Would It Not Be Simpler to Primary the People, and Nominate Another?

Centrists like Jonathan Chait are warning that the Democrats are moving too far left, jeopardizing their ability to beat Trump. Don’t listen to them: they’re just mad at how much the ground has shifted under their feet.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration at the Wells Fargo Arena on November 01, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Jonathan Chait is worried about the Democrats. The reason: a new poll from the New York Times, showing that Donald Trump is alarmingly close to the Democratic front-runners in six of the states projected to be the most competitive in the 2020 general election. For Chait, the survey is an ominous sign about the direction of the party. Hijacked by the “left-wing intelligentsia,” Democrats have abandoned the hunt for the median voter in favor of activist-pleasing extremism. As a result, the unthinkable — Donald Trump’s reelection — is now not only possible, but likely. Look into the polls, he counsels the party, and be afraid.

Chait’s warnings, of course, are entirely of a piece with his career as a centrist polemicist. Anything to the left of the glory days of the Democratic Leadership Council moves the party too far afield to win. Yet for Chait-chasers, it’s clear that something subtle has shifted recently. Once, Chait could brag about ignoring the Left, explaining in January 2011 that “I don’t spend a whole lot of time discussing left-wing thought because my interest in ideas is primarily, though not completely, in proportion to their influence on American politics.” Given the amount of time Chait now devotes to explaining why the Left is wrong on everything from political correctness to the word “neoliberal,” things have clearly changed.

Yet what’s abundantly clear is that Chait remains blissfully ignorant of just how much the ground has shifted under his feet. Though Chait portrays himself as the realist struggling with the fantasists of the Left, his argument reveals that he inhabits a fantasyland of his own, in which his own intense antipathy to the Left is reflected across the electorate. Chait represents the electorate not as it is, but as a centrist like himself very much wishes it were.

Centrist Fantasyland

The central piece of evidence Chait marshals in his case against the left wing of the Democratic Party is the new poll of likely voters from the New York Times and Sienna College, which shows a distressingly tight race between Trump and either Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren. While Biden pulls off narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina, Sanders ties Trump in Wisconsin and loses the other three.

On their face, these are surely disquieting results for Sanders supporters. But in the context of Chait’s jeremiads against the party’s left, what is most striking is just how small the swings are between Joe Biden, who is running on little more than restoring the ancien régime, and Bernie Sanders, who is running the most left-wing campaign since Eugene Debs. Although Chait doesn’t mention it, the margin of error for these state estimates is 4.4 percent, meaning Sanders and Biden’s totals versus Trump are within the margin of error in all six of the states polled.

This is an extraordinary result. Though Chait would have it that Sanders’s socialism is unconscionably distant from the preferences of the American electorate, it’s not even enough to produce a statistically distinguishable drop in support from Biden’s centrism. Chait’s splenetic scorn for Sanders’s platform is entirely out of proportion to its actual effect on voters.

What’s more, there is considerable evidence that the US electorate has more of an appetite for progressive policy than the political system is currently delivering. Policies that are very distant from the status quo, like worker representation on corporate boards, poll extremely well in every state. Policies from the Green New Deal — so often held up as the pinnacle of progressive disconnect — to a federal green jobs corp to a coal phaseout find similarly wide backing. Even Medicare For All garners majority support, once people are informed about the differences between health-care payers and health-care providers. Chait may hate these policies, but Americans by and large do not.

Yet where Chait wanders deepest into fantasyland is precisely the place a party loyalist like him should be on his surest footing: his reading of the Democratic electorate. If in Chait’s eyes the party is being hijacked by left Twitter and the campaign staffers who pay it too much attention, the evidence suggests that the Democratic electorate itself is hungry for substantive change. While campaign staffers may or may not be too online, it’s doubtful that Twitter is why Joe Biden is struggling with his cash flow.

In fact, the Democratic electorate as a whole has shifted to the left. Democratic voters of all ages approve of Black Lives Matter by strong margins, and among Democrats under forty-five, the movement is as popular as Hillary Clinton. More than 90 percent of Democrats want a millionaire’s tax. Almost half say a candidate who wants to abolish ICE is more likely to get their support (and only 28 percent say such a position makes their support less likely). It is actually Biden’s tepid moderation that is out of step with the Democratic electorate.

Chait might respond that this simply proves the Democratic electorate is moving left faster than the country as a whole, and he wouldn’t be wrong. But once that fact is acknowledged, his argument that the presidential field has “lost the plot” looks less and less plausible. After all, before a candidate can attempt to win all of the supposedly socialism-hating voters in the general election (though Chait doesn’t mention that Sanders’s redistributive policies find significant support among people who usually don’t vote), they have to win the Democratic nomination. And while the Democratic electorate wants, above all, to defeat Donald Trump, a plurality of it believes that transformative politics are the way to do it. The idea that moderation would triumph if the campaigns would just get off Twitter is as fantastical a political vision as anything in Bernie’s platform.

In 1953, during the workers’ uprising against the East German state, the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to government demands for loyalty with a sardonic question: “Would it not in that case be simpler / for the government / To dissolve the people / and elect another?” One could ask the same of Jonathan Chait and the Democratic electorate. Though Chait can’t ignore the Left any longer, he still writes as if its influence were simply the product of social media and a bit of groupthink, and that Democratic Leadership Council–style politics still ruled the roost. Now that’s a fantasy.