The moderate middle is a myth. There’s a grand divide between those who are comfortable with wealth and its influence on politics and those who are not. Those who oppose the influence of wealth on politics are much closer to both public opinion and the American historical mainstream.

By ADAM JENTLESON GQ, 2019 and 2020

Believers in the Hidden Moderates Theory also point to a few polls showing a plurality or narrow majority of Democrats identifying as moderate (while ignoring those that point in the opposite direction). But self-identification does not track with policy preferences. In a recent study headlined, “The Moderate Middle is a Myth,” political scientist Lee Drutman found that “many people who call themselves “moderate” do not rate as moderate on policy issues.” Decades of research back this up. As Vox’s Ezra Klein summarized the work of political scientist David Brockman, “moderates are largely a statistical myth. When you dig into their policy positions, the people who show up as moderates in polls are actually pretty damn extreme.” The rigid categories used in self-identification tend to conflate heterdox with moderate, herding people who don’t fit neatly into the liberal or conservative categories—say, someone who wants to abolish the Fed but legalize all abortions—into the moderate lane. In their book Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe back this up, concluding, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.”

The Hidden Moderates Theory also requires ignoring a mountain of evidence that Democrats simply don’t want a moderate this time around. Warren and Bernie Sanders consistently draw much bigger crowds and raised $49.8 million entirely in grassroots donations between the two of them last quarter—more than Buttigieg, Biden, and Harris, combined.

Most importantly, the Warren/Sanders policy agenda is far more popular. On the economy, the Warren and Sanders positions are dominant, with Democratic voters overwhelmingly preferring their tax plans, according to a recent analysis by Data for Progress. Approval isn’t limited to Democrats: Warren’s plan was the most popular with all voters, followed by Sanders’s plan. Even among independent and Republican voters, Warren’s plan was more popular than Trump’s. This data tracks with other polls, which show support for Warren’s wealth tax as high as 60 percent among all voters and 57 percent of Republicans. And on Medicare for All, the most controversial topic so far, 72 percent of Democratic voters nationally—and 70 percent in Iowa—support single-payer Medicare for All.

This isn’t just a question of bad punditry—it’s a window into how skewed our standards have become by the extreme concentration of wealth and the normalization of an assault on the formerly bipartisan, post-war governing consensus, which embraced forceful government regulation of corporations and a steeply progressive income tax structure. But while elites have accepted the concentration of wealth, the leveling of the tax code and the decimation of even basic consumer protections as normal, the majority of voters have not. Americans have been losing faith in government for decades, long before Trump. And income inequality is driving that loss of faith. The real dividing line is not between left and moderate. The critical distinction is much more fundamental: it is between candidates who are comfortable with the influence of wealth in politics and those who oppose it. In a nation where the top marginal tax rate was north of 70 percent in most voters’ lifetimes, the policies that pundits routinely tag as “far left” are far more in line with public opinion and the American historical mainstream than the moderates’ comparative comfort with the status quo.

The policies that pundits routinely tag as “far left” are far more in line with public opinion.

For 25 years, Gallup has been polling the question of whether the public thinks the rich pay too much or too little in taxes. And in that time, the percentage of Americans who think the rich pay too little has averaged 64 percent and never dropped below 55 percent. Broad majorities of Americans think we need new laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, 74 percent think it is “very important” that political donors not have outsized influence in politics, but barely a quarter think that is true in America today. Among Democrats in Iowa, for instance, seven in ten say they would be dissatisfied if the party’s eventual nominee turned out to be one who held fundraisers with wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists.

Many media elites are simply missing the story. Last Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was visibly shocked when Rahm Emanuel told him that Warren’s wealth tax would play well in the general election: “Shows I live in Manhattan,” Stephanopoulos said, looking incredulous. It’s probably not a coincidence that the people who are missing the story tend to be very wealthy themselves. Most journalists are chronically underpaid and live in constant fear of layoffs, but the personalities who make the calls on “winners” and “losers” make several million dollars per year. The wealth bubble is real: there’s a growing body of work showing that getting rich really does make you lose touch. As people become rich, they become less compassionate. They tend to distance themselves from their relatives and people who make less money than they do, in favor of spending time with their peers. The donors who attend high-dollar fundraisers held by moderate candidates like Biden and Buttigieg are their peers and sources. It’s only natural to see their influence as benign, or even positive.

That blind spot covers the entire story of the 2020 race, and arguably of 21st century America. At a time of the greatest wealth concentration since the Great Depression, it is not reasonable or pragmatic to accept that rich people pay lower tax rates than the middle class, or to think that only tweaks are needed, or to reassure billionaires that “nothing would fundamentally change,” as Biden did earlier this year. To be blithely comfortable with the outrageous influence of wealth in politics, as so many talking heads, donors, and politicians are, is actually quite radical.

