A new poll shows most Democratic voters want their party to move left, with new people in charge. In other words, they want a political revolution.
They’ve got the right idea.
If the party establishment thinks Robert Mueller’s investigation will save it, it’s probably wrong. After President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were both removed from office for malfeasance, Jimmy Carter barely eked out a win in 1976. Four years later, Ronald Reagan’s victory ushered in 12 years of Republican leadership in the White House.
That’s a lesson for today’s Democrats. High crimes and misdemeanors don’t automatically translate into enthusiasm for the other party, especially in today’s murky political environment. Corruption is more likely to lead to cynicism than to citizen involvement, unless voters are given something to believe in.
A left majority led by women and people of color
Democratic voters apparently know what they believe in. In the latest Harvard-Harris poll, a sample of the party’s base voters was asked: “Do you support or oppose movements within the Democratic Party to take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders?”
52 percent of those polled said they support those movements, while 48 percent said they oppose them. That’s a call to political insurrection. These voters want to change the party’s ideology. They “oppose” (that’s a strong word, “oppose”) the people who have been running it for decades.
If the implications for the party’s upcoming races seem clear, the long-term implications are even more stark: 69 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 said they support those insurrectionary movements.
Among other things, the Harvard-Harris poll disproves the “Bernie Bros” canard so beloved by the party’s establishment. Democratic insiders have repeatedly insisted that the party’s left is dominated by white males. The implication is that the left is somehow sexist and/or racist.
But the poll shows that support for the left is greater among female voters (55 percent), Hispanic voters (65 percent), and African-American voters (55 percent) than it is among whites (46 percent) or men (49 percent).
Identity and economy
It shouldn’t be surprising that Democratic women and people of color are more left-leaning than their white, male counterparts. They’re more likely to suffer the economic consequences of racism and sexism – forms of oppression that are structural as well as social in nature. Some of those signs of structural oppression include:
African Americans are the only racial group in the country who are still worse off economically today than they were in 2000. Black people in this country are more likely to lack health insurance, and the black-white wage gap is worse today than it was in 1979.
Women working full-time in the United States last year earned only about 80 cents for every dollar a man made, according to the latest Census Bureau data. (The marginal decrease in the gender wage gap was due at least in part to falling wages among men.)
Black women working full-time earned only 63 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, Native women earned only 57 cents and Latinas earned only 54 cents. Households led by women were much more likely to be impoverished than male-led households.
While some Democratic leaders, along with their media backers, have tried to argue that the left’s agenda is antithetical to “identity politics,” that dichotomy would have been rejected by pioneers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Margaret Sanger, both of whom were leftists.
As for younger voters, they’ve grown up under the most economically unequal conditions in more than one hundred years. Social mobility is down. Millions are burdened with staggering student debt. The entry-level job market has been poor since at least 2008, and their generation has been plagued with under-employment that’s likely to cripple their lifetime earning potential.
Is it any wonder they’re unimpressed with party leaders whose main claims to leadership are their lengthy résumés as members of the ruling elite?
Wisely, these voters are looking to “movements,” and not to the party itself, for answers. That’s where change is likely to be born – from the activism of those who understand that economics and identity are inseparable. It’s certainly not going to come from leaders who seem determined to purge the representatives of those movements, while at the same time trying to elevate corporate lobbyists to leadership positions.
Nothing could be more antithetical to the wishes of the party’s base, as expressed in this poll.
There are those who say the party’s base voters are wrong, as a hedge-funder turned Democratic operative did recently. They claim that a “left” agenda will lead the party to defeat. They’re wrong, for at least three reasons.
First, many of the left’s ideas appeal to voters across the political spectrum. A number of polls – see here, here, and here, for example – have shown that most voters, including most Republicans, support expanding Social Security.
Donald Trump won the GOP nomination – and ultimately the presidency – in part because he adopted left-seeming positions on trade, job creation, and cracking down on Wall Street. A bitter irony, I know.
Despite improvement in the topline economic numbers, voters remain deeply uncertain about their economic prospects and the nation’s future. 60 percent of respondents to the Harvard-Harris poll said the country is “off on the wrong track.”
Economic uncertainty affects voting across racial and ethnic lines. Regarding Trump voters, pollsters Pete Brodnitz and Jill Normington told House Democrats earlier this year:
“We suffer from the lack of an identifiable positive agenda. Without it, voters will turn to Trump for progress. With it, we can make significant gains.”
That doesn’t mean Democrats should adopt a race-based approach. Turnout was down significantly for black and Hispanic voters last year, which may well have changed the race’s outcome. An “identifiable positive agenda” on the economy is likely to bring out more working-class people of color as well.
Democrats don’t need a “white” strategy. They need a “working class” strategy.
The vanishing persuadables
Second, establishment Democrats have spent far too long trying to appeal to that rapidly-vanishing creature known as the “persuadable” voter – perhaps because that approach suited their own ideology (or self-interest) very neatly. Survey data shows that fewer such voters exist with every passing year.
In this environment, turnout is a much more decisive factor than persuasion. Conservatives are more likely to vote than liberals, and early polling indicates that Republicans will outperform Democrats on turnout again in 2018.
To boost turnout, Democrats should look to candidates and policies that mobilize left-leaning voters.
A movement is more than a party
The third point is the simplest one of all. it’s hard to argue that the leftward path leads to defeat when the party’s had so many losses under its current, more right-leaning ideology. Arguments about how to win are most persuasive when they come from people who win on a regular basis. Democrats are out of power in all three branches of the federal government and two-thirds of the states, which means the party’s current leaders don’t have much credibility on the subject.
With any luck, Mueller’s investigation will bring Donald Trump and his team the justice they so richly deserve. But that won’t save the Democrats.
The party’s voters are looking to movements to bring them new leaders and a leftward shift. That’s smart. Movements have energy, independence, and commitment. They can reshape a party’s leadership, infuse it with new ideas, and populate it with activists. That’s because a movement is more than a party. It’s something broader and deeper, something that infuses its members’ lives with purpose and meaning.
Party leaders will fight back, of course. In fact, they already are. But their record of failure shows that the tide of history is against them. On the left, at least, the voters are once again way ahead of the politicians.