Centrism Is Dead

The left has already won the debate over which ideas should animate the Democratic Party.

Jim Kessler stands beside a poster about the deficit.
Jim Kessler of Third Way on June 22, 2010. Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Last week, moderate Democrats gathered for Opportunity 2020, an invite-only convention in Columbus, Ohio, hosted by the prominent centrist think tank Third Way. “Unlike a traditional conference, expect a stimulating mix of thought provoking presentations and interactive small-group sessions focused on the urgent need for the next generation of Democrats to offer a new social contract for the Digital Age,” the event’s webpage read.

NBC News’ account of the event suggests it wound up being little more than a group therapy session for Democrats fretting about the rise of an insurgent left energized by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and recent high-profile victories for candidates like democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who scored an upset win over Queens Democratic Party boss and incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary last month. “Third Way unveiled the results of focus groups and polling that it says shows Americans are more receptive to an economic message built on ‘opportunity’ rather than the left’s message about inequality,” reported NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald. This was heartening stuff for moderates like Delaware’s former Gov. Jack Markell. “The only narrative that has been articulated in the Democratic Party over the past two years is the one from the left,” he lamented. “I think we need a debate within the party.”

That debate over the party’s direction is, of course, well underway, and the left has indeed dominated it. Six proposals to expand the government’s role in providing access to health care have been advanced by Democratic leaders and analysts in recent months. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all bill, specifically, has been endorsed by 2020 candidates in waiting Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. In April, Chuck Schumer announced that he would be introducing a bill to decriminalize marijuana, a move that followed Booker’s introduction last July of the Marijuana Justice Act, which would decriminalize marijuana and provide reparative measures for convicts and communities deeply impacted by the war on drugs. Late last summer, the Democratic Party released its “A Better Deal” policy platform, which called for, among other proposals, a $15 minimum wage and a reinvigoration of antitrust policy to tackle corporate concentration. In her memoir What Happened, Hillary Clinton wrote that she had considered proposing during her campaign a universal basic income program—a welfare measure that would provide cash payments to every American.

But the most significant development in the Democratic policy conversation over the past year has been the rise of proposals for a federal job guarantee, which would have the government directly create employment for all who seek it—an idea with roots in New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and Democratic pushes for “full employment” in the 1960s and 1970s. Bernie Sanders is on board along with a few unlikely advocates. Cory Booker, who came to prominence in the early 2000s as a committed moderate backed by groups like the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, announced in April that he would introduce legislation to pilot job guarantee programs in 15 local areas around the country, and Kirsten Gillibrand, formerly a prominent member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition who has also broadly endorsed the concept of a guarantee, is a co-sponsor along with Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. The Center for American Progress, a think tank in the Democratic mainstream, released its take on the idea last year.

The interest in a job guarantee—an idea only recently revived by a small group of progressive economists without the fanfare and activism that have slowly pushed single-payer health care into the mainstream—is perhaps the clearest sign yet that the Third Way centrism long at the heart of Democratic policymaking is, as a source of new ideas compelling to both the Democratic Party’s rising leaders and the broader public, essentially dead.

Third Way’s wonks and pundits have spent most of their time since the 2016 election hoping against hope that some cash and a lightning strike might revive it. In January 2017, the group announced it would put $20 million of the money it raises largely from corporations and the finance industry into an effort to assess what had gone wrong for Democrats throughout the Obama years. “The money will be spent to conduct extensive research, reporting and polling in Rust Belt states that once formed a Blue Wall, but which voted for president-elect Donald Trump last November,” Politico’s Annie Karni wrote. “The goal is to help start a top-to-bottom rethink for the Democratic Party—tossing out the old model that assumed Democrats from state legislatures on up to the Oval Office could count on winning majorities, simply because of the country’s changing demographics.”

