This week has seen a bonanza of concern trolling by centrist factions against the energy and activism coming from the left. The shocking election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th district was followed by the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of progressive challenger Kevin De Leon over longtime incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein. These two events have precipitated a frightened backlash among editorial boards, corporate think tanks like Third Way, and even public figures like James Comey and William Saletan who believe that the movement toward a bolder progressive agenda is bad for the country, heralding doom for Democrats in the midterms and in red districts.
The argument goes that if Democrats move too far to the left, then they won’t hold onto “the center” which presumably contains the majority of Americans. But this worldview stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the electorate, particularly the few remaining persuadable voters in it. It also represents a failure to grasp the reality of the movement, which is not so much about right and left, as it is about solving problems that the centrists in both parties have studiously ignored or avoided.
Pragmatically, there are two factors that tend to decide modern elections: base turnout, and persuasion of independents. Of these, base turnout is by far the more important, but let us treat each in turn beginning with independents.
The reality is that the vast majority of voters are already hyperpartisanized. This includes independents, who aren’t in the middle of the two parties ideologically, but rather represent people who are 1) too extreme in their views for either of the two mainstream parties; 2) part of a culture among especially younger people that avoids adopting a party label even as they vote consistently on behalf of one party’s candidates–usually Democrats in this case; or 3) most importantly, lower-information cross-pressured voters who agree with some positions in each major party.
There are many kinds of cross-pressured voters. Some are the handful of vaunted fiscally conservative, socially liberal suburban centrists the Third Way puts on a pedestal. Some hate abortion but want higher taxes on the rich; some want low taxes but want to preserve a woman’s right to choose. These people are not more moderate than partisans, but rather have strong opinions on certain issues that force them to make a choice between two sides they like in some respects and dislike in others. A party typically loses as many of these cross-pressured voters as it gains by moderating its stances, which is part of why Republicans haven’t suffered from their march rightward.
But far more numerous are the disaffecteds who feel that neither party listens to their concerns or solves their problems. They are attracted to blunt-talking populists who promise to shake up a system that they believe is rigged and tilted toward the elites. This is why Trump did so well with right-leaning independents, and why Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama both performed so well with left-leaning independents. Many white independents who vote for both Democrats and Republicans tend to have prejudiced views on race and gender, but are willing to vote for Democrats and people of color because their economic concerns often outweigh their bigotries if their kitchen table issues are addressed in the right way.
Then there is the turnout side. Turnout isn’t a complicated calculation: a party doesn’t win elections by turning out those who always reliably come to the polls, but by activating voters who agree with them but only come out infrequently. On this front, Democrats have much more room to grow than do Republicans, who have already mostly maximized their potential voting base. White supremacists believe that they can activate increasing numbers of white people by switching out racist dog whistles for train whistles–but there is actually no indication that even Donald Trump managed to activate new voters in the electorate, rather than win over just enough former Democrats in the Rust Belt to carry a narrow electoral college victory.
On the left, the biggest opportunities for increasing turnout come from disaffected young people and progressives, including and especially young people of color. These voters only turn out for candidates who inspire them, and no amount of hectoring and shaming them that voting is a civic duty will change that reality. Here again, young voters of all races and genders have made clear their preference for a bolder vision over the past decade and a half, preferring Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. Only in 2008 did the party nominate the candidate preferred by young Democrats, and not coincidentally it was only in 2008 and 2012 that Democrats won the presidency.
Which brings us to the key battle within the Democratic Party in the age of Trump: what is it–beyond fear and hatred of Trump’s brutal agenda–that will motivate cross-pressured independents and infrequent liberal voters?
It is very hard to argue that incremental centrism is the answer. On the contrary, most of these voters are desperate for solutions to problems that they believe both parties have ignored. What are these problems? In no particular order, we can name a few crises:
A student debt crisis that threatens to destroy the future of an entire generation; a climate change crisis that could end civilization as we know it if bold action is not taken immediately; a housing crisis that is preventing young people in cities from building savings or wealth, or even living with dignity and being able to afford children; an automation crisis that has most Silicon Valley billionaires simply assuming the end of capitalism and promoting radical socialist policies just to keep the pitchforks at bay; an inequality crisis that will certainly destroy democracy itself if left unaddressed–not just by bringing up standards of living at the bottom and in the middle, but by actively bringing down and redistributing the wealth at the top; and so on.
Solving those and many other urgent problems isn’t about left and right. It’s simply about right and wrong. When California state senate leader Kevin De Leon argues that Democrats need a senator they can count on to vote against the next immoral war, against increased investment in fossil fuels, against the next tax cuts for the rich, and for policies like Medicare for All, ending student debt and a guaranteed jobs program, that’s not about pushing the party to the left. It’s about solving real and immediate problems, and proving both to disaffected independents and to young people that the Democratic Party will actually solve the problems they care about. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes her pitch, it’s about proving that the Democratic Party will put the priorities of bartenders and real people who create value in the economy ahead of those of predatory hedge fund managers and insurance executives.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike 2016 in which the candidate of independents and the young was an old white man with a tin ear for talking about race and gender (a fact that centrists relentlessly exploited to their benefit), candidates like De Leon and Ocasio-Cortez are self-evidently far fiercer advocates for social justice on behalf of women and people of color than their more centrist opponents.
Will all of this cause problems and challenges in bringing rich white men who voted for George W. Bush (hi, James Comey!) into the Democratic fold? Almost certainly. Will it alienate a few stockbrokers in Manhattan and tech mavens in Seattle? Quite likely. Will it annoy a few upper-middle class suburbanites whose principal political priorities are preserving normative politeness and calm, as long as their taxes don’t increase and no one touches their gold-plated private health plan? Of course it will.
But that price is more than worth the gain, both pragmatically and electorally. Democrats have young voters to turn out, disaffected independents to win, and most importantly crucial problems to solve. Problems that cannot wait while the centrist elements of the party worry about coddling comfortable former Republicans who may not like Trump but can’t quite bring themselves to vote for Democrats unless they can be reassured that nothing will significantly change the pre-Trump status quo ante.