Opinion | When Trump Goes, Can the Democrats Hold It Together?
The Democratic Party is struggling with internal contradictions, as its mixed performance on Election Day makes clear.
Analysts and insiders are already talking — sometimes in apocalyptic terms — about how hard it will be for Joe Biden to hold together the coalition that elected him as the 46th president. But it’s important to remember that conflicts are inherent in a party that seeks to represent constituencies running the gamut from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th district in New York (50 percent Hispanic, 22 percent non-Hispanic white, 18 percent Asian, 8 percent Black) to 7th generation Utahan Ben McAdams’s 4th District in Utah (74 percent white, 1 percent Black, 3 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic.)
Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford who has explored the structural difficulties facing Democrats in his book “Why Cities Lose,” wrote in an email that the concentration of liberals in urban communities creates a built-in conflict for the party:
“The ‘presidential wing’ of the party,” he said, referring to the wing most concerned with winning the national election for the White House, “faces no incentives to worry about the geography of Congressional or state legislative districts at all.” The ideal platform for winning presidential elections, Rodden continued,
might be one that hurts the party in pivotal Congressional races. This dynamic might be even more pronounced if the ”presidential wing” decides to pursue a strategy of mobilizing the urban base in order to win those pivotal states.
Race, Rodden added,
only enhances this effect. Given the urban concentration of African- Americans in Northern cities, the Democratic political strategy that maximizes the probability of winning the electoral votes of a pivotal state is probably more responsive to the policy priorities of African-American voters than the strategy that would maximize the probability of winning the mostly white pivotal exurban district in that state.
Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, put the problem this way:
The Democratic Party’s intraparty schism is closely tied to the nationalization of Congressional elections. What works in local campaigns between urban, suburban and rural areas cannot be neatly packaged into a one-size-fits-all national message. You end up with this tension between what drives national media coverage and donations, and what actually works on the ground for a particular district’s constituents. This is part and parcel of the breadth and heterogeneity of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition.
A Democratic operative with experience working on elections from the presidency on down to local contests emailed me his views on the complexities involved in developing Democratic strategies. He insisted on anonymity to protect his job: “I do think that defund the police and socialism hurt in Trump-leaning swing districts with more culturally conservative swing voters,” he wrote, but, he continued,
it’s not clear what one can do about it as you can’t reject your own base. You do need progressive politicians to be a bit more “OK” with centrists denouncing their own base. And you need centrist politicians being OK that the grass roots will have ideas that they don’t like.
Achieving this delicate balance is no easy task. This strategist continued:
This all needs to be more of a "wink wink do what you need to do” arrangement, but it’s not there right now — it’s all too raw and divisive. So as someone involved in campaign strategy, that is frustrating. But to me, this is less of a campaign and message issue, and more of a political one — it’s about organizing and aligning the various constituencies of our party to work together. If we can do that, then we can figure out how to solve the message puzzle. But if you don’t do that, then this conflict will continue.
The strategist stressed his own ambivalence:
We need to extend the tent and extend the map further in some way — out of necessity. That’s where I sympathize with the centrists. You also need a strong, passionate, determined base. That’s where I sympathize with the progressives.
The Democratic Party, he noted, is inherently
hard to manage. From race, to culture, to socioeconomic status. All of these items — knowledge professions vs. working class, young vs. old, rural vs. suburban vs. urban — makes us far more complex to manage than the G.O.P.
The intraparty dispute burst out full force on Nov. 5 during a three-hour House Democratic Caucus telephone meeting — a tape recording of which was put up on the Washington Post website.
Moderates angrily lashed out at liberals, accusing them of allowing divisive rhetoric such as “defund the police” and calls for socialism to go largely unchallenged. Those on the left pushed right back, accusing centrists of seeking to downgrade the demands of minorities, including those voiced at Black Lives Matter protests.
