Economic populism is the new center
When people talk about the political center, they often seem to picture some kind of middle ground where people can come together, work out their political differences, and develop practical solutions to problems. The "center" is ostensibly a place where a majority of people can find some agreement, and centrist leaders like to think of themselves as those who possess the unique ability to unite people from across the aisle. Even at a time when political polarization is at an apparent all-time high, many Beltway pundits and establishment Democrats are still desperately trying to find this middle ground.
That search has led many establishment Democrats on a still ongoing quest to find the perfect presidential candidate, one who can unite reasonable Americans from across the political spectrum behind a set of pragmatically moderate policies and, in the process, ensure victory over the grotesquely corrupt president. What they've actually revealed, however, is that their idea of centrism is out of step with the beliefs of most voters.
Initially, former Vice President Joe Biden was supposed to be that great centrist hope. But the longer the former vice president's campaign drags on, the more he comes across as a man stuck in the past, unequipped to deal with the political realities of today. Biden's declining political fortunes, coupled with the enduring popularity of left-populists like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have prompted those in the Democratic establishment to consider their alternatives.
The one current candidate who seems to fit the bill is 37-year old Pete Buttigieg, who, after his first enigmatic few months, has increasingly presented himself as a fresh-faced centrist without any of Biden's baggage. "He's a great person to unify the country. He's not polarizing," one supporter told The New York Times last month in an article documenting the mayor's turn to the center. Buttigieg, however, is young and untried, which is a problem for many centrist Democrats (though apparently not for many of the nation's billionaires, who have eagerly donated to Mayor Pete's campaign more than any other Democratic candidate).
Last month, The New York Times reported that the "anxious Democratic establishment" was looking for other candidates to potentially enter the race, from Michelle Obama to Hillary Clinton to Michael Bloomberg. Both Clinton and Bloomberg reportedly said in private that they would consider entering the primary if they saw a path to victory, and according to the Times, "chatter about [Bloomberg's] potential candidacy has only grown among Democrats who work on Wall Street and are concerned about Ms. Warren's rise." Last week, of course, Bloomberg filed paperwork to run in the Democratic Alabama primary, indicating that he may soon enter the race. One of Bloomberg's advisers tweeted on Friday that the billionaire is "increasingly concerned that the current field of candidates is not well positioned to" defeat President Trump; in other words, he believes that the leading candidates are too far to the left.
If that weren't enough, on Wednesday, reports all but confirmed that former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick will officially make a late entry into the primary race. The ex-governor, who now works for Mitt Romney's old private equity firm, Bain Capital, had told Democratic officials that the candidates in the race have not established "political momentum" that can unite both liberal and moderate voters. Politico reported earlier in the week that Wall Street Democrats see Patrick as the "perfect" candidate. "They're terrified of Warren," one source said, "And these guys would help Biden. But they've been in a room with him up close and they have doubts."
The idea that Democrats risk blowing the 2020 election if they move too far left is the only real argument that establishment Democrats have put forward against nominating a progressive like Sanders or Warren, but it is nevertheless a powerful argument that induces fear in many Democratic voters who see defeating Trump as the number one priority. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll of primary voters across six battleground states suggests that this narrative has had an impact. The survey found that 62 percent would prefer a candidate who promises to "find common ground with Republicans" over those promising to fight for a "bold progressive agenda," while 49 percent wanted a candidate to "bring politics in Washington back to normal," versus 45 percent who preferred a candidate promising to bring "fundamental, systematic change to American society."
For centrists, this was further proof that the general electorate is moderate, and that a centrist is therefore the best bet against Donald Trump. Centrism, according to this account, is simply popular with Americans, who are naturally pragmatic and temperamentally conservative (especially those in swing states).
This is where the centrist narrative tends to fall apart. The case for nominating a centrist is based largely on convincing enough voters that most of their fellow Americans are committed moderates, even as the evidence increasingly contradicts this assumption. The reality is that more and more Americans are embracing policies that centrists regard as "radical." Believe it or not, economic populism is actually quite popular — at least with a majority of Americans who aren't wealthy. Polls over the past several years have consistently supported this claim. A CNBC survey from March, for example, found a "surprising American appetite for some very progressive policies," with majority support for paid maternity leave, increasing the minimum wage, medicare-for-all, and tuition-free public colleges.
Even lower-income Republicans are far more supportive of progressive economic policies than conventional wisdom suggests. This is according to a June study from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, which revealed that lower-income Republicans are "substantially more economically progressive" than higher-income Republicans. One in five Republicans, they found, hold views on economics that are more in line with progressive Democrats. Another survey found that more than 75 percent of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy, and more than 60 percent favor a wealth tax, as proposed by Warren and Sanders. Even a Fox News poll from earlier this year found that a majority of Republicans support increasing taxes on the super-rich and increasing domestic spending.
Perhaps the most revealing poll was conducted last month by YouGov Blue for the progressive think tank Data for Progress. Presenting tax plans to voters without attributing them to a specific candidate, the plans of Warren and Sanders received a combined 65 percent of respondents' support, and the Warren's plan was more popular with independents and Republicans than the tax legislation passed by Trump and Republicans in 2017 (all together, Trump's plan had the support of only 1 in 5 voters and 3 in 10 Republicans).
If this tells us anything, it's that many voters (including Republicans) are far more progressive than they realize. If the "center" denotes policies that tend to unite the general electorate, then progressive policies are the center, while the policies advocated by Wall Street Democrats and Republicans are fringe. The truth is that the center is very different for general voters than it is for economic elites, who cloak their arguments in the language of pragmatism yet ultimately care more about their own interests.
Not surprisingly, centrist politicians tend to be extremely rich and/or have the support of the extremely rich. The recent reports that the wealthiest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, personally asked Mike Bloomberg (who would be the wealthiest man in the race) if he'd consider a presidential run months ago was an amusing example of this class unity among the country's wealthiest citizens.
It is often said that the center cannot hold, and if the center means what centrist politicians like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg take it to mean, this is looking increasingly true. As the past couple weeks have shown us, however, this won't stop them from doing everything they can to keep it together.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.