Adam Jentleson is a columnist for GQ. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico Magazine.

The above is the conclusion of his article:

Why Political Pundits Are Obsessed with Hidden Moderates

Progressive economic policies are extremely popular with Americans, but talking heads and donors keep missing that.

BY ADAM JENTLESONOctober 22, 2019

Collage of Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg and George Stephanopoulos
Photo Illustration by Corinne Ferman

In the wake of last week’s Democratic presidential debate, the verdict of many in the pundit class was decisive on two points: South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was the winner and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren the loser.

“Buttigieg is dominating the debate,” tweeted CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who declared Buttigieg the top winner and Warren the number one loser in his post-debate rankings. (Cillizza previously declared Buttigieg the “hottest candidate in the 2020 race” back in March, right before Buttigieg flatlined and Warren surged.) Panelists on cable news joined the chorus: “I sort of call it a revenge of the pragmatic moderates, who I think really came out in full force,” Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod enthused on MSNBC. Many major news outlets anointed Buttigieg the winner and Warren a loser.

Voters took a different view. In FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate panel, Warren netted the highest overall score and outperformed all other candidates among voters most concerned about electability. Buttigieg made modest gains relative to his starting point, but they were more muted than the punditry’s reaction suggested. The polls conducted after the debate showed no significant change in the state of the race. As one summary put it, “Warren faced an uptick in broadsides from her opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, but it did not impact her standing among the party’s primary voters.”

It’s risky to conclude too much from a few polls, but a similar pattern occurred after the last debate. Joe Biden “delivered the kind of performance his supporters have been waiting for,” Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote. “Moderates strike back on health care,” another analysis concluded. But after that debate, too, the FiveThirtyEight panel showed Warren the clear winner, and then events bore it out: Biden slid in the Economist’s average of polls while Warren surged and Bernie held steady. Biden’s fundraising collapsed, while Warren and Bernie posted massive hauls. Beyond Biden, no other moderates showed any meaningful upward trajectory in polls or fundraising.SPECIAL LIMITED OFFERSUBSCRIBE TO GQ1 YEAR FOR $15 $10Subscribe

So what are the pundits missing? And why do they keep trying to make moderates happen?

The answer has two parts. First, many pundits have incorrectly convinced themselves that Democratic voters harbor a secret passion for a moderate nominee—let’s call it the Hidden Moderates Theory. Second, many are missing that the real distinction in the race is between candidates who are comfortable with wealth and its influence on politics, and those who are not. Those who oppose the influence of wealth on politics are much closer to both public opinion and the American historical mainstream.

In most of the presidential elections since President Jimmy Carter won in 1976, Democrats picked candidates they deemed moderate and electable over more progressive alternatives. Most of them—Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton—lost. (According to the New York Times, some party elites are pining for Clinton or Kerry to jump in the race.) Bill Clinton is hard to categorize, since he was viewed as moderate but not particularly electable, given the swirl of scandal that surrounded him beginning with Gennifer Flowers’s accusations of an affair before the New Hampshire primary, to which he later admitted. The only time in recent history that we nominated the more progressive, less electable candidate was in 2008. That worked out pretty well, as Barack Obama went on to win the biggest electoral college victory since Lyndon B. Johnson.

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Despite its poor track record, the Hidden Moderates Theory took flight once again this summer, when Biden entered the race and settled into an early lead. Adherents quickly cited his standing atop the polls as evidence that party hadn’t moved left: “it is already clear enough that he [Biden] is supplying something much closer to what the party’s electorate wants than either the political media or the other candidates had assumed,” New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote, in the ur-text of the Hidden Moderates Theory. “A Democratic Party in which Biden is running away with a nomination simply cannot be the one that most people thought existed.”

But there was always one big problem with that conclusion: despite enjoying universal name recognition, Biden’s support never rose much after he entered the race, and stayed mostly between 25-30 percent in the poll averages. That means Democratic voters know exactly who he is and what he’s offering, but three-quarters want someone else. By comparison, in the crowded field of the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton never fell below 37 percent in the Real Clear Politics averages, even as she lost the nomination. In 2016, she never fell below 40 percent.

Proponents of the Hidden Moderates Theory also invoke the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won many swing and Republican-leaning Congressional districts. The implication is that because Democrats won in swing districts, the victories were powered by moderate voters.

But that assumption is flawed: we know where the voters live but we don’t know who they are, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the turnout surge was powered disproportionately by liberal voters. A recent study by the data firm Catalist suggests that liberals made up a disproportionate share of the turnout increase, even in Repubican-leaning and swing districts. The study found that the 2018 electorate looked much more like the electorate in a presidential year than a typical midterm (in other words, more liberal) and that “young voters and voters of color, particularly Latinx voters, were a substantially larger share of the electorate than in past midterms.” Census data also shows that the biggest turnout jump was among young people, whose turnout increased by 79 percent, with big gains among Hispanics and Asians as well. So while no one can say for certain who the voters were that made up the midterm turnout surge, we should pump the brakes on concluding that the gains came mainly from moderate voters. (article finishes at the top of this post)


The Delusion of Running on Bipartisanship

Adam Jentleson on how the Democratic presidential candidates talking up their relationships with Republicans are fooling themselves.


