suggests those figures actually understate the level of public support for left-wing policies. Single-payer health care—which has become a rallying cry for down-ballot Democrats in these midterms—has been polling increasingly well for years now, and a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation in March put support at 59 percent of the population. Support for increases in the minimum wage, and even a universal jobs guarantee, is similarly popular. In September 2016, polling from Third Way, a centrist think tank opposed to a national $15 minimum wage, found that a 51 percent majority of Americans support a national $15 minimum wage. A poll from Quinnipiac last year put support at 54 percent. Polling by Civis found 52 percent of Americans support the idea of a job guarantee—a policy that has begun to get traction among some of the party’s 2020 contenders. Subsequent state-level modeling by the firm Data For Progress predicted no state in the union would see support lower than 57 percent.

The Democratic march leftward on identity politics hasn’t taken Democrats away from the majority of Americans either. Consider immigration. According to polling by Gallup, support for reducing immigration from current levels is at about 35 percent. At the beginning of this decade, it was about 50 percent. Trump’s success in 2016 was the product of right-wing messaging and Democratic failures that reconfigured the electorate, not a real increase in the number of Americans who dislike immigrants. Nativism has been waning for a very long time and is now less popular than it has been at any point over the past half-century. The real growth trend in public opinion on immigration policy is among Americans who believe immigration should be increased. Almost one-quarter of Americans believe so now, according to Gallup, up from about 15 percent 10 years ago and an essentially negligible proportion of the population 20 years ago.

Public opinion on black-white race relations is moving leftward as well. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who believe that America “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” has jumped sharply from 46 percent in 2014 to 61 percent in 2017. In 2014, 27 percent of Americans considered racial discrimination “the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.” Now, 41 percent of Americans do as of last year. These are figures that David Brooks probably ought to consider the next time—and there will be a next time—he writes that post–Black Lives Matter woke identity politics has been alienating, nihilistic, and counterproductive.

On a host of other issues, Democrats appear to be solidly in the majority. There is now a broad national consensus in favor of marijuana legalization. Majorities of Americans are supportive of trans identity and rights. A plurality of Americans describe themselves as pro-choice according to Gallup and a 54 percent majority support abortion being legal in all or most cases according to the Public Religion Research Institute. There is, in sum, no major issue in American politics in which the Democratic Party, even as it moves further left, stands apart from mainstream public opinion.

The United States is a fairly liberal country that has tended, for the past few decades at least, to implement fairly conservative policies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that supporters of left-leaning policies are not distributed evenly throughout the country. States where fewer liberals live have disproportionate structural advantages in our political system relative to the actual size of their populations. Ideally, the Electoral College and the Senate should be abolished. The former may be on its way out. The Senate will likely be around for a very long time, but could easily be made more representative of the population’s preferences with the admission of new left-leaning states.

The second reason is that the Democratic Party has been highly ineffectual in galvanizing and mobilizing already left-leaning voters and building support for left-wing policy where it is weak. This is partly because the leaders of the Democratic Party aren’t terribly left-wing themselves and partly because the leaders of the Democratic Party are content with the status quo. It is easier to build fragile congressional majorities that will collapse in four to eight years’ time by propping up safe moderates and incumbents than it is to think about how the party might build long-term power, which will require strategizing about how to elect more nonmoderates willing—unlike the Blue Dogs and conservative Democrats who filled out the last Democratic majority—to fully back the passage of ambitious policies that would substantially and visibly improve the well-being of the American people, broadening and deepening support for the Democratic Party.

Conservatives faced a similar crossroads in 1964, after Barry Goldwater’s crushing loss to Lyndon Johnson. It would have been entirely reasonable for a liberal in the Democratic Party at the time—perhaps someone of Romney’s standing in the GOP—to say that the American conservative movement was too far from mainstream public opinion to have a real future in American politics. In fact, many liberals did say precisely that. They were wrong. The political events and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s shifted many Americans rightward. Conservative activists, commentators, and politicos worked hard to turn that shift into power that endures, and it is in many ways deeper now than ever almost 40 years after Reagan’s victory in 1980. But public opinion is shifting again, this time toward the left. The Democratic Party should follow suit.