I wrote a few months ago about some of the challenges currently facing the Republican party. Its once-hailed stars have faded, its younger ranks cannot reconcile traditional party orthodoxy with their own beliefs (e.g., climate change), and the party’s standard bearer is someone who by almost all counts is antithetical to the ideals of the republic. This mix of troubles should, hypothetically, make it easier for the Democrats to storm through this re-election year. Despite having been dealt a favorable hand, however, Democrats are consumed with internal party issues. Even though primary season has not fully begun, the party is losing valuable time, energy, and momentum squabbling amongst themselves when they should be closing ranks early to focus every resources against the opposition. In short, they risk wasting an opportunity. Again.
The Revolution Will Be Replicated
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign exposed a rift in the Democratic party that has only grown. It is possible that a Hillary Clinton presidency might have remedied some of it by addressing the demands (to the extent possible) of those urging more strident moves leftward. Instead, more progressive voices have only grown stronger. If the party had just listened to them in the first place, they claim, the Democrats would have won and the country would not have to save itself from an administration taking the country backwards with respect to hard-won progressive goals, foreign and domestic.
In many ways, the rift is similar to the Tea Party split that started as a small reaction (based in subtly racist tones) in 2008 and burst wide open in 2010. The Tea Party young guns on Capitol Hill, much like the Democrats’ “Squad” and their compatriots, were promising young members that seemed to come out of nowhere. (I believe this had more to do with exploiting the Citizens United decision than any special ability of those elected, but that is for another time.) Those newly-elected firebrands preached a divisive politics rooted in fiscal and social issues. Or so they would have had folks believe. Their agenda was obstructionism, possibly for its own sake, possibly because it was the only card they could play. Regardless, they knew their base would absolve them in the name of protecting the union from the evils pundits scared them into believing the Democrats would impose.
This time around the newcomers are preaching a similarly divisive message: the system must be burned down for having been skewed in favor of the wealthy. They are not entirely wrong. However, like the Tea Party, their message is too simplistic and dumbed down to capture the nuance of reality or serve as any kind of basis for real reform. The Democrats’ new leftists might play the obstructionists if given the chance, voting ad infinitum to repeal existing laws. But, unlike the Republicans, Democratic party leadership has been able to placate them, maintain control, and generate more then 400 bills regarding substantive issues voters care about.
The more left leaning are also as fond of purity tests as the Tea Party was. Anyone who pushed back or offered fair criticism of Tea Party dogma was quickly branded as not a “real conservative,” or a RINO – Republican In Name Only. On the other side of the aisle, anyone citing the very real successes of capitalism, or arguing the benefits of private health insurance, or expressing doubt over a wealth tax or a marginal rate above 50 percent is branded a corporate shill, or derisively and dismissively called a – gasp! – “moderate.” Reactionaries, right and left, see compromise a dirty word, a sign of weakness, a betrayal. In the end, absolutism is the only language they speak, the only path they are willing to travel.
One of the key differences between the Tea Party and the modern leftists, however, is that the latter thinks it has the numbers, whereas the former actually had them. The ubiquity of info-tainment and social media keeps them in the spotlight. One might think they are more influential than they really are. But that would be a mistake. Their audience is overly-concentrated urban areas, where people are likely to align with their views. Their core audience is also younger and more tech savvy, which keeps them trending and on prominent display in everyone’s feeds. The challenge, as the 2018 mid-term election showed, is that nationwide, much of their message falls short with the vast majority of Democratic, or Democratic-leaning, voters. Of the 42 seats flipped in the House of Representatives, almost none of them were won by candidates backed by Sanders and his followers.
By contrast, the Tea Party appealed to a base that covered not only rural America but much of its suburbs. They spoke for a broader electorate whereas a majority of Capitol Hill Republicans represented a dwindling moderate conservative voter that has, for the most part, been more tolerant of the progressive trends slowly moving from urban centers in recent decades. It was – and still is - this inverse relationship that allowed reactionary conservatives to lead the GOP by the nose.
