I suppose this post is a follow-up to this one from January, about the Democratic National Committee’s survey of party members. In line with the DNC’s cautious approach to political change, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias writes:
A new Marist poll testing the popularity of a bunch of progressive ideas leads to a slightly tedious truth: Some are popular and some are not popular, and there’s not much of a pattern determining which are which.
The latest progressive activist fad on immigration policy, changing unauthorized entry from a criminal to a civil offense, for example, is badly underwater. But the old progressive standby of offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents of the United States polls very well. Massive investment in clean energy polls very well, but taxing dirty energy is much less popular. Free college is in between.
Yglesias’s summarizes his recommendation in the title of his article: “Democrats should run on the popular progressive ideas, but not the unpopular ones.”
I’m pretty small-minded, inasmuch as I regard this sort of inconsistency to be decidedly hobgoblinesque. Arguably my doctrinaire intolerance is an inconsistency on my part, since in many other regards I’m more swayed by the pattern of empirical findings than by logical coherence. Yglesias promotes a pragmatic, moderately progressive political strategy based on the popularity data:
There’s just a bunch of stuff, some of which is popular and some of which isn’t. And to the extent that issues matter at all in politics — a modest, but non-zero extent according to most accounts — the smart thing is just to pick the popular stuff.
Maybe so, but first it’s worth looking at the Marist numbers more closely. Take the “Medicare for all” policy — a national program that would cover all Americans, eliminating private health insurance. 41% of Americans think Medicare for all is a good idea, while 54% regard it as a bad idea — an underwater policy that the Democrats would be smart to set aside, at least for now. However, breaking out results based on political orientation, 64% of Democrats think that Medicare for all is a good idea, while only 14% of Republicans think so. Republicans aren’t going to switch their presidential vote based on this one issue, since according to this same poll 90% of Republicans think that Trump is doing a good job and 89% will definitely vote for his re-election. What about unaffiliated voters, who might be swayed one way or the other based on policy? In the Marist poll, 55% of self-reported moderates regard Medicare-for-all as a good idea, while 40% think it’s a bad idea. So should the Democratic strategists court the 55% of moderates who support universal healthcare — a policy strongly endorsed — or should they scrap this popular progressive plank in hopes of wooing the 40% of moderates who dislike this policy? If you’re going with the numbers, it would make more pragmatic sense to lean into the policy that’s more popular with the moderate swing voters — Medicare for all.
On the other had, if you ask whether Medicare should be made available for all who want it, keeping open the choice of private health insurance, support from moderates goes up from 55% to 91% — empirical support for Yglesias’s more moderate pragmatism. But on this issue of Medicare choice the Republicans are about equally split. What’s to keep the Republicans from endorsing Medicare as an option? They’d retain their base partisan support but maybe tip more moderates their way, or at least neutralize the pragmatically progressive policy of the Democrats.
The same pattern holds up on nearly every progressive policy addressed in the survey: moderates are quite closely aligned with Democrats in supporting these policies. The progressive lean among moderates holds true for free public college tuition and carbon tax — policies that Yglesias flagged as possibly too progressive for the average American voter to get behind. Two notable exceptions are decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 per month, but even the average Democrat regards those two progressive policies as bad ideas. The only two policies on which moderates disagree with Democrats are the elimination of the death penalty and reparations for slavery: a majority of Democrats think those are good ideas, while most moderates disagree.
The empirical evidence supports the idea that most moderates are leaning Democratic for the next election. Moderates agree with most of the progressive policies. Only 31% of moderates think that Trump is doing a good job, which is much more closely aligned to the nearly unanimous Democratic renunciation of Trump than to the Republicans’ continued adulation. 89% of Republicans say they will definitely vote for Trump’s re-election; among moderates, 64% say they will definitely vote against Trump.
So if you’re the Democratic brain trust, why wouldn’t you lean strongly into the progressive agenda this time around? Converge on a reasonably appealing candidate and give it your best shot.