I keep hearing Joe Scarborough go off on how the great unwritten story of this election season is how far left the Democratic Party has moved—a drum he’s been beating for months now. The idea, I suppose, is that this will be the Democratic Achilles’ heel this fall; that the whole topic is one huge Drudge siren that no one has bothered to look or listen for because everyone is so fixated on the Republican chaos.
Nonsense. To the extent that the Democratic Party has moved left, it’s mostly as a consequence of following, not leading, public opinion. So if the Democratic Party is left wing, then the American people are too.
Let’s start with some of Bernie Sanders’s positions. Sanders is in all likelihood not going to be the nominee, but a reasonably high percentage of rank-and-file Democrats support him (although not that high—remember that much of his support is from independents). So what are the main things he’s saying?
1. That the system is rigged in favor of the 1 percent. That’s not left wing, that’s just a statement of the obvious. Everyone agrees with that; not least the 1 percent themselves, who are investing billions of dollars in this election in the hope that things stay that way. Anyway, for those who need such things, here’s a poll result from this month. Is the system rigged? Saying yes, 85 percent. Saying no, 4 percent. Supporting the GOP position that the 1 percent needs more tax breaks so they can trickle it down to the rest of us? Well, they didn’t even ask that one.
2. That Citizens United is corrupt and should be overturned. Here, the Sanders position (really the Democratic Party position, since virtually the whole party holds it) doesn’t fare as well. I mean, only 78 percent of America thinks Citizens United was a bad decision; 17 percent take the Republican view that it was well decided.
3. That the minimum wage should be $15 an hour. Here’s one poll of many showing high support for that—63 percent. Also, 82 percent support indexing it to inflation. The Republican position that any increase is a job killer isn’t even asked, but based on those who “strongly” oppose an increase, it would seem to be a view held by around 10 percent of Americans.
4. Free college tuition. This one’s tighter, but even here, a poll last year showed people supporting it by 46-41 percent. That same poll showed more generally that people agreed with the idea, much more broadly reflective of the position of the Democratic Party, that no one should have to go into debt to attend a public university, by 62 to 29 percent. Radicals!
5. Free health care. This does less well, but still wins a plurality of 39-33, with the rest undecided.
Again, Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat, the Democratic Party isn’t going to be nominating him. But I use his positions because generally speaking they’re to the left of Hillary Clinton’s, and large majorities and pluralities support even them. Levels of support for Clinton’s versions of the above policies run higher. For example, she gets attacked from the left for saying the minimum wage could be $12 in rural and less expensive areas. Well, fully 75 percent support that, 12 points higher than the 63 percent who back a $15 minimum.
What about some of Clinton’s signature proposals? Paid family leave, is that radical? If so, 185 countries are left wing. Chad—Chad—gives mothers 14 weeks, paid at 100 percent! As for the polls, 79 percent of America is irresponsibly left wing on this question.
I could go on and on. I don’t want to turn the whole column into the March of the Poll Numbers. But OK, here’s one more. Marijuana legalization—maybe that’s radical? I mean, after all, it’s drugs. Nope, sorry; 58 percent support legalizing pot. The story is the same on same-sex marriage, contraceptive rights, and a whole bushelful of things.
Here’s what I’m getting at: The Democrats’ new positions look radical if you can only look at the world through a Beltway-specific, and indeed Capitol Hill-specific, lens.
Because if Congress is what you see when you see America, then you see a place where roughly half—no, more than half—of the people think that raising the minimum wage is radical, or that health care is a privilege you have to earn, or that climate change is a fantasy (or a Chinese conspiracy, as Donald Trump has been telling it), or that everyone up to and including schoolteachers ought to carry loaded guns.
Out in the real country, only crackpots think these things. As I’ve shown above, 70 percent of Americans agree with these non-left-wing, common sense positions. But the crackpot community is dramatically overrepresented in Washington and skews the way all these things are discussed and described on shows like Morning Joe.
So no, these positions aren’t radical. Or come to think of it, if they are, then it is because the American middle class has been somewhat radicalized. After the meltdown and the good-but-not-good-enough recovery, the people in the middle, making from $35,000 to $70,000 or thereabouts, said “We’ve had it.” They’ve spent 35 years treading water, watching the rich have a party while listening to politicians tell them that the money for their needs just wasn’t there. They’re sick of it. There’s a lot about Sanders I’m not crazy about, but it’s obvious why he’s struck such a nerve.
And this fall, Clinton can’t succumb to this “radical Democratic Party” frame for a second. It’s not radical to tell the 1 percent the party’s over. It’s radical—in the other, malevolent direction—not to.