Analysis The Center Can Hold

Democrats Are Closer to the Center Than Republicans

But they must still be wary of moving too far to the left.

San Francisco California
Traffic in San Francisco, California, April 7, 2010 (Jerome Vial)

In a recent column, I argued Democrats in the United States have moved to the left but Republicans have moved farther to the right. The former, at least in their policies, are still more centrist than most center-left parties in Europe while the latter now have more in common with far-right populists than they do with Britain’s Conservative Party and Germany’s Christian Democrats.

Centrists (myself included) still worry that Democrats might become too left-wing for voters in the middle — who, the turnout fantasies of partisans on either side notwithstanding, tend to decide the outcome of national elections.

Emphasis on national. In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats ran progressives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in safe Democratic districts and states, and moderates, like Doug Jones and Ralph Northam, in Republican-leaning places. All three won.

In the 2016 presidential election, white working-class defections arguably put Donald Trump over the top in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but you can also argue (indeed, I have) that Hillary Clinton lost because she didn’t convince enough middle-income voters in the suburbs of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to switch parties.

The debate

On the center-right, David Brooks, Bret Stephens and Andrew Sullivan, among others, caution Democrats against overreach. On the center-left there are Frank Bruni, Jonathan Chait and Damon Linker.

Jamelle Bouie disagrees, writing on Twitter that opinion polls show Democrats are actually “pretty close to the middle, if not at the middle exactly.”

Before we delve into the polls, a caveat: politics is not only about policy. It is also about perception, however unfairly that might be shaped by the media and the other party.

The likes of Brooks, Stephens and Sullivan warn Democrats both against drifting too far to the left policy-wise and against being seen as an instrument of the “woke”, social-justice, urban left. (Expect Trump to exploit America’s urban-rural divide as he fights for reelection.)

Perception is hard to quantify, but I suspect Brooks, Stephens and Sullivan have the better of the argument there.

When it comes to policy, the data is largely on Bouie’s side.

Middle ground

  • Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights has trended upward. 63 percent of Americans now support gay marriage, up from 40 percent a decade ago. Acceptance of gay relationships has gone up by 30 points in the last two decades. 71 percent of Americans believe transgender people should be able to serve, and serve openly, in the military. 53 percent are in favor of new laws to protect LGBTs from discrimination.
  • Seven in ten Americans believe their health care system either has major problems or is in a crisis. Seven in ten also believe there is a role for government in ensuring everybody has access to health care. Support for government involvement fell in the years preceding Barack Obama’s presidency but rose when Republicans tried to block Obamacare. Abolishing private insurance, which a few of the Democratic presidential candidate have proposed, would be unpopular, but Americans clearly aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
  • Seven in ten Americans believe their country should play a leading or major role in “trying to solve international problems” — and there is almost no partisan divide on this issue. More Americans than ever — 80 percent — back NATO. 66 percent believe the United States should defend its allies. 63 percent favor working with and in organizations like the UN to bring about world cooperation.
  • Support for stricter gun laws has increased from 44 to 61 percent in the last ten years. Between 84 and 94 percent of Americans (depending on how the question is asked) support universal background checks on gun purchases.


  • Views on abortion haven’t changed much. Only 25 percent believe it should be available without restrictions. Democratic support for federal funding for abortion is hardly a mainstream opinion. But Republican state laws, which ban abortion after as few as six weeks of pregnancy, are also unpopular. Only 40 percent back them and only 21 percent would ban abortion altogether. The consensus, held by 53 percent of Americans, is that abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances.”
  • On immigration, it’s the same: neither party represents the views of middle America. A record 75 percent of Americans, including 65 percent of Republicans, agree with Democrats that immigration is good for the country. But 77 percent also say it is important to control the border. Only a third (PDF) believes the border is now secure and a majority suspects that not enough is being done to prevent people from entering the United States illegally. Democratic proposals — decriminalizing illegal entry, ending the deportation of undocumented migrants and providing them with public health insurance — are unpopular. So are the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban and family-separation policy.

Balancing act

American public opinion really has shifted to the left on major issues. Democrats are much closer to the center than Republicans.

But all politics is a balancing act. Lean too far one way and you lose supporters on the other end.

Democrats are also up against structural imbalances in the American political system. The Electoral College and Senate both give more power to rural areas, where Republican voters tend to live, than to cities, where Democrats cluster. Even in the House of Representatives, successful Republican gerrymandering means Democrats need much more than 50 percent plus one for a majority. Estimates vary from 7 to 11 percent.

Add to that the need to win over disillusioned center-right voters to beat Trump in 2020 and veering off to the left looks awfully risky.