Send in the Clown Car
The divisions within the Democratic party are on clear display during this primary season. Also in public view is the “clown car” of candidates, a common election season trait when one party faces an incumbent president. (Think Republicans in 2012 or Democrats in 1992). This time, each Democratic candidate (as of this writing there are 13 but the number was as high as 29) appears to be staking out their respective position along the spectrum between leftist and centrist.
Candidates like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg occupy the more moderate ground. Their approach is pragmatic. It reflects the general view of the majority of Democratic voters, particularly those in the Midwest and the Heartland. They even resonate with a decent number of east- and west-coasters who just want an opportunity to continue making their success possible. They see the system for what it is: flawed, improvable, and a better alternative to options that have yet to really show themselves as workable.
Meanwhile Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren rally the firebrands who see every. aspect. of. the. system. as an affront to working-class Americans and therefore needs to be removed or replaced. They speak to a minority of Democratic voters who are convinced they ARE the party. They claim to speak for the future of the party even though its youngest members fail to show up in a convincing way. And because they are outnumbered by the more pragmatic wing, some candidates – like Warren – struggle to gain traction. (Sanders, arguably, has been campaigning for five years, giving him more time to build a following.)
And then there are the others who occupy some muddled position between the two or have an entirely separate central theme. For Washington governor Jay Inslee it was climate change. For New York Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, it was all things feminist. Marianne Williamson pushed a New Age approach. You get the idea. None of them, however, was enough to be a winning strategy or governing platform, not because they are not important topics, but because they were simply too narrow a focus.
The Ghost of Elections Past
On top of all of this, the Democrats are still doing some damage control for the 2016 debacle in where it appeared – though it was never decisively concluded – that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had a thumb on the scales for Hillary Clinton from the jump. She was by far the strongest and most prepared candidate on either side and the DNC tried to seize on that. The contest quickly narrowed but the surprise insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders dragged things out to the convention. Plans for projecting party unity and building momentum ahead of the election were lost.
In the wake of the 2016 loss, the Democratic party has done a lot of soul searching. It also reformed, at the urging of Sanders and his supporters, how delegates vote and the criteria for deciding the party nominee. Prior to these reforms, “superdelegates” could vote on the first ballot at a convention, possibly influencing a tight race. Now, they cannot vote until the second ballot. If a candidate comes to the convention with a majority of pledged delegates, the point will be moot. But with many candidates in the ring, it’s possible no one will arrive with an outright majority, thereby opening the door for multiple ballots.
This internal struggle has not fully resolved in four years. Lest the party look like it is once again favoring one candidate over another, it must let the “clown car” play out, even if it means more fringe candidates lasting longer than they probably should. Therefore, the leftward lurch of a minority of party members looks more dramatic than it really is, and everyone who wants to run for president under the Democrat’s banner can.
Ideology versus pragmatism is rarely a productive fight. It is one thing to prove you are the best candidate to take on a sitting president, especially one who has, with the exception of skewed polls, never had an approval rating above 50 percent. It is quite another to have to run a gauntlet of purity tests to prove you are the best candidate to satisfy the more radical faction of your party.
In addition, by working hard to restore an image of impartiality and eliminating “insider politics,” the DNC has to let the crowded field narrow itself. But doing so risks showing a similar lack of standards the Republicans displayed when the let an inexperienced and unqualified candidate like Donald Trump become their nominee and eventual standard bearer.
The Democratic party should have a relatively easy challenge. This election should largely be a continued referendum on Donald Trump and the G.O.P. that was put into sharp relief with the 2018 mid-terms. Democrats nationwide walloped Republicans by focusing on everyday economic issues Americans face. They have a golden situation but do not appear willing to let themselves miss an opportunity.
All that said, much culling can happen after Super Tuesday, which is just around the corner. By then, much of this may be moot. Then again, it might not, and the party that could have gone into the election with guns blazing for months might limp into November for having shot itself in the foot too many times.