Republicans jostle to prove they are true conservatives; Democrats jostle to prove that they aren't liberals. So it has been since Clintonian triangulation in the 1990s brought us welfare reform and race-baiting Sister Souljah, and so it remains today, if Dick Durbin is to be believed. The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate declared last week on Chicago radio that, to defeat Donald Trump, Democrats need to be sure not to "overdo it" by moving too far left. "We have to really appeal to the sensible center," Durbin said, showing a touching faith in the swing voters who just last November chose a self-confessed sexual abuser over a sensible centrist.
Durbin was, to be fair, explaining why downstate Illinois Democratic candidates were likely to be more conservative than Chicago-area candidates. But "local candidates should fit their constituency" is a different argument from "Democrats need to be more centrist." For example, Dianne Feinstein is considerably more conservative than her constituents, which is why she's facing a primary challenge. Some Democratic candidates will be more to the left than others. But that doesn't mean centrist voters are the most important overall, nor that they are necessarily "sensible."
On the contrary, the results of the 2016 election strongly suggest that voters are not sensible at all, if "sensible" means "voting on pragmatic centrist policy proposals." Trump barely had policy proposals, much less pragmatic ones. He babbled about a wall and offered vague promises about magically making coal mines great again. His proposals were so obviously incoherent that his media enablers were forced to mutter about how people should take him seriously but not literally, by which they meant that people should vote for him even though he was spouting nonsense.
The thing is, voters' policy preferences are generally nonsensical. There is no "sensible center." Instead, there's a squishy non-ideological muddle.
Instead of worrying about crafting the perfect centrist ideology, Democrats should focus on making sure people who identify as Democrats get to the polls.
In their eye-opening 2016 book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels lay out the evidence that the electorate neither understands nor particularly cares about policy. Polling on issues varies widely based on how questions are phrased, indicating that, for most people, policy opinions are lightly held. "Most democratic citizens are uninterested in politics, poorly informed, and unwilling or unable to convey coherent policy preferences through 'issue voting,'" Achen and Bartels conclude. They point to evidence that voters punish incumbents for droughts, for shark attacks, and even for sports team losses. In the 1990s, according to the authors, voters in Durbin's home state of Illinois were given the opportunity to vote on whether to approve taxes for fire collection. They consistently refused, causing fire departments to struggle for money. The result was increased property damage, more deaths, and increases in insurance payments that wiped out the benefits of the tax decrease. In short, voters' policy choices typically demonstrate not thoughtful centrism, but galumphing ignorance and indifference.
If voters aren't voting on rational policy preferences, then what are they voting on? In the first place, voters tend to punish incumbents if things are going badly, regardless of ideology. Thus, Republicans were handed an electoral defeat in 2008 because of the financial crisis, and then Democrats were thumped in 2010 because the financial crisis was still ongoing.
Beyond that, though, Achen and Bartels explain: "Voters, even the most informed voters, typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are—their social identities." Most broadly, this means that Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. More narrowly, certain groups, like white men and evangelicals, tend to identify with Republicans. Other groups—like black voters and Hispanic voters—tend to vote for Democrats. Trump's divisive attacks on black people, Hispanics, Muslims, and Jews were effective because they activated the white identity and white resentment central to Republican identity.
Achen and Bartels demonstrate that group affiliation has a much stronger effect on voting than policy preferences. In fact, many studies show that partisan affiliation drives policy preferences rather than the other way around: Think about how quickly Republican opinion moved to support Vladimir Putin once Trump began to signal that this was the correct Republican partisan position.
Instead of worrying about crafting the perfect centrist ideology, then, Democrats should focus on making sure people who identify as Democrats get to the polls. And here, unfortunately, there are problems. Democratic voters tend to be poorer than Republican voters. They also are more likely to be black, and concentrated into particular neighborhoods by generations of systemic segregation. As a result, targeted gerrymandering and voter-suppression efforts by Republicans have been very successful. Wisconsin's new voter-ID law suppressed 200,000 votes, mostly of poor African Americans, in a state that Trump won by fewer than 25,000 votes. Even that is a drop in the bucket compared to the three million Puerto Ricans who can't vote in presidential elections, or the more than 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C., who don't have representation in Congress. Florida's felon disenfranchisement law bans 1.6 million people from the polls, including 20 percent of the state's African Americans. News organizations show B-roll of long lines at polling places across the country as a kind of celebration of Democracy, when, in fact, lengthy wait times are a result of deliberately refusing to invest in election personnel and equipment and hoping that some voters will thereby be discouraged from voting. Not coincidentally, people of color, who are most likely to be disenfranchised by these policies, are also disproportionately likely to vote for Democrats.
The notion of the white, moderate, reasonable, rural voter has held unique sway over the American imagination, from Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmers through Abraham Lincoln's free-soilers and up to Durbin's sensible centrists. But the yeoman farmer and the sensible centrist alike are myths. The American electorate does not hinge on dispassionate, highly informed voters carefully evaluating which candidate is the most centrist. Democrats cannot steal Republican voters by moving to the center because voters aren't voting on policy positioning. Republicans vote for Republicans because they are Republican. As Trump demonstrates, they will vote for an orange bag of bilious hate if it has an "R" after it on the ballot.
It's long past time for Democrats to stop pining after centrists who don't exist, and start prioritizing and protecting the people who actually see the party as their own. Trump won the election while calling Mexicans rapists and praising Putin. Democrats aren't going to lose in 2020 by being too vociferous in their demands for universal health care, or by affirming that police shooting unarmed people is bad. They might lose, though, if the voters who identify with them can't vote.