Mod Dems Are the Majority

We like to cast ourselves here at YSDA as the sane, sensible, left-center, hanging on to the Democratic Party because we don’t have an alternative. But truth be told, we are the majority. So, why doesn’t it feel that way? Why aren’t we running the party?

About 51% of people who identify as Democrats are moderate. Only 12% are progressive or very liberal. Here’s a breakdown of the Democratic coalition done by Pew Research and based on polling data from late 2021:

If you add “Establishment Liberals” and “Democratic Mainstays” you get 51%. At YSDA we would define ourselves as a mashup of those two groups. On the other hand, the “Progressive Left” and “Outsider Left” make up only 28% of the party, and the Outsider Leftists are the least politically active.

And yet, the perception of the Democratic Party is that we are all Progressive Left. That’s because, as the chart above notes, that 12% is the most politically active and organized of the groups. My rough guess is that the Progressive Left makes up about 90% of Democratic fundraisers, volunteers, consultants and campaign and public office holder staffs. It also makes up about 90% of the staff at liberal news outlets like the New York Times, NPR and PBS. Of course, it makes up virtually all of academia, though the representation of the Outside Left is much higher among students. And the Progressive Left owns Hollywood and is becoming more powerful in corporate America.

Our view at YSDA is that this is a huge problem because most of America just cannot stand the Progressive Left. If the party were instead identified with its Establishment or Mainstay groups it would win a heck of a lot more elections. In fact, it would be the long-term majority party in the United States. It’s the Progressives — what we like to call the “hard-left” — that are, ironically enough, holding back progress because they handicap the Democratic Party.

So, what are the options for Democratic moderates? Let’s run through them again. (We do this every so often.)

We could start a third party. Good luck with that. The record of third parties in the United States is dismal. The last time it worked was 163 years ago and they had a very strong candidate that year in this Lincoln fellow.

We could try to recast the image of the Democratic Party along our lines. I don’t see how that can happen with all of the image makers of the party coming from the hard-left. Young NPR producers are not going to suddenly decide that their obsession with a world of oppressors and victims is wrong. The hard-left is religious in their devotion to their world view. And even if it weren’t the hard-left inside major news outlets selecting and writing the stories, it’s just natural that conflict and strong views make for better copy. Moderation is not sexy.

We could start a party within a party. This is the idea that I think has some merit. It’s a playbook written by Wisconsin Progressives who were a faction in the state’s Republican Party for the first half of the 20th century. The Progressives had their own platform and nominated their own candidates. But, crucially, those candidates competed for the nomination in Republican primaries. Usually, if they lost, the Progressives would back the stalwart Republican over the Democrat in the general election, the Democrats being quite conservative at the time. The Progressives only became their own third party near the end of their period of influence, a lesson in itself.

I last suggested this last fall when it looked like the Democrats would get pasted in the November elections and people would be searching for answers. Instead, thanks to the abortion issue and Republicans’ extremism on that score, disaster was avoided. And liberal Janet Protasiewicz’s overwhelming victory for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the narrow victory of a hard-left candidate for Chicago mayor earlier this month only underlined the sense that Democrats will do alright on their present course.

I fear that the Progressive Left will misinterpret these results as encouragement for their views across the board when, in fact, it’s mostly just a mirage. As soon as abortion is once again “resolved,” to the extent that issue ever can be resolved, the party’s weaknesses will shine through again. In fact, columnist Ross Douthat made a convincing case last week that, given their internal squabbles, unpopular candidates and slew of unpopular positions, Republicans have done remarkably well and could be poised for a big year in 2024.

On the other hand, if Democrats could move to the center on other issues and maintain their advantage on abortion, they could dominate.

The bottom line is that I’m not optimistic that there will be a moderate left-center renaissance any time soon. The one thing that I think might work — forcing the party to the center with an organized moderate movement within it — is just not likely to happen amid election cycles dominated by abortion.

Nonetheless, we’re going to continue to kick this idea around here from time to time in the hopes that it will, at some point, gain a spark.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Mod Dems Are the Majority

  1. Although, to be 100% accurate, John C. Fremont was the first Republican presidential candidate, in 1856 (bonus points for anyone who guessed that he didn’t win).


  2. I’m trying to figure out what Democrats actually stand for in the 2020s. I don’t think I’m the only one.

    Since 2020 (and before, but this is a good starting place), Democrats are:
    Pro-Big Business
    Pro-Big Pharma
    Anti-Freedom of Choice (except for abortion)

    This list is by no way exhaustive.

    This is what Democrats are actually doing, not what they say they’re going to do. As an ex-lifelong Democrat, I can’t see why ‘liberals’ stand with a party that looks like the crew of the ‘Mirror Mirror’ episode of the original Star Trek.


    1. This list would have represented the extreme right wing of the Republican party just 20 or 30 years ago.

      If this is what the Democrats stand for in 2023, what is a ‘moderate’ Democrat Dave?


      1. Well, I’m not sure I agree with your list, for starters. Those are all pretty general statements. I’m not sure what it means to be pro-war, for example. Biden pulled us out of Afghanistan and his defense budget increases don’t keep pace with inflation. He’s supported Ukraine, but some say not enough and others say too much. In any event, you ask a good and fair question about what a moderate Democrat would be these days. I define it as being for classical liberal values (free speech, reason, rule of law, etc.) and middle class values (hard work, merit, fairness, etc.). On any specific issue, people who define themselves as moderate may disagree, but I hope we’d agree on the over-arching ideas.


      2. Thank you Dave. I agree with your definition, and if there was a party that acted on those values, I would be happy to be a part of it.

        War – the amount that Biden has sent to Ukraine would be enough to drastically reduce childhood poverty in the US. The Progressive wing of the Democratic party, including Pocan, self-neutered their tepid request for an actual accounting of the funds.

        Saying that Biden is not keeping up with inflation on war spending avoids the point – more than half of discretionary spending is spent on war. An accounting for overall war spending has never happened and according to the ‘experts’ never can happen, so the actual number is likely much higher and does not include the black budget.

        The Republicans are not much better on the liberal/middle class values, but because the Democrats have decided to abandon anything resembling moderation, it provides ample opportunities for reasonableness.


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