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There Is No Silent Centrist Majority

The base of the Democratic Party is much further to the left than moderates recognize.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The centrists can hear the silence.

At last week’s inaugural Opportunity 2020 conference in Columbus, Ohio, one moderate Democrat after another acknowledged that all the noise in the party comes from the left wing. “There is no question there is a lot of volume and emotion and energy around the more activist wing of our party,” said Jim Himes, a U.S. representative from Connecticut who chairs the New Democrats, a coalition of 68 business-friendly House Democrats. “It’s accurate to say most of the energy on Twitter is on the far left, and a lot of the energy in Washington is on the far left,” Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president of public affairs, told BuzzFeed. “The only narrative that has been articulated in the Democratic Party over the past two years is the one from the left,” former Delaware Governor Jack Markell told NBC News.

But these centrists feel that many Democrats, maybe even most of them, are being drowned out by the left. “If you look throughout the heartland, there’s a silent majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done,” said Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos. “There’s a lot of people that just don’t really like protests and don’t like yelling and screaming.”

There are certainly some Democrats who feel that way. And it is certainly true that voters in some districts prefer moderate Democrats to their left-wing alternatives, as shown by the recent elections of Representative Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania and Senator Doug Jones in Alabama. But there is increasingly less evidence to support the notion, pushed by many leaders at last week’s conference, that there is a widespread hunger in today’s Democratic Party today for political compromise and moderate policies. Party leaders might be centrist, but the base is not.

Centrism saved the Democrats, or so goes one popular narrative. The party had been shut out of the White House for 12 years until Bill Clinton, a Southern moderate, kept President George H. W. Bush from a second term. Clinton governed through triangulation—a synthesis of Democratic and Republican policy ideas, most infamously with welfare reform—and won re-election in 1996. The Democrats even picked up five House seats in his second term, four years after Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. Though the Democrats would lose the White House in 2000 (despite winning the popular vote), they retook it decisively with Barack Obama in 2008, a more liberal figure than Clinton who nonetheless mostly governed as a moderate.

In 2016, Democratic voters nearly rejected centrism outright, as the primary campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders proved more popular than expected. Nudged partly by Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016 veered further left than her platform eight years earlier. But on paper, her candidacy represented everything that Third Way Democrats seem to want. She had extensive political experience and a strong donor base. Her policies were detailed. She largely rejected Sanders’s platform, articulated a clear, incremental policy vision, and professed a belief in American greatness at the same time. And then she lost.

Today, it’s clear that Sanders is not the outlier he used to be. Many Democrats now agree with at least a few of his marquee policies, like Medicare for All and a higher minimum wage. But some Democrats, notably those at Opportunity 2020 last week, still insist that the politically smart path is a message of civility and capitalist reform, not outrage and economic redistribution. “The party is not going to go in the direction of Sanders-style socialism, because it’s not winning on the issues and it doesn’t win politically except in a very, very limited number of places,” Third Way President Jonathan Cowan told Time. “It’s going to go in the direction that won it two presidencies—the last two, two-term Democratic presidents were mainstream Democrats—and what is going to get the House back.”

As reported by Buzzfeed, “Third Way’s own polling indicates that ‘46% of voters said the government’s focus should be on ‘policies that spread opportunity to more people and places,’ compared to 25% who said ‘policies that address income inequality.’” If centrists think that result proves that there’s popular support for moderate politics, they’re likely mistaken; it’s not clear how “policies that spread opportunity” differ from “policies that address income inequality” in a meaningful sense, especially to voters. In reality, a number of policies once relegated to the leftist fringe have suddenly gained widespread approval among Democrats, and centrist policies don’t seem to enjoy nearly the same levels of popularity.

In fact, national polling suggests that there is public support for an institutional move to the left. Polls consistently show that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans support raising taxes on the rich. Nearly half of Americans support a federal jobs guarantee, according to a Rasmussen poll in May. And a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in March found that 59 percent of Americans support Medicare for All; around 75 percent support the public option, which would have been part of the Affordable Care Act if it weren’t for moderates like then–Senator Joe Lieberman. Among Democrats specifically, support for these and other policies is even higher. For instance, while Himes believes abolishing ICE is “not a real political proposal,” 43 percent of Democrats say the government disagree, versus 34 percent who want to keep ICE.

Third Way argues that their own ideas have wider appeal. “A New Generation of Ideas: A Social Contract for the Digital Age,” a report released earlier this year, proposes a “Boomer Corps” to keep older Americans from “fully clocking out of the workforce” by paying them a $12,000 annual tax-free stipend for a 20-hour work week. But Social Security and Medicare are overwhelmingly popular precisely because they promise Americans a chance at a secure retirement. A March 2018 Gallup poll showed that a plurality of Americans say they worry about Social Security’s future “a great deal.” Third Way’s intention to keep some seniors in the workforce longer seems tone-deaf by contrast.

Another proposal, the “paid parental flex plan,” dodges paid parental leave for all workers and instead offers “federal parental leave insurance, providing every family up to $600 per week for the first six weeks after a birth or adoption.” But more than 80 percent of Americans say women should get paid leave after giving birth or adopting a child, while nearly 70 percent say men should, too—and a slim majority believes the government should require employers to provide paid leave. Third Way’s “social contract” does contain some policies that few would object to, like broadband for all Americans within two years. But curiously, it omits major issues such as health care. (The organization has previously cautioned elected officials against single-payer.)

The argument that Third Way centrism is more viable than Sanders’s platform rests largely on one premise: that some silent majority of voters prefer moderate politics. This is why moderates are pinning their hopes on Joe Biden as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. The former senator and vice president “has near-universal name identification, a personality and biography that makes him attractive to some 2016 Trump voters, and an issues profile that won’t drive progressives off the ledge,” New York’s Ed Kilgore notes.

But most likely Biden is leading all Democrats in early 2020 polls simply because he’s so widely known and generally liked. “Biden,” Kilgore adds, “is 75, with two losing presidential candidacies behind him, and doesn’t seem to have much fire in the belly at the moment.” It’s also worth remembering that at this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, Obama was barely on Democrats’ radar; even Bill Clinton, despite being ineligible to run again, polled ahead of him.

Democrats may have hoped to put the bitterness of 2016 behind them, but the heated primary between Sanders and Clinton only exposed a deeper ideological rift. There’s little sign that the party is any closer to bridging that rift, but it’s increasingly clear that more Democrats are standing to the left of it than to the right.