This past April, Third Way co-founder Jim Kessler and real estate developer Winston Fisher published a column in the Hill urging the Democratic Party to adopt the recommendations the group had come up with, which they called a “new social contract for the digital economy.” “[T]his era demands bold and modern thinking,” they wrote. “Tinkering with old, antiquated programs simply won’t cut it anymore.” Third Way detailed the ideas it argues the Democrats should pursue instead in a March report titled “A New Generation of Ideas.” “Right now, America is creating jobs, but they are neither good enough nor spread widely enough to satisfy people,” it read. “It’s far too difficult to get the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly shifting economy.” Here, as elsewhere, the “New Generation of Ideas” very closely resembles the kind of rhetoric Americans have been offered in State of the Union addresses for decades. Bill Clinton, for instance, outlined “a new strategy for prosperity” that included “investments in education and skills, in science and technology and transportation, to prepare our people for the new economy” 20 years ago this past January.

The specific proposals in the report are similarly familiar : subsidizing small businesses with more federal loans, additional federal funding for tech research through the creation of an Innovation Trust Fund, apprenticeships, a tax break for the middle class, and so on. All together, it’s a set of safe, technocratic initiatives that could have been proposed by any of the past three or four presidents, Democratic or Republican —which, of course, is precisely the point.

A few ideas were a shade more pernicious than the rest. The report, for instance, calls for “universal private retirement,” a “guarantee that every worker has both Social Security and a private, employer-fed retirement account.” While Third Way insists these accounts wouldn’t affect Social Security, the group has long pushed for cuts to Social Security under the guise of fiscally responsible “ entitlement reform,” a goal expanding the infrastructure of private retirement accounts and the group’s related proposal to employ retired seniors in part-time work obviously complement.

If the name Third Way has reached the ears of nonpoliticos outside of Washington for any reason over the past decade or so, it has likely been for its proposal in 2011 that Democrats and Republicans sit together during State of the Union addresses. More substantively, the group spent the Obama years urging the two parties to join hands and work together on deficit reduction. In 2011, Kessler told the Washington Post that a budget deal would be invaluable for Obama and the Democratic Party. “It benefits him politically a great deal if there’s a big deal,” he said. “The deficit favors Republicans. But if it seems like it’s been solved, then you take away one of the biggest Republican issues and at worst you neutralize it and at best you win it.” Concern among voters about the still very large deficit has since plummeted—neutralized not by a big deal, but by partisanship and the passage of time.

Third Way is, in general, fairly poor at making predictions. In a February 2007 report on the New Rules Economy—the economy has been “new” for a very long time—Kessler and other analysts at Third Way scoffed at economic pessimism from the left:

From the past to the present, nearly all neopopulist predictions for America’s economic future have been bleak—and wrong. America is constantly falling behind. First Germany, then Japan, and now China are going to pass us. Some economic bubble is about to burst. … But after nearly 30 years of gloomy predictions, the economic disasters predicted by neopopulists have never come to pass.

At this point, the collapse of the housing market was already underway. The wider financial crisis was just around the corner.

Caught flat-footed again, like the rest of us, by the 2016 election, Third Way spent some of its $20 million on a safari into middle America, visiting districts that each saw different partisan outcomes for 2016’s presidential and congressional races. “When we considered our purpose and strategy for the Trump era, we knew that we couldn’t go forward with business as usual,” their intro to the series reads. “That meant getting out of Washington. It meant listening to more and different people and considering new approaches to our research and our thinking.” In October, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball, who tagged along for the group’s trip to Wisconsin, wrote that the group had done nothing of the sort; examples of explicit partisanship and support for government programs had been omitted in its write-up of the district. “Despite the great variety of views the researchers and I had heard on our tour, the report had somehow reached the conclusion that Wisconsinites wanted consensus, moderation, and pragmatism—just like Third Way,” she wrote. “There are no quotations from the people we met who were pro-government, such as the teachers and laborers and activists, who voiced concern that local, state, and federal government ought to be doing more to take care of people.”

The Third Way reports are actually fairly interesting as slice of life anecdotes. “The way people define success is warped. … The American Dream is lost,” one woman in Wisconsin’s 3rd District told Third Way. “My son is going to graduate with $60K of debt and maybe, maybe he’ll get a good job.” There’s little in comments like this that suggest proposals such as an “Innovation Trust Fund” are going to put a spring in the step of workers struggling to get by.