Abigail Spanberger, who represents the 7th Congressional District in Virginia — which runs from the suburbs of Richmond through the exurban and rural counties in the center of the state — voiced her instantly famous critique of the liberal wing of her party during the phone call: “We have to be pretty clear about the fact that Tuesday — Nov. 3 — from a congressional standpoint, was a failure,” she told her Democratic colleagues. “The number one concern that people brought to me” during the campaign “was defunding the police.”
Spanberger, who barely survived her bid for a second term — 50.82 percent to 49.0 percent — was relentless.
We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that.
If House Democrats fail to address these liabilities, she continued, “we are going to get torn apart in 2022,” Sparnberger said, intensifying her comment with a word that can’t appear here.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, whose Michigan district is among the poorest in the country, and who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America — directly countered Spanberger and other moderates: “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.”
Other Democrats who describe themselves as democratic socialists, including the former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have become a substantial Democratic constituency. In addition to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, Danny K. Davis, a representative from Chicago, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, as are multiple members of state legislature and City Councils. The number of D.S.A. college chapters has more than tripled in the past five years.
In March 2020, Gallup found that “a slight majority of Americans, 51 percent, say they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified person for president who is a socialist while 47 percent say they would.” Some 65 percent of Democrats said they have a favorable view of socialism, compared to 9 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents.
The realities of maintaining a liberal, multiracial coalition are complex.
Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Wall Street Journal that the attack on Democrats over defunding the police was effective “everywhere that it was used,” adding: “You can’t equivocate. You either support the men and women of law enforcement or you don’t.”
Marc Farinella — a frequent adviser to Democratic campaigns for Senate and governor and now the executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Survey Methodology — voiced his concerns in an email:
The party is being pushed too far to the left, thereby jeopardizing Democratic candidates and incumbents in suburban districts. Many Democratic candidates are feeling compelled to give lip-service to — or at least not take issue with — unrealistic and out-of-the-mainstream policy proposals in order to avoid running afoul of the activist minority who dominate primaries and who could make the difference in general elections.
Race, according to Farinella, continues to be problematic terrain for Democrats:
This year, some major Democratic candidates forcefully pledged to “build wealth for Black families.” Of course, we must do that. But, upon hearing this pledge, I bet many white middle-class families wondered if these candidates were calling for an expensive new social welfare program to help ‘someone else,’ and wondered why government isn’t also helping their families build wealth since many non-Black families are struggling, too.
To remain competitive, Farinella argued,
Democrats have to focus more on policies that lift all boats and that give everyone — not just targeted groups — a chance for a better life. Fighting to ban exclusion for pre-existing conditions is a step in the right direction. So is protecting Medicare. The reason these policies work so well for Democrats is, at least in part, because they are not perceived as giving special treatment to one group over another.
Farinella stressed that he is
absolutely not suggesting that Democrats abandon their commitment to fight for disadvantaged or oppressed groups. But I am suggesting that being the champion of each struggling group individually is not a substitute for being the champion of the working class and middle class collectively.
Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant whose firm has represented candidates in states from New Hampshire to Montana, was more outspoken in his view:
Four years ago, Democrats’ final messaging was “which bathroom one could use.” This year it was Defund the Police. The far left is the Republicans’ finest asset. A.O.C. and the squad are the “cool kids” but their vision in no way represents half of America. And in a representative democracy 50 percent is paramount.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, agreed that “it is pretty clear that the Republican characterization of the Democratic Party as radically left leaning worked to mobilize support for Trump in 2020.”
In an email, Cain argued that “Biden and the Democratic leadership will have a plausible case for reining in the far left,” unless the party is successful in the two Georgia Senate runoffs. In that case, the Democrats would have control of both the White House and Congress, and pressure would increase for the enactment of liberal policies, according to Cain’s analysis:
If the Democrats do flip the Georgia seats, it will make coalition management a little harder and raise tensions between factions, but even then, I do not think the votes in the Senate will be there due to defections from Joe Manchin and others representing purple states.
Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, shares Strother’s assessment but is still more assertive in his belief that the far left has inflicted significant damage on Democratic candidates. He wrote by email:
“Defund the police” is the second stupidest campaign slogan any Democrat has uttered in the twenty first century. It is second in stupidity only to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.”
Moreover, Grofman continued,
the antifa “take back the neighborhood’” in Seattle, where a part of the city became a police no-go zone, with the initial complicity of Democratic office holders, hasn’t helped either, especially after someone was killed within the zone. That allowed the Democrats to be seen as in favor of antifa, and, worse yet, to be portrayed as in favor of violence.
Even more damaging, in Grofman’s view,
have been the scenes of rock throwing demonstrators and boarded up stores that Republicans have regularly used for campaign fodder and that were a long-running story on Fox News. Every rock thrown, every broken window, is one more Republican vote.
Darren Kew, a professor in the University of Massachusetts-Boston Department of Conflict Resolution, pointed out that the internal tensions within the Democratic Party are exacerbated by polarization between the parties: “Political culture is often that part of the system that is hardest to see — the values, norms, and patterns of behavior that govern our actions within the context of institutions — but it’s the glue that holds it all together,” Kew wrote by email, noting that
20-30 percent of Americans on either end of the political spectrum are getting their information from highly politicized sources and are therefore not agreeing on the basic facts of whether an event has even happened or not.
The left has not remained silent in this debate. On Nov. 10, four key progressive groups — New Deal Strategies, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress — released a seven-page report, “What went wrong for Congressional Democrats in 2020.”
The report observes that Democratic have in the past been wary of “the simple statement ‘Black Lives Matter,’” of “being too closely associated with Colin Kaepernick and Black athletes kneeling during the national anthem.”
In this context, the report suggests,
the latest choice for Democrats to locate our fear and blame is the slogan from many Black and young activists who marched the streets this summer: “Defund The Police.” Conservative Democrats may change the terms and people we blame and fear year-by-year, but Democrats must take on the Republican Party’s divide-and-conquer racism head-on and not demobilize our own base.
The Democratic base, the report contends, was crucial:
This election, the Black youth leading the Black Lives Matter movement have turned their power in the streets into votes and have helped secure Biden’s victory in key cities.
The report turns its fire on the Democratic leadership:
Democratic leadership has failed over the years to make sustained investments in field organizing, forcing grass roots organizations to carry the bulk of organizing work in key battleground states on their own.
The Democratic leadership, according to What Went Wrong, also failed in other ways:
When Democratic leaders make unforced errors like showing off two subzero freezers full of ice cream on national television or cozy up with Wall Street executives and corporate lobbyists while Trump tells voters we are the party of the swamp, it is not surprising that we lose.
The report refers to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s late night TV appearance in which she showed off her subzero refrigerator freezer, filled with upscale ice cream bars. The appearance became the subject of a Trump ad that declared:
Not everyone has a $24,000 stocked fridge. Pelosi snacks on ice cream while millions of Americans lose their paychecks, “Let them eat ice cream” — Nancy Antoinette.
The report argues, furthermore, that
scapegoating progressives and Black activists for their demands and messaging is not the lesson to be learned here. It was their organizing efforts, energy and calls for change needed in their communities that drove up voter turnout.
Party leadership, in turn,
has failed over the years to make sustained investments in field organizing, forcing grass roots organizations to carry the bulk of organizing work in key battleground states on their own.
The authors of “What Went Wrong” acknowledge that “there is no denying Republicans levied salient rhetorical attacks against Democrats,” but argues that
these will continue to happen as they do every cycle. We cannot let Republican narratives drive our party away from Democrats’ core base of support: young people, Black, Brown, working class, and social movements who are the present and future of the party.
Michael Podhorzer, senior adviser to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, emailed to voice his across-the-board criticism of all those seeking to place blame for the Democrats’ setbacks in downticket races:
It is far too early to make any kind of comprehensive judgment about the results of the election. But, distressingly, those who had axes before the election are grinding them with cherry picked data points that provide no credible causal evidence for their case.