Collage of a large smiling Mitch McConnell looming over Democratic presidential candidates
Photo Illustration/Getty Images

In a season four episode of HBO’s The Wire, Marlo Stanfield, a young Baltimore drug kingpin, walks into a convenience store and swipes a handful of candy while staring at a security guard, daring him to do something about it. The guard knows Marlo’s reputation for ruthlessness but confronts him outside the store anyway, explaining that he’s trying to support a family and making a heartfelt plea for respect. “You want it to be one way,” says Marlo, sucking on one of the lollipops he stole as his enforcer pulls up in an SUV. “But it’s the other way.” For wishing the world was different than it is—one in which decency, not raw power, is rewarded—the security guard ends up dead in a boarded-up row house.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are sorting themselves into two categories: those who want the political reality to be one way, and those who know it’s the other way. Only the latter are likely to get anything done.

If the next Democratic president spends the first two years of their administration spinning their wheels—strategizing under the assumption that the modern GOP has any interest in cooperation—they’ll fail to solve any of the problems we face and set Republicans up to take back control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. Since gauging electability 18 months before the election is a fool’s errand—just ask former senators John Kerry and Michael Dukakis, who won their primaries on electability, or former President Barack Obama, who was tagged as unelectable—it’s far more worthwhile to think about who’s going to be able to deliver on their promises.

The wishful-thinking crowd is made up of candidates who think the Republican Party is just waiting for the fever to break before returning to sanity. Former vice president Joe Biden now has a stump-speech refrain that Trump is an “aberration” in the GOP, and often cites his strong personal relationships while pronouncing that he will be able to get Republicans to “vote their conscience.” And Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar has argued that “you have to work across the aisle to get things done” and suggested that she can succeed in securing Republican support where President Obama failed. Colorado senator Michael Bennet, who just recently entered the fray, performed a pirouette of wishful thinking on Meet the Press. He asserted that the Senate Democrats should not have lowered the threshold for confirming nominees from 60 to a majority in 2013 after intensive Republican obstructionism—which allowed us to confirm far more Obama judges than we would have been able to do otherwise when Obama was on track to confirm a historically low number of nominees.

Bennet seems to believe that then Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—the man who blocked Judge Merrick Garland from the Supreme Court—would have reciprocated Democrats’ forbearance by declining to go nuclear himself, passing up the chance to reshape the federal judiciary and leaving the 60-vote threshold intact for Democrats to use against Brett Kavanaugh. McConnell, who has recently taken to calling himself the “grim reaper” of progressive legislation, hears comments like this and chuckles as he sharpens his scythe.

This naive thinking fails to recognize that the modern GOP is ruled by an incentive structure that rewards obstruction and punishes cooperation. No matter how strong personal relationships with individual Republicans are, they will not withstand the onslaught from Fox News and the network of donors and extremist activist groups that drive any conservative who tries to cooperate from the fold. Former senators Jeff Sessions and Bob Corker were cast out for merely criticizing President Trump, even as they voted the party line 90 percent of the time. Trump regularly insults the late former Arizona senator John McCain, and no Republicans come to his defense—not even his best friend Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

In addition to punishing cooperation, the right-wing incentive structure rewards obstruction. In 2014, as McConnell was fending off a Tea Party primary challenger, he was so loathed by right-wing activists that he had to take the stage at their annual conference brandishing a gun to give the audience something to clap for. Since then, he has become lionized as “cocaine Mitch” for blocking Judge Merrick Garland and forcing President Obama to endure more filibusters than any previous president. Senator Ted Cruz rocketed to national prominence by single-handedly causing a government shutdown in 2013, and rode it to a second-place finish in the 2016 Republican primary—after which he made amends for his criticism of Trump by paying obeisance to the man who insulted his wife.

The reward for obstruction over cooperation has stuck the final knife in the clubby Senate, where Republican and Democratic members hung out together. The demands of fundraising and home-state travel already had it on its last legs: For years, the Senate dining room has sat empty most days, since members’ time is better used at fundraisers. But the rise of senators like Cruz on a strategy of obstruction over cooperation ensures that it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Republicans won’t change if they lose in 2020. Even a blue tsunami that makes 2018 look like a ripple will leave Democrats with a Senate majority in the low to mid-50s, meaning they’ll need as many as nine votes from McConnell to get anything past the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. No matter how well election night goes for Democrats in 2020, the Senate’s overrepresentation of rural, low-population states guarantees that Republicans will maintain a hammerlock on the 41-plus votes they need to block Democratic bills—and they’ll likely maintain that hammerlock in perpetuity. Under the current rules, Republican senators collectively representing as little as a quarter of the U.S. population can exercise veto power over all legislation, period. With the Electoral College rigged to over-represent those same rural states, the prospect of retaking the White House in the next election is always real for Republicans, especially if a Democratic president fails to deliver on their big promises.

