Democrats Should Just Stick to What’s Popular

Voters are more open to progressive economic policy now than in the recent past. But they are not opposed to capitalism.

A voter dropping a ballot into a ballot box
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Donald Trump poses a terrible threat to minority communities throughout the country, is deepening the chasm between rich and poor, and is inflicting serious damage on democratic institutions. It’s therefore a matter of the greatest moral urgency to make sure that somebody—anybody—stops Trump from winning a second term in office.

But many of the problems facing the country started well before Trump was elected, and will likely persist even after he leaves the White House. Trump’s unpopularity, coupled with growing support for leftist policies, seems to present progressives with a rare opportunity to win a mandate for real change. It’s therefore a matter of great moral importance to ensure that whoever takes on Trump actually has the determination to address the country’s deep-rooted problems.

Are these two narratives in tension? Not necessarily. To displace Trump and effect radical change, Democrats need to adopt a rather simple strategy: Champion the many progressive policies that are highly popular—and scrupulously resist those that are clearly unpopular.

According to recent polls, most Americans also believe that the government has a moral duty to provide all citizens with health care. A full 70 percent approve of a public option, which would allow all Americans to buy into Medicare. This would give universal or near-universal health coverage to Americans, and amount to a massive wealth transfer from rich to poor.

These findings have emboldened progressives in the party to claim that they won’t have to pay an electoral price for embracing policies—or labels—that would have seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago. In his big speech on socialism and authoritarianism, for example, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that Republican presidential candidates have always tried to scare voters off by portraying their Democratic opponents as socialists. “I welcome their hatred,” he said, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

More mainstream figures within the party have, of late, adopted the same argument. Speaking during the latest presidential debate, for example, Mayor Pete Buttigieg echoed Sanders’s rhetoric: “It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. If we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it.”

Seductive as these arguments may seem, they fly in the face of compelling evidence about the kind of radicalism that American voters are—and, just as importantly, are not—willing to countenance. While Americans seem more open to progressive economic policy now than in the recent past, for example, they are not nearly as opposed to capitalism as some Democrats like to claim. The same Voter Study Group survey that found strong support for breaking up big banks also found that a plurality of Americans object to the idea of the government reducing differences in income and favor less regulation.

Other polls make clear that most Americans remain hostile to socialism. According to the most detailed study on the question, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans have a positive view of capitalism, while 42 percent have a positive view of socialism. Some 55 percent have either a very negative or somewhat negative view of socialism.

Sanders and Buttigieg are right in one respect: Like many of his Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama was able to win two presidential elections despite being tarred as a socialist at every turn. But it stands to reason that Obama was able to win in part because most voters dismissed Fox News’ attacks. It is unlikely that Sanders or Buttigieg could pull off the same feat if voters thought the attacks were accurate. (This is especially true in the case of Sanders, who actively embraces the socialist label.)

A similar caveat also applies to the fights about specific public policies that have taken up most of the Democratic debates. Political scientists such as Larry Bartels have long argued that most voters don’t pick their preferred candidates on the basis of their specific policy proposals; rather, they ask themselves which candidates seem to advocate for their interests, and then embrace whatever policies they favor. As a result, political elites play a large role in shaping the policy preferences of ordinary voters.

But public opinion is not infinitely malleable. Indeed, political scientists have also found that most voters are highly loss-averse and deeply sensitive to perceived threats to their material standing. So while they may have only vague opinions on issues that are abstract and feel distant from their daily lives, they are also likely to react strongly when they fear that they may lose a concrete benefit to which they have long been accustomed. This makes it all the more concerning that leading Democratic contenders, including Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and (at various instances) Senator Kamala Harris, have endorsed abolishing private health insurance.

At the moment, about two thirds of Americans below the age of 65 have private health insurance. Out of these, 70 percent say they are satisfied with what their insurance covers, and 85 percent are satisfied with the quality of care they receive. So it is hardly surprising that 54 percent of all Americans believe that Medicare for All is a bad idea if it would abolish private health insurance, with just 41 percent embracing this as a good idea. Given the raw emotions the subject of private insurance inspires—and the broad support for more moderate policies that would still provide Americans with universal coverage—it is astonishing how cavalierly some Democratic candidates have committed themselves to its abolition.

Most Americans are strenuously opposed to socialism, and instinctively distrust candidates who make breathless promises of political revolution. But they are also deeply dissatisfied with parts of the economic system, and convinced that the people who call the shots—on Wall Street and in Washington—are exploiting that system to serve themselves. As a result, they are simultaneously open to progressive reforms that would help to transform the American economy and deeply protective of the benefits they now enjoy, including their employer-sponsored health insurance.

To appeal to the majority of Americans, Democrats need to offer a principled alternative: a set of policies that promises to fix capitalism by ensuring that everyone truly plays by the same rules—and a narrative that emphasizes the virtues of free enterprise while attacking crony capitalism.

By sticking to progressive policies that are actually capable of winning broad support, Democrats will maximize their chances of defeating Trump and redressing some of the deepest injustices in the country. In 2020, progressives really can have their cake and eat it too—but only if they pay American voters the basic respect of listening to their actual views.