What do we actually know, nonanecdotally, about what kind of economic policies American voters want? For many years, Third Way has made a habit of waving around poll data showing very few Americans identify as liberals. “At the national level,” William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote in a report for the group called “The Still-Vital Center,” “self-identified liberals constitute barely one-fifth of the electorate; in most states, they are nowhere near a plurality—let alone a majority.” This has long been true. It has also long been true that when asked about specific proposals and political values, American voters are far more economically liberal than the numbers on ideological self-identification suggest.

For the Democracy Fund’s June 2017 report on the 2016 electorate, political scientist Lee Drutman created indices aligning voters in YouGov’s survey data along social and economic political axes. Based on answers to questions including “whether we need a strong government to handle complex economic problems” and “whether distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair,” Drutman found that more than 73 percent of the 2016 electorate was economically liberal, including, of course, the economically liberal and socially conservative populists who swung for Trump. Drutman also found that Clinton voters and Trump voters were both highly supportive of Social Security and Medicare, a result that won’t surprise those who witnessed the “hands off my Medicare” days of the Obama presidency.

Additionally Pew found in April 2017 that a 48 percent plurality of Americans would rather have  a “bigger government providing more services,” than a smaller government—the highest number saying so in eight years. Pew also found that majorities of Americans favor increasing federal spending on veterans’ benefits, education, infrastructure, and Medicare, with pluralities also supporting increased spending on health care broadly speaking, environmental protection, Social Security, and assistance to the poor.

Poll results also show broad support for the proposals now gaining traction among 2020 contenders and Democratic groups. In April, a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 51 percent of Americans—and nearly a third of self-described “conservatives”—support single-payer health care, part of a trend leftward on the question that has been captured in multiple polls over the past few years. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found support jumps to about 60 percent when single payer is characterized as “Medicare for all.” A statistical analysis of KFF’s data by the new progressive think tank Data for Progress estimates that Medicare for all has majority support in 42 states and D.C.

Until very recently, there was little, by comparison, to go on in estimating support for a job guarantee. But in March, Data for Progress released the results of a poll performed by the data firm Civis Analytics that put support for a job guarantee paid for by taxes on the wealthy at 52 percent nationally and estimated that the program has strong majority support in all 50 states.

It is likely true, as centrist analysts frequently point out, that support would dip with the introduction of actual expensive, and politically contentious, legislation. But the results nevertheless suggest that a wide swath of Americans, whether they know it or not, are economically liberal in principle and that the pool of voters who think like the average Third Way researcher is likely quite small.

None of this is to say that veering left over the next few months will bring Democrats to victory everywhere in November; transforming those who are notionally open to left-wing policy into a durable and regularly voting constituency for left-wing candidates will be a complicated, grueling project should the Democratic Party fully commit to it. But figures like Gillibrand and Booker pushing the envelope make it more likely that the party will. And even if the 2020 contenders pare back their new progressive commitments, they’ll do so having made clear promises to a base whose appetite for big ideas—dreamt up far from the center—will have been whetted.

The question of what direction the Democratic Party should go in as a matter of political strategy is, of course, different from the question of what proposals the party should advance as a matter of policy. Even if one believes that moderation is a safer path to victory for the party than a drive leftward, centrist policy ideas are very obviously inadequate to the task of actually solving many of the largest challenges facing American society and the world this century. There is no moderate, centrist framework for uprooting and transforming the energy economy in the amount of time that science tells us we must to address climate change, no easy and potentially bipartisan way to close the racial wealth gap. Between now and 2020, the Democratic Party is going to have to decide whether it is more quixotic and unserious to back left-wing candidates and policy minds who actually speak as though they understand the scale of these and other problems, or a cadre of old hands who believe, religiously, that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by the policy approach Democrats have taken for more than a quarter century. Centrists may well hold on and win that battle for the soul of the party, but they’ve already lost the plot.