Which raises the final and perhaps most important reason that electoral losses won’t change Republicans’ behavior: They know obstruction is the perfect playbook for making a popular Democratic president unpopular before their first midterm. McConnell ran his obstruction playbook against Obama in the face of his massive 2008 victory and over the objections of many Republicans who urged cooperation. The only difference between then and now is that previously Republicans weren’t sure obstruction was going to work—now they know it does.

Some of the wishful thinking we’re hearing from candidates may just be feel-good rhetoric aimed at soothing voters who are tired of conflict. But you can decode what a candidate actually believes by their willingness to support or at least leave the door open to the kind of bold structural reforms that will be needed to advance a progressive agenda in the face of Republican obstruction. Because that’s probably going to be the difference between futility and getting anything done.

Adam Jentleson is the former deputy chief of staff to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid.


Former Senator’s Staffer On What Senate Might Do In Response To Riot At U.S. Capitol

January 7, 2021 Download, Transcript

NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, about his reaction to the events that took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.


As yesterday’s violent attack on the Capitol unfolded, one person watching was Adam Jentleson.

ADAM JENTLESON: It was depressing and shocking, especially on a day like yesterday. The day of certification is usually a day of high energy. It feels like the first day of school, with new members finding their offices, learning where the bathrooms are. They bring their families.

CORNISH: He used to walk those halls when he worked for former Democratic Senator Harry Reid. Now he’s out with a book called “Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy.” In short of calls for impeachment by Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, I asked him what other kinds of action should be taken in the aftermath of all this.

JENTLESON: The reality of the situation is that you have to clean the wound before you can heal it. We need, as a society, to impose clear consequences on folks who perpetrated this kind of behavior. There’s really no way to move forward unless we address these issues head-on and show those who took this action that there are consequences for what they did.

CORNISH: What does it mean to have consequences in a situation like this? Like, you know the Senate. If senators like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley feel like they are representing their constituents and what they’re doing, can anyone in the Senate really say anything about that?

JENTLESON: Listen; for some of these bad actors, in some ways they’re getting exactly what they wanted. Josh Hawley, as awful as what he’s done has been, he is making a appeal to the hardcore base of the Republican Party. He sent out a fundraising appeal yesterday based on his actions. He may be getting the sort of folk-hero status that he is seeking here. If someone is going to act in that level of bad faith and that is what they want to do with their career and those are the folks that want to appeal to and it works, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

However, as a society – and as a party, for the GOP – they can take a clear stance here and say that folks who do this are not going to be welcome in their party. And to not take action is to normalize the actions of folks like Senator Hawley.

CORNISH: One of the striking things about this week was seeing the Confederate flag inside the Capitol, brought in by some of the violent rioters who had broken in. What was that like for you, given the racial history you write about in the book?

JENTLESON: It was incredibly depressing. There is a very ugly racial history underlying the Senate. I think that’s true, you know, for so many institutions in American life but, really, especially so for the Senate. So much of the structure of the body itself exists due to concessions to the planter class and the slave power back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then even through the 20th century, many of the rules that are currently in place that we’re operating under were put in place in service of segregation of senators from the South.

In the book, I talk about Richard Russell from Georgia, for whom a Senate office building is still named today, who declared himself, in his own words, that white supremacy was the primary cause of his life and that any man worth his salt would give his all for white supremacy.

CORNISH: In the past, the president-elect, Joe Biden, has made a big deal out of his relationship to the Senate, his relationship with other senators and his ability to move things in a bipartisan direction. What, to you, is the reality of the situation on the ground right now?

JENTLESON: You know, things have changed a lot in recent years, and I think that President Biden spent most of his years in the Senate under very different circumstances. When President Obama was elected, there was still a relatively large number of Republican senators who came from blue states and vice versa. That polarization has really taken hold, specifically in the Senate, in a very firm way just in the last few years.

The reality is that the kind of bipartisan cooperation that used to be normal in the Senate when President Biden was there just doesn’t exist anymore. Now the prevailing environment is one of sharp partisan polarization and something called negative partisanship, which is that one side succeeds by making the other side fail. And I think that is a dynamic that paralyzes the institution. Recognizing that and facing that reality front-on is something that President Biden is going to have to do pretty early on in his term.

CORNISH: Adam Jentleson is former deputy chief of staff to Democrat Harry Reid and the author of “Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy.” Thank you for your time.

JENTLESON: Thanks for having me on.

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