James Freeman provides this humor to start your week:
Leftist Jonathan Chait reports in New York magazine that he’s under rhetorical attack from other leftists. It seems that Mr. Chait has made some of his ideological comrades angry by admitting that the evidence does not exist to call President Trump a white supremacist.
Mr. Chait is being lampooned as some kind of squishy moderate. This has sparked a larger debate about how radical the Democratic Party should be and whether it has already moved well to the left of Barack Obama. Unlike Mr. Chait, many readers of this column probably don’t consider the nation’s 44th President to be a man of the “center-left.” But as Democratic Party leaders continue to lurch toward Bernie Sanders’ brand of Marxism, they are clearly making Mr. Obama appear more moderate.
The question is whether Democratic voters as well as independents who tend to vote Democratic are all coming along for the ride leftward. According to Mr. Chait:
Political activists and writers can get the impression that the Democratic Party is riven by conflict between leftists and liberals. But social media is deeply unrepresentative. On Twitter, which is swarming with communists and Nazis, every day feels like the 1932 German federal elections. The massively elevated concentration of political extremists of all varieties creates a deeply misleading portrait of the public. (This is why libertarians have managed to portray themselves as a significant proportion of the electorate, when practically speaking, they don’t exist.)
The actual Democratic Party is not divided between liberals and leftists. It’s divided between liberals and … moderates and conservatives.
Mr. Chait then marshals a variety of polling data to show that most of the party’s voters don’t consider themselves leftist or even liberal. For example, he notes Pew Research data showing that in 2016, a full 36% of Democratic voters described themselves as moderate, and another 15% called themselves conservative.
Of course such survey results can be misleading because political or philosophical labels mean different things to different people. For example, observing so many potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination endorsing Mr. Sanders’ single-payer health plan, Mr. Obama might also be calling himself a moderate.
But it is striking, given that Mr. Sanders won 22 states and nearly 1900 delegates in the 2016 Democratic primary campaign, that even among Democratic voters almost nobody will cop to being “far left” and just 16% call themselves “very liberal.”
So why did so many voters in 2016 want to “feel the Bern”? Here’s Mr. Chait’s theory:
The best explanation for Sanders’s ability to garner a large minority of the vote is that he benefited from a news environment that portrayed Hillary Clinton as scandal-plagued. Sanders capitalized on a long-standing progressive good-government sentiment, which has attached itself over many decades to otherwise disparate figures, like Adlai Stevenson, Gene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, Howard Dean, and of course, Barack Obama.
It’s sweet of Mr. Chait to say that Mrs. Clinton was merely portrayed as scandal-plagued. But this column thinks he has helped to answer the big question. What happened to the Democratic Party in 2016 was that many primary voters were so unwilling to trust Mrs. Clinton and so eager for a vehicle to express their feelings that they may not have ever gotten around to the question of whether they actually wanted to live under a Sandernista regime. Yet Democrats are acting as if Mr. Sanders received a policy mandate in 2016 even while losing in the semifinals.
According to Mr. Chait:
The hard left views Obama as a neoliberal sellout. (Sanders himself has had more restrained criticisms of Obama, whom he has depicted as largely a disappointment, and now mostly avoids discussing him.) But Obama’s popularity makes him an inconvenient figure for left-wing triumphalism to reckon with. It is common to read Sandernistas describing the Democratic electorate as if Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were the only two choices available. They may discover, in 2020 and beyond, that the 44th president and his public philosophy remain very much alive.
This column thinks that the Obama era absolutely counts as a left-wing triumph, but also that Mr. Chait is on to something here. When Democrats try to understand what happened after the 2020 elections, they may conclude that they overestimated the political appeal of socialism.