The post-November 8 discussion was supposed to focus on the GOP: How to rebuild the party after what was expected to be a sizable loss, both in the Electoral College and the Senate. Instead, after voters delivered an unprecedented thrashing to Democrats up and down the ballot, the fate of America’s center-Left party is one of the most urgent questions in politics.
This debate is just starting to play out among intellectuals and elected officials, and will continue to rage for at least the next four years. But it’s worth noting, as a kind of preliminary measure, where Democratic voters are saying their party should go. According to Pew’s detailed post-election survey, the 2016 defeat has made Democrats even more determined to move to the left:
Democratic voters are now far more supportive of the party moving in a more liberal direction than they were after either the 2012 or 2008 elections. About half of all Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters (49%) say Democratic leaders in Washington should move in a more liberal direction, while nearly as many (47%) favor a more moderate approach. Following Obama’s victories, majorities favored the party’s leaders moving in a more moderate direction (57% in both 2012 and 2008).
Meanwhile, 60 percent of Republicans say the GOP should become more conservative and 36 percent say it should moderate—virtually identical to the results Pew has found each time it polled GOP voters after every election since 2008. The center of gravity in the GOP has militated against moderation for many years, and now the appetite for moderation among Democrats is diminishing as well.
Of course, “more liberal,” and “more conservative” are ambiguous terms, especially in an era defined by an incoming President who is a nationalist and a populist but whose economic views don’t fit neatly with either party. It may be that the liberal impulse among Democrats is confined to economic issues and they want the party to move in a more social-democratic direction on the economy while moderating its focus on race and gender issues, as Bernie Sanders himself suggested. Or it could be that many Democrats want the party to take an even harder line on identity politics in reaction to a President they believe threatens minority rights. Most likely, the result reflects some combination of those perspectives.
But one thing is clear: Genuinely centrist Democrats who might win in red states—Jim Webb, Bill Clinton, and Joe Manchin, for example—are in short supply, and the party’s voters seem less determined to promote them after the election than before.