The Center-Left Is Alive and Well

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer addresses her supporters in Detroit after winning the primary on August 7, 2018.

The results in this week’s primaries continue to contradict the claim that the Democrats are now seeing a shift to the left comparable to the shift to the right of the Republican Party.

In the gubernatorial race in Michigan, the more centrist Democrat Gretchen Whitmer handily defeated Abdul El-Sayed, who was backed by Bernie Sanders, and will now face the Trump-endorsed Republican Bill Schuette. A moderate, Laura Kelly, also prevailed in the Democratic nomination for governor in Kansas and may have a shot at winning the general election if another Trump-endorsed candidate, the right-wing fire-eater Kris Kobach, hangs on to his slim lead in the Republican primary.

These results are in line with the overwhelming pattern in primaries since last year, when two center-left Democrats, New Jersey’s Phil Murphy and Virginia’s Ralph Northam, defeated candidates to their left and then went on to win their races for governor against Republicans who positioned themselves far to the right.

After the gubernatorial primaries in Georgia last month, The New York Times carried a particularly egregious example of the commonly heard story line that both parties are moving to extremes. The Times’s Kevin Sack and Alan Blinder wrote that in the wake of the Republicans’ nomination of Brian Kemp and the Democrats’ choice of Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial contest “has come to mirror the disorienting polarization of the Trump era and expose the consequences of a primary system that increasingly rewards those who appeal to the fringes.”

The Trump-endorsed Kemp, who as Georgia’s secretary of state removed hundreds of thousands of names from the voter rolls, clearly does “appeal to the fringes.” In one of his ads, Kemp says, “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.” In another ad, he points a shotgun at a young man who wants to date his daughter, waiting for a pledge of respect and support for the Second Amendment.

But Stacey Abrams? If you check out her issues and speeches, you’ll find she emphasizes the themes of social inclusion and investment in jobs and economic development right in line with the broad consensus of Democrats nationally. Now, to be sure, it is a big deal for Democrats in Georgia to nominate a candidate in line with the national party, and it is a bigger deal for them to nominate a black woman (who, among other things, is a Yale Law School graduate, co-founder of a financial technology firm, a romance novelist, and the former Democratic leader in Georgia’s House). But it is a mistake to infer from her race and gender that she appeals to the fringes (she won 76 percent of the vote) or that she exemplifies the kind of polarized politics that now dominate the Republican Party.

Many journalists are so devoted to the narrative equating the two parties that they continue to ignore the evidence for what political scientists call “asymmetric polarization.” Data on members of Congress, judicial appointees, and public opinion have long shown a sharp movement of Republicans to the right but much less change among Democrats. Trump has now intensified this asymmetric pattern through the influence he exercises over the Republican base, as recently Republican primaries have demonstrated.

It’s not only journalists, however, who lend credence to the false equivalence between developments in the two major parties. Recently, many on the left have proclaimed that a big shift is taking place among Democrats. The principal inspiration for this view is the victory of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Representative Joe Crowley, a shocker to the Democratic House leadership but not typical of Democratic primaries this year. In the final tally, Ocasio-Cortez received a grand total of 15,897 votes to Crowley’s 11,761, an exceptionally low turnout in a race the incumbent took for granted, failing to recognize the potential impact of demographic change in his district.

The resistance movement that has sprung up since Trump’s election has also excited discussion of a seemingly parallel shift to the radicalization of the Republican Party. But reporting on field research among resistance groups in the journal Democracy, historian Lara Putnam and political scientist Theda Skocpol write, “This is not a leftist Tea Party, because newly engaged suburban activists hail from across the broad ideological range from center to left.”

Activism, in other words, does not equal radicalism. American politics is not symmetrical—even though a lot of people think it is.

No matter what you think about how Democrats should change, it’s important to get straight where they actually are. Misreading the party’s voters, current and prospective, could lead to major miscalculations about how far Democrats can be pushed to the left. I’ll have more to say about both the risks and potential of liberal and progressive politics in connection with immigration, health care, and other issues in coming weeks.

This is the first in a new weekly column.

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