Progressive economic policies are extremely popular with Americans, but talking heads and donors keep missing that.
Adam Jentleson | October 22, 2019
In the wake of last week’s Democratic presidential debate, the verdict of many in the pundit class was decisive on two points: South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was the winner and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren the loser.
“Buttigieg is dominating the debate,” tweeted CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who declared Buttigieg the top winner and Warren the number one loser in his post-debate rankings. (Cillizza previously declared Buttigieg the “hottest candidate in the 2020 race” back in March, right before Buttigieg flatlined and Warren surged.) Panelists on cable news joined the chorus: “I sort of call it a revenge of the pragmatic moderates, who I think really came out in full force,” Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod enthused on MSNBC. Many major news outlets anointed Buttigieg the winner and Warren a loser.
Voters took a different view. In FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate panel, Warren netted the highest overall score and outperformed all other candidates among voters most concerned about electability. Buttigieg made modest gains relative to his starting point, but they were more muted than the punditry’s reaction suggested. The polls conducted after the debate showed no significant change in the state of the race. As one summary put it, “Warren faced an uptick in broadsides from her opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, but it did not impact her standing among the party’s primary voters.”
It’s risky to conclude too much from a few polls, but a similar pattern occurred after the last debate. Joe Biden “delivered the kind of performance his supporters have been waiting for,” Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote. “Moderates strike back on health care,” another analysis concluded. But after that debate, too, the FiveThirtyEight panel showed Warren the clear winner, and then events bore it out: Biden slid in the Economist’s average of polls while Warren surged and Bernie held steady. Biden’s fundraising collapsed, while Warren and Bernie posted massive hauls. Beyond Biden, no other moderates showed any meaningful upward trajectory in polls or fundraising.
So what are the pundits missing? And why do they keep trying to make moderates happen?
The answer has two parts. First, many pundits have incorrectly convinced themselves that Democratic voters harbor a secret passion for a moderate nominee—let’s call it the Hidden Moderates Theory. Second, many are missing that the real distinction in the race is between candidates who are comfortable with wealth and its influence on politics, and those who are not. Those who oppose the influence of wealth on politics are much closer to both public opinion and the American historical mainstream.
In most of the presidential elections since President Jimmy Carter won in 1976, Democrats picked candidates they deemed moderate and electable over more progressive alternatives. Most of them—Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton—lost. (According to the New York Times, some party elites are pining for Clinton or Kerry to jump in the race.) Bill Clinton is hard to categorize, since he was viewed as moderate but not particularly electable, given the swirl of scandal that surrounded him beginning with Gennifer Flowers’s accusations of an affair before the New Hampshire primary, to which he later admitted. The only time in recent history that we nominated the more progressive, less electable candidate was in 2008. That worked out pretty well, as Barack Obama went on to win the biggest electoral college victory since Lyndon B. Johnson.
Despite its poor track record, the Hidden Moderates Theory took flight once again this summer, when Biden entered the race and settled into an early lead. Adherents quickly cited his standing atop the polls as evidence that party hadn’t moved left: “it is already clear enough that he [Biden] is supplying something much closer to what the party’s electorate wants than either the political media or the other candidates had assumed,” New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote, in the ur-text of the Hidden Moderates Theory. “A Democratic Party in which Biden is running away with a nomination simply cannot be the one that most people thought existed.”
But there was always one big problem with that conclusion: despite enjoying universal name recognition, Biden’s support never rose much after he entered the race, and stayed mostly between 25-30 percent in the poll averages. That means Democratic voters know exactly who he is and what he’s offering, but three-quarters want someone else. By comparison, in the crowded field of the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton never fell below 37 percent in the Real Clear Politics averages, even as she lost the nomination. In 2016, she never fell below 40 percent.
Proponents of the Hidden Moderates Theory also invoke the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won many swing and Republican-leaning Congressional districts. The implication is that because Democrats won in swing districts, the victories were powered by moderate voters.
But that assumption is flawed: we know where the voters live but we don’t know who they are, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the turnout surge was powered disproportionately by liberal voters. A recent study by the data firm Catalist suggests that liberals made up a disproportionate share of the turnout increase, even in Repubican-leaning and swing districts. The study found that the 2018 electorate looked much more like the electorate in a presidential year than a typical midterm (in other words, more liberal) and that “young voters and voters of color, particularly Latinx voters, were a substantially larger share of the electorate than in past midterms.” Census data also shows that the biggest turnout jump was among young people, whose turnout increased by 79 percent, with big gains among Hispanics and Asians as well. So while no one can say for certain who the voters were that made up the midterm turnout surge, we should pump the brakes on concluding that the gains came mainly from moderate voters.
