Left, Left, Left … That’s Enough

April 2019

Senators Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, both 2020 presidential candidates, spoke about a new Medicare for All bill on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Policies that would eliminate private health insurance are not popular with the full electorate. CreditJim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock

By David Leonhardt

American voters lean further to the left on economics than many people realize. If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you’ve heard that idea before. I think it’s a vital point about American politics: The ideological center is not where many (typically affluent) commentators imagine it to be.

As a result, there aren’t that many political risks in calling for, say, expanded government health insurance or higher taxes on the rich. But there still are risks in the Democratic Party’s recent drift to the left. To be blunt, Democrats could help President Trump win re-election if they’re not smart about how they cast themselves in 2020.

Two articles in The Times this week highlight those risks. The first, by Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, explains that Democrats who shape the political conversation on social media are strikingly different from Democratic voters nationwide. Democrats active on social media are whiter, more liberal and more educated (and thus more affluent) than Democrats as a whole.

And of course non-Democrats — including swing voters who will help decide the election — look a lot more like the average Democrat than the average Twitter Democrat. No one should be fooled into thinking that winning an argument on social media translates into winning over the electorate.

Donald Trump, “moderate”

The second article, by my Opinion colleague Thomas Edsall, points out that Democratic candidates are adopting some positions that are clearly unpopular with the full electorate, including mandatory Medicare for All and reparations for slavery and segregation. Edsall reviews the political science research showing, not surprisingly, that taking unpopular positions typically hurts a party’s chances of winning.

I’d add one other point. Forget for a moment about the radically right-wing way that Trump has governed. As a candidate in 2016, he ran as a relative moderate on many issues, especially economic ones. He talked about Social Security, Medicare and trade in more moderate ways than many other Republicans.

It worked. As CNN’s Harry Enten noted, voters judged Trump to be more moderate than any Republican nominee in decades. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias puts it this way: “Trump, for all his weirdness as a political figure, won in part through some very old-fashioned triangulation — telling cross-pressured voters that he was picking up some of Democrats’ most popular positions just as Bill Clinton poached an idea or two from the GOP in the 1990s.”

Coming across as moderate isn’t simply, or even mostly, a matter of a candidate’s policy positions. It’s a matter of presentation. A large group of Americans don’t want to vote for a candidate they consider to be radical. Democrats would do well to spend more time thinking about how to appeal to these voters. Doing so could help not only in the general election but in the primary too, surprising as that may sound.

Privacy project

“Our information — much of it private — is the rocket fuel of the ever-expanding internet. Our data keeps it humming along, even as tech companies abuse that data with increasing frequency,” writes Kara Swisher, as part of a new Times project on privacy, which starts today.

Other pieces are by A.G. Sulzberger, James Bennet, Farhad Manjoo, Sarah Jeong, Jianan Qian and Tim Wu. The project will take over the entire Sunday Review print section this weekend, and there is a limited-run newsletter by Charlie Warzel.