While Podhorzer faulted all those making judgments, the focus of his critique appeared to be more on complaints from the center/moderate wing of the party:
They are asking us to believe that after four years of colossal disasters, with more than 200,000 dead from mismanaged Covid, with millions waiting without hope for needed relief to continuing mass unemployment, with more than $14 billion in spending, with massive disruptions to established norms and a President who made this a referendum on four more years of the same, what made the difference was this or that position advocated in the debate that neither Biden nor House Democrats endorsed.
Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts and the author of the book “Politics is for Power,” is not persuaded of the good faith and ultimate commitment of the affluent left. In addition to arguing that “moderate Democrats don’t want their brand tied to progressive policy priorities,” Hersh questioned the depth of conviction of the so-called progressive elite:
Many of the supporters who say they want big liberal policies at the national level don’t really mean it. For example, well-to-do liberals in fancy suburbs who say they prioritize racial equality but do not want to actually level the playing field in educational opportunities between their districts and majority-minority districts.
He cited his own state, Massachusetts:
Here there’s tons of liberal energy and money to support taking big progressive fights to Washington. Meanwhile, our schools are segregated, our transit system is broken, our housing is unaffordable, our police force is a mess of corruption and there’s little pressure being put on the state legislature and governor to fix any of it.
What, Hersh asks, “to make of all this?” His answer: “The push for big progressive policy is something of a facade.”
The political reality, however, is that the constituency Hersh criticizes so sharply has become a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, one that cannot be excised or dismissed without endangering future majorities.
Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economist, suggests that any reconciliation of the Democratic Party’s internal conflicts requires an upheaval in contemporary liberal thinking. In “The Democrats’ Four-Year Reprieve,” an essay published Nov. 9 on Project Syndicate, Rodrik argues that the central question is:
How did Donald Trump manage to retain the support of so many Americans — receiving an even larger number of votes than four years ago — despite his blatant lies, evident corruption, and disastrous handling of the pandemic?” It is clear, Rodrik continued, “that the election does not resolve the perennial debate about how the Democratic Party and other center-left parties should position themselves on cultural and economic issues to maximize their electoral appeal.
What is also apparent, in Rodrik’s view, is that “Political leaders on the left need to fashion both a less elitist identity and a more credible economic policy.”
Parties on the left everywhere, he continued,
have increasingly become the parties of educated metropolitan elites. As their traditional working-class base has eroded, the influence of globalized professionals, the financial industry, and corporate interests has risen. The problem is not just that these elites often favor economic policies that leave middle and lower-middle classes and lagging regions behind. It is also that their cultural, social, and spatial isolation renders them incapable of understanding and empathizing with the worldviews of the less fortunate.
In an email, Rodrik wrote:
The first priority of the Democratic Party ought to be to have a sound program for economic transformation — one that promises to increase the supply of good jobs for all, including the lagging regions of the country.
Both strategically and substantively, Rodrik may be dead on, but his argument raises a set of questions that have no easy answers: The Democratic Party represents an enormous group of competing constituencies, running the gamut from trade unionists to feminists, from minorities to environmentalists, from secular Americans to LGBT advocates, a list that can be extended to multiple pages, with many people in the party answering to several of these descriptions, further complicated matters.
It is the very determination of each of these blocs to place a priority on its own agenda that casts doubt on the ability of the Democratic Party to unite in support of the kind of economic platform Rodrik describes, a step that would require the subordination of narrower interests in favor of the party’s collective interest. Unfortunately, this demand for a willingness to sacrifice or compromise factional interests comes at a time when there has been a steady erosion of a national commitment to collective responsibility.
In a way, this is yet another tragic legacy of the Trump administration. Liberal advocacy groups have become more in-your-face, more intense, partly in reaction to the intransigence of the Trump regime, a development that is in turn irrevocably linked to the intensity of the conflicts across the country and within the Democratic Party itself.
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