Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday night in Miami. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity'.

“The Democrats are moving too far to the left!” This complaint or concern is everywhere. Along with “who the heck are all these people?!,” it’s the most common reaction to the first Democratic debates. The candidates are “drifting to [the] far left,” one columnist said in the Las Vegas Review Journal. “There is Such a Thing as Too Far Left” was the headline of a New York Times op-ed on Sunday. The party, this argument holds, risks sacrificing its ultimate goal of defeating President Trump.

It’s true that we can’t know whether the policy positions of the most progressive candidates are electoral winners, either in the primary or the general election. There’s just far too much political uncertainty in the air to make such calls, an uncertainty driven by the rise of economic challenges and market failures that rocked ordinary voters.

But the “too far left” answer is hardly a rigorous, scientific, reliable finding. It’s speculative, chin-stroking punditry, ungrounded impressions, free-floating nervousness and a failure to recognize and/or appreciate the evolving demands of the Democratic base. It should be ignored. The best way forward for the party, the candidates and the country is to shut out the scolds and allow the debate to take us wherever it goes.

Which was largely what occurred last week. No question, those four hours over two debates were a weird, cacophonous spectacle. But they were also the beginning of the political argument America needs to have.

Consider, for example, universal health coverage, which in the debates came under the rubric of Medicare-for-all (M4A). The tension was between candidates who want to go straight to a government-run, single-payer plan with no private insurance and those who seek a more incremental approach, often described as a “public option.” That is, build on the current system in a way that allows individuals and employers to buy into public coverage, what candidate and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg succinctly called “Medicare for All who Want It.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m with the incrementalists, and by most polls, we’re in the majority. A fairly typical result such as this one from KFF’s tracking poll shows 56 percent support M4A, but 74 percent support the “public option” approach. But as this nuanced discussion of the issue from RealClearPolitics reveals, even with the caveat that “Medicare for All … is a system that will eliminate all private health insurance companies,” more than half (55 percent) of respondents supported the proposal (34 percent opposed).

In other words, most people want a health-care system that is fundamentally different from the one we have, with the government playing a larger role. How large that role is and how quickly we can get there are open questions, as they should be. Health-care policy is complex; every country has a different model (though, notably, other advanced economies spend one-half to two-thirds what we do on health care as a share of their GDP). But the broad public has signaled that something’s got to give, and voters want to hear politicians have an extensive debate about the options. Remarkably, that’s what they’re getting from the Democrats.

Immigration policy is an even more complex policy set, one that has long bedeviled politicians and electorates across the globe (e.g., anti-immigration sentiments were a key motivation for “leave” Brexit voters). But the Trump administration, not the Democratic candidates, is out of step with a public that is much less negative than is the Republican Party about legal immigration and asylum seekers. Regarding undocumented entries, Republicans, including the president, are apparently giddy at the chance to run against a candidate who supports making such crossings civil, not criminal offenses (Vox points that criminal prosecution “gave the Trump administration the power to separate thousands of families in 2018”), and it’s clear that Democrats are treading on tricky electoral ground, as there’s much less popular support for undocumented immigration. But the manufactured, humanitarian crisis at the border has turned fatal, and the wide-open debate among Democrats is how our nation can discern how to meet this challenge in a way that’s consistent with our history and values.

On the economy, the widely accepted narrative from the debates was that the system is far too rigged in favor of the powerful. The facts support the claim: Recent Federal Reserve data reveals that 70 percent of net wealth is held by the top 10 percent of households, while the bottom half holds but 1 percent. The net worth of the top group is 25 times that of the bottom. And the wealth concentration is reflected in the increasingly concentrated power of the largest multinational firms. More so than any other advanced democracy, such wealth and industrial concentration interacts toxically with the extremely permeable barrier between money and politics in our system. In the face of all this inequality, the signature achievement of the Trump administration was a tax cut that is distributing even more income up the scale. Moreover, as we speak, the administration is trying to pass more regressive cuts (this time, for capital gains) through executive order.

There are also examples about climate change, reproductive rights, globalization and racial injustice. In fact, it should surprise no one that the extent of unchecked economic and racial imbalances, alongside truly existential environmental threats, has given rise to a set of policy solutions that establishment figures will view as immoderate.

But this is what democracy looks like. This debate is occurring because there are enough of us who believe that when it comes to all these challenges, conservative policy is unresponsive at best and exacerbating at worst. Moreover, we are open to the possibility that traditional, establishment, left-of-center solutions will be inadequate.

And we are, at this stage, thoroughly uninterested in overheated, speculative punditry about the dangers of having this very debate.