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Socialists Won’t Be on Many Ballots This Fall. Moderate Democrats are Surging.

October 19, 2018 by Anne Kim
Socialists Won’t Be on Many Ballots This Fall. Moderate Democrats are Surging.
Paul Fraser at the voting booth Tuesday morning June 5, 2018 at the Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in the City Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Democratic primary voters didn’t buy the ultra-left’s ‘free-for-all’ agenda. What’s happening is not so much a liberal surge, but a moderate one.

Candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists and the progressive left have pushed hard this cycle for a campaign agenda heavy on government giveaways, such as free health care (“Medicare for All”), free college, guaranteed jobs and perhaps even free money (“universal basic income”).

Few of these candidates, however, will be on the ballot this fall. Rather, the insurgent left has been broadly rejected in one primary after another — and by Democrats theoretically predisposed to this pitch.

In Michigan, for instance, “establishment” candidate Gretchen Witmer beat Medicare-for-All advocate Abdul El-Sayed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by 22 points, while in Kansas, a former professional mixed martial artist defeated a congressional hopeful endorsed by Democratic Socialists Sen. Bernie Sanders and rising superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Longtime Delaware Sen. Tom Carper easily beat back a progressive challenger, while in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo defied his own dismal approval ratings to crush opponent Cynthia Nixon by 30 points.

These progressive losses have moreover occurred despite higher than typical turnout, which is another sign of the ultra-left agenda’s lack of appeal: What’s happening is not so much a liberal surge, but a moderate one.

Americans want a taller ladder, not a safety net

Nevertheless, Berniecrats will likely double down on a statist, big-government agenda for 2020, and presidential contenders hoping to court this contingent have already put forward sweeping ideas to dramatically expand government intervention in people’s lives. But if the primaries are any indication of what voters really want, Democrats should resist.

The Democratic Socialist agenda both misdiagnoses the nature of Americans’ economic anxiety and misunderstands their aspirations. Rather than a plusher safety net to catch them when they fall, Americans would rather see a stronger, taller ladder so they can keep climbing.

The progressive left’s platform is inherently pessimistic, assuming that Americans’ greatest economic need is to stave off financial catastrophe, rather than aspire to better lives. Yet a 2017 survey by the Federal Reserve finds that 74 percent of Americans said they were “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” and only 15 percent perceived their financial condition to be worsening. Not only is the progressive left’s messaging off-base, most Americans rightly perceive that they actually won’t much get help from what the Berniecrats offer.

Consider the kind of voter who would benefit most from the progressive platform. The Democratic Socialists seem to be believe the average American is uninsured and jobless (but aspires to college) — a profile that fits very few people.

The 3.7 percent unemployment rate means the vast majority of workers who want a job have one, and in August, the average hourly earning for U.S. workers was $27.16. Just 2.3 percent of the U.S. workforce is paid the minimum wage or less — and half are under 25. The overwhelming majority of Americans — 88 percent — also have health insurance, and while they are deeply concerned about the overall cost and quality of health care, 77 percent rate their own care as “good” or “excellent,” according to Gallup.

Certainly, college needs to be more affordable, but it doesn’t need to be free to be within reach. Moreover, a four-year degree — the presumption behind “college for all” — is neither necessary nor even desirable for many Americans who want a good living.

What Americans do want, and what a guaranteed job, for instance, doesn’t offer, is better assurances that the life they have now — a private sector job with employer-provided benefits — is one they’ll be able to keep 10 years hence, and that their children can aspire to even more. Their worries today are not so much about what they don’t have, but what they stand to lose.

Left must be honest about costs, tradeoffs

Americans also know there is no such thing as a free lunch, and they are rightly suspicious of grandiose promises of government largess that will be financed by “the rich.” Like the “free” resort vacation that turns out to be a hard sell for a timeshare or the seemingly uncancellable “free” magazines that end up generating stacks of unread back issues in the garage, there is always a catch. And the progressive left has not been honest about the trade-offs their agenda demands.

Higher taxes are inevitably part of the price.  Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, for instance, would cost $1.38 trillion a year by his own calculations, or more than a third of the total 2017 federal budget.

Americans might be more worried, however, about the potential sacrifice of autonomy and liberty that could come with greater centralization of government power. When the government provides jobs, a basic income and other services, it denies citizens the right to earn their living on their own terms. It’s no coincidence that in many repressive regimes — for instance communist China — government provision of basic services is also a means of social control. “Bread and circuses,” after all, is how the ancient Roman emperors pacified the populace and kept their rule unchallenged.

The world has become uncertain enough that many Americans may in fact want greater economic security, even at the price of some freedom. That is a debate worth having. Americans may also be ready to discard some of their most cherished beliefs about the benefits a free market economy can deliver — particularly when it comes to health care and higher education, where the markets clearly aren’t functioning — and embrace a larger governmental role. But they need to be told what they would be giving up and why. They deserve to understand the costs of a new social bargain.

The progressive left’s “free-for-all” is failing to catch fire now. If its true fiscal and social costs continue to be hidden, it’s even less likely to gain traction by 2020.

This piece was originally published on USAToday.com.

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