Third Way: Democrats should avoid progressive populism

John Sexton Posted at 3:01 pm on September 05, 2017

Third Way is a center-left think tank that represents the wing of the Democratic Party not currently enamored with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Today Politico reports on a new survey of voters by the group which found many Democrats no longer believe the party cares about jobs or the economy. In fact, many of the centrist voters see the party as anti-business.

The study, conducted by polling firm Global Strategy Group, involved interviews with persuadable voters who backed Barack Obama and then Donald Trump, as well as with persuadable African American, Latino, and millennial voters. Third Way’s resulting document warns that key voters believe Democrats prioritize poor citizens, and some rich ones — but not the middle class.

It says voters intuitively see the Democratic party as standing against business, and it urges party leaders to put less emphasis on social issues and “recognize that voters want to see a rebalancing of the Party’s priorities.”

Third Way’s results are here. Their methodology involved breaking voters into two basic groups, the first made up of “persuadable Obama-Trump voters” between 30 and 64 years old. The second group included more “African American, Latino, and Millennial voters.” Third Way breaks the findings into three major categories. First, respondents believe the party cares more about the poor (and the rich) than the middle class:

Among our participants, we found that middle- and working-class Americans don’t believe the Democratic Party is looking out for them and their primary interest of jobs. Rather, they see the Party as primarily focused on handouts for the poor and, to some extent, special breaks for the rich…

The middle and working class’ sense of neglect has created deep feelings of resentment. They’re angry because they believe the system rewards everyone but them, and this anger manifests itself in vicious attitudes toward outgroups. Some participants in our focus groups were not shy to convey overtly racist, xenophobic, and homophobic attitudes.

Second, respondents see the Democratic party as anti-business. Third Way warns against reinforcing this idea by running with left-wing economic populism (i.e. socialism):

It is true that voters want the government to crack down on business abuses and may look more unfavorably toward certain businesses or sectors than others, but a broad brush stroke approach that is uniformly anti-business does not match the worldview of most voters…

If Democrats do lean into attacks on business, the Party could exacerbate its jobs problem. Advancing the economic populism advocated by some on the left and amplified by a loud minority could further disaffect voters already wary about the Party being co-opted by those on the fringes.

Finally, the respondents said they wanted the party to focus on jobs before social issues:

It isn’t that these voters trusted or sided with Republicans more on social issues. It’s the perception that Democrats prioritize social issues above all else, which conveys the message that the Party is focused on everything except for what the people in our focus groups fundamentally relied on—a means to sustain themselves and their families.

“To rebuild the Party and regain the power to enact their priorities, Democrats need to craft a broad path that’s inclusive of a diverse coalition and sustainable across election cycles. Reclaiming its status as the party of jobs is a unifying way to do just that,” the report states.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the party’s youth and energy seem heavily invested in all of the things that distract from a focus on jobs and the economy, i.e. Confederate statues, intersectionality, and anti-capitalist talking points. The left’s strategy as of now seems to be less about moderating their own party’s populism and more about demonizing the populism on the right. That will excite a certain segment of Democratic voters who were probably already onboard in 2018. The question posed by the Third Way report is whether it will turn off the persuadable voters in the middle who want the party to focus on jobs.