Imagine this scenario: Republicans, after viewing dozens of polls and considering recent political history, begin publicly asking whether passing a gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations was actually a terrible idea, and one they should never repeat. Some insist that it was the right thing to do, but just as many are adamant that if the party really wants to appeal to a majority of the public and win elections in the future, it can't go down this foolhardy path.
You can't imagine it, can you? That kind of ideological second-guessing is something Republicans just don't do—even when the public is firmly and obviously opposed to their agenda. Democrats, on the other hand? They love them some self-flagellation.
And this is the great irony of contemporary party politics. We have one party whose agenda is largely rejected by the public, but which doesn't bother to wonder whether they should become more moderate. Then we have another party whose agenda is extraordinarily popular, but which lives in constant fear that the public will reject them because of their ideology.
Nevertheless, there's a revolution afoot in the Democratic Party, and the news media are noticing: In the last few days, major news organizations have run articles describing a new momentum from liberal Democrats, which is causing consternation among the party's supposedly mainstream forces lest these naïve socialists bring them down to defeat. The group Third Way mounted a gathering of moderate Democrats to promote "an effort to offer an attractive alternative to the rising Sanders-style populist left in the upcoming presidential race," reports NBC News. The Associated Press tells us that some on Capitol HIll are worried by the spreading popularity of calls for "Medicare for all" among Democratic candidates and officeholders, because they "consider it a misstep to call campaign-season attention to Democratic efforts to restructure the country’s $3 trillion-a-year health-care system." The New York Times reports that young, aggressive liberals are winning primaries and scaring the dickens out of the old guard: "among Democratic stalwarts, there is a sometimes-rueful recognition that a cultural gulf separates them from the party's next generation, much of which inhabits a world of freewheeling social media and countercultural podcasts that are wholly unfamiliar to older Democrats."
There is no doubt that some older figures—even those with strong records of progressive advocacy—are quite reasonably worried that they'll be swept aside in this revolution. But what they shouldn't worry about is whether the party will be pulled too far to the left to appeal to the middle.
If they doubt it, they should just look to the experience of the GOP. Republicans almost never say to themselves, "We'd like to do this, but what if the public isn't on board?" They may balk at following through on some of their more politically catastrophic ideas like privatizing Social Security, but they don't spend time wondering whether they'll be judged to be too conservative if they enact most of their agenda.
Their tax cut—the one major policy achievement they can claim from their year and a half with total control of Washington—has never commanded majority support, and if anything it has gotten less popular over time. They're not happy about that, but it certainly isn't going to stop them from proposing more tax cuts for the wealthy in the future. They've never stopped pushing for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, even though two-thirds of Americans say they oppose the idea, and with the new Supreme Court, they're likely to get their wish. One organization representing the few remaining pro-choice Republicans got so tired of their arguments falling on deaf ears within their party that they recently gave up and shut their doors. Most of the rest of the Republican agenda is just as unpopular, but they take their beliefs on issues as a given, then figure out how to win anyway.
That isn't to say that Republicans don't worry about whether they might be alienating voters, because sometimes they do. But when they do, it's usually about things like tactics (Will shutting down the government make us look reckless?) or demographics (Are we too white to attract non-whites?). What you almost never hear them wonder is whether they might be embracing a policy agenda that won't be able to garner majority support. If you talk to them, you'll find that many just don't believe the polls. They're convinced that the public agrees with them, no matter what the data might say.
Here's one of the most revealing political science findings from recent years: In surveys of officeholders, both Democrats and Republicans believe their constituents are more conservative on issues than they actually are (see here or here). But there is a difference: The Democrats slightly overestimate the conservatism of their constituents, while the Republicans wildly overestimate it.
There are lots of reasons why the Republicans keep winning elections despite the fact that Democratic positions—on health care, on the economy, on environmental protection—are so much more popular. The Republicans' mastery of the culture war and the politics of resentment play a key part, as does the way they've rigged the game to manage to win even when they get fewer votes. There are lots of lessons for Democrats there, but one critical one is that they really don't have to worry that the public is going to reject them because they advocate something like Medicare for all—which, for the record, is extremely popular. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 59 percent of respondents favored everyone in the country being enrolled in "a single government plan," while 75 percent favored allowing anyone to join Medicare.
When moderate Democrats cry "But what if Republicans criticize us??", they're the ones who are being naïve—about how politics works today, and who the Republican Party is. They should have learned by now that Republicans will say the same things no matter what Democrats advocate. Just witness how Republicans decided that the Affordable Care Act, a market-based health care plan built from ideas put in place by Mitt Romney, was a nightmarish tool of statist oppression.
And let's acknowledge that even if many of this new generation of aggressive Democratic activists call themselves socialists, as socialists go they're pretty moderate. They're not talking about seizing the means of production; what they have in mind sounds a lot like European social democracy, in which capitalism remains in place but the government acts more assertively to police its abuses and shield the citizenry from the worst of its dysfunctions.
In the less than two years since the 2016 election, the Democratic Party has already moved left, on issues including health care, immigration, marijuana legalization, and possible government jobs programs. There is precisely zero evidence that this movement has made Democrats less popular. All that's left is for the whole party to have the courage of its convictions, like Republicans do. That would be a real revolution.