Believers in the Hidden Moderates Theory also point to a few polls showing a plurality or narrow majority of Democrats identifying as moderate (while ignoring those that point in the opposite direction). But self-identification does not track with policy preferences. In a recent study headlined, “The Moderate Middle is a Myth,” political scientist Lee Drutman found that “many people who call themselves “moderate” do not rate as moderate on policy issues.” Decades of research back this up. As Vox’s Ezra Klein summarized the work of political scientist David Brockman, “moderates are largely a statistical myth. When you dig into their policy positions, the people who show up as moderates in polls are actually pretty damn extreme.” The rigid categories used in self-identification tend to conflate heterdox with moderate, herding people who don’t fit neatly into the liberal or conservative categories—say, someone who wants to abolish the Fed but legalize all abortions—into the moderate lane. In their book Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe back this up, concluding, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.”
The Hidden Moderates Theory also requires ignoring a mountain of evidence that Democrats simply don’t want a moderate this time around. Warren and Bernie Sanders consistently draw much bigger crowds and raised $49.8 million entirely in grassroots donations between the two of them last quarter—more than Buttigieg, Biden, and Harris, combined.
Most importantly, the Warren/Sanders policy agenda is far more popular. On the economy, the Warren and Sanders positions are dominant, with Democratic voters overwhelmingly preferring their tax plans, according to a recent analysis by Data for Progress. Approval isn’t limited to Democrats: Warren’s plan was the most popular with all voters, followed by Sanders’s plan. Even among independent and Republican voters, Warren’s plan was more popular than Trump’s. This data tracks with other polls, which show support for Warren’s wealth tax as high as 60 percent among all voters and 57 percent of Republicans. And on Medicare for All, the most controversial topic so far, 72 percent of Democratic voters nationally—and 70 percent in Iowa—support single-payer Medicare for All.
This isn’t just a question of bad punditry—it’s a window into how skewed our standards have become by the extreme concentration of wealth and the normalization of an assault on the formerly bipartisan, post-war governing consensus, which embraced forceful government regulation of corporations and a steeply progressive income tax structure. But while elites have accepted the concentration of wealth, the leveling of the tax code and the decimation of even basic consumer protections as normal, the majority of voters have not. Americans have been losing faith in government for decades, long before Trump. And income inequality is driving that loss of faith.
The real dividing line is not between left and moderate. The critical distinction is much more fundamental: it is between candidates who are comfortable with the influence of wealth in politics and those who oppose it. In a nation where the top marginal tax rate was north of 70 percent in most voters’ lifetimes, the policies that pundits routinely tag as “far left” are far more in line with public opinion and the American historical mainstream than the moderates’ comparative comfort with the status quo.
The policies that pundits routinely tag as “far left” are far more in line with public opinion.
For 25 years, Gallup has been polling the question of whether the public thinks the rich pay too much or too little in taxes. And in that time, the percentage of Americans who think the rich pay too little has averaged 64 percent and never dropped below 55 percent. Broad majorities of Americans think we need new laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, 74 percent think it is “very important” that political donors not have outsized influence in politics, but barely a quarter think that is true in America today. Among Democrats in Iowa, for instance, seven in ten say they would be dissatisfied if the party’s eventual nominee turned out to be one who held fundraisers with wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists.
Many media elites are simply missing the story. Last Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was visibly shocked when Rahm Emanuel told him that Warren’s wealth tax would play well in the general election: “Shows I live in Manhattan,” Stephanopoulos said, looking incredulous. It’s probably not a coincidence that the people who are missing the story tend to be very wealthy themselves. Most journalists are chronically underpaid and live in constant fear of layoffs, but the personalities who make the calls on “winners” and “losers” make several million dollars per year. The wealth bubble is real: there’s a growing body of work showing that getting rich really does make you lose touch. As people become rich, they become less compassionate. They tend to distance themselves from their relatives and people who make less money than they do, in favor of spending time with their peers. The donors who attend high-dollar fundraisers held by moderate candidates like Biden and Buttigieg are their peers and sources. It’s only natural to see their influence as benign, or even positive.
That blind spot covers the entire story of the 2020 race, and arguably of 21st century America. At a time of the greatest wealth concentration since the Great Depression, it is not reasonable or pragmatic to accept that rich people pay lower tax rates than the middle class, or to think that only tweaks are needed, or to reassure billionaires that “nothing would fundamentally change,” as Biden did earlier this year. To be blithely comfortable with the outrageous influence of wealth in politics, as so many talking heads, donors, and politicians are, is actually quite radical.
Adam Jentleson is a columnist for GQ. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico Magazine.