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Don't Blow the Next Election

A common mantra of Democrats and liberals is that Donald Trump’s policies and messages have been directed almost exclusively toward his base, and that that base has remained loyal, but not grown during his presidency. Because of this, the president’s support during the next election will be small, and he will be defeated. This reasoning was proven wrong in the 2016 election, where choosing a vulnerable and divisive candidate undermined Democratic solidarity against Trump, but it’s not clear that Democrats learned a lesson from that experience. None of the present candidates or potential candidates is particularly divisive, although Elizabeth Warren verges on being so, mostly because she has become a target of the president and the conservative media, who have tried to demonize and make fun of her, somewhat as they did to Hillary Clinton (more demonizing than making fun in Hillary’s case).

Between now and the 2020 election, it is the Democratic message that has the potential to be divisive, more so than any particular candidate. In the belief that it is necessary to play to a more extreme electorate during the primary election, potential Democratic presidential candidates are told that they can ignore their need not to alienate the vast (bigger than either base), number of independent voters who will swing the general election results one way or another.

NYT columnist Thomas Edsall recently cited a study by four academic scholars that found “that primary voters are similar to rank and file voters in their party” so that “the composition of primary electorates does not exert a polarizing effect above what might arise from voters in the party as a whole,” countering the perceived wisdom that primary voters are more extreme and the candidate must cater to them to win the nomination. However, there are vocal leaders within both the progressive and centrist divisions of the Democratic Party who loudly proclaim otherwise and warn candidates that either a too lukewarm or too extreme position will alienate primary voters.

Another finding, cited by Edsall, is that what the conservative media calls extreme progressive ideas, are in fact mainstream, both in the Democratic Party and among the larger electorate. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study produced data indicating that the following so-called progressive policies were favored by an overwhelming majority of Democrats and also by a majority of the electorate at large (voters in a general election): legal status to immigrants, requirements for using at least a minimum amount of renewable energy, a ban on assault rifles, a ban on mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour. Other research, such as a 2018 Pew survey, found that the majority of Americans (60%) feel that healthcare is the government’s responsibility, although only 31% favor a single national government program, while 25% favor a mix of government and private programs (4% don’t know). Even among Democrats and Democrat-leaning respondents, only 49% favored a single national government program. A 2018 Reuters survey found that 70% of Americans supported Medicare for All, although subsequent studies have found that many people mean different things for this concept (not all see it as eliminating private insurers, some see it as a public option). Free public college and university tuition gets mixed results, although among self-professed liberals and progressives, it is very popular. The general population is more skeptical, mostly with regard to the cost of such a program, but everyone is sympathetic to ways to reduce college costs and the debilitating effects of expensive college loans. With regard to increasing taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, a 2017 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans thought the wealthy paid too little tax and 67% thought that corporations did also. In contrast, 48% thought lower income people paid too much in taxes, while only 14% thought they paid too little.

Although there is broad support for progressive policies among the general electorate and even more so within Democratic Party voters, it is how such ideas are labeled that causes the problem. President Trump has zeroed in on “socialism” as a threat to the country. In his State of the Union message, he described it as  “government coercion, domination, and control” and the enemy of “liberty and independence.” He vowed that “America will never be a socialist country.” For decades, the label “liberal” was treated as an epithet by the right and by many centrists in both parties. Now liberal is denigrated as too middle-of-the-road by progressives, and “socialist” is a label embraced by many. It’s a confusing label, which people such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (at least some of the time) mean to signify support of more wealth redistribution through a steeper progressive income tax system and a wider social safety net, which includes healthcare, college education, and government intervention to combat global warming, but not government takeover of private industries (except, perhaps, health insurance). Their socialism is modeled on the Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, which are usually described as “Social Democracies,” and have systems that are thoroughly capitalistic, but have comprehensive government-funded social welfare programs covering health, education, and unemployment, supported by progressive tax systems. Some other European countries, such as Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK, have many components of such programs.

Unfortunately, strident progressive voices, some who favor more traditional socialism or a model labeled “Democratic Socialism,” such as in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil, often push for candidates to embrace this model, which curtails private industry in favor of government-administered businesses, something which scares the majority of the American population, especially after watching Venezuela implode in recent years. Other voices have assumed a role of watchdogs over political correctness, searching out candidates’ histories and public statements for evidence of racism, misogyny, or sexual orientation bias, resulting in public figures issuing more apologies than they do policy statements.

Most Americans support policies that will move the country toward greater wealth redistribution through higher taxes on the wealthy, greater government intervention in healthcare and funding of higher education, regulation that protects the environment, greater emphasis on integration of immigrants into our society (even those who may be undocumented), and less onerous treatment of people, especially people of color, in the criminal justice system. Most want to limit the role of money and corporations on our elections and policy-making. Most are tired of treating every politician’s statement as a potential “gotcha” moment. These can be seen as progressive ideas, but they characterize most citizens of our country. Some people want more and their aims and their voices are legitimate, but it’s important that strident voices neither scare away more moderate supporters nor push large numbers of progressive supporters to view both parties as the same, all candidates as the same, and the system as so corrupt and rigged as to not make voting for one of the major candidates worthwhile. What we have now is worse than what might have been and we can do better.




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