What Kind of Party Does the Democratic Party Want to Be?

It’s the story of a conflict years in the making. It’s the story of a party fractured not just along ideological lines, but behavioral ones as well. It’s the story of a five-front war among principled, thoughtful progressives and liberals chiefly concerned with improving the quality of life in America; establishment politicians who prioritize the preservation of the status quo over all other matters, and who quite obviously fear a dramatic shift in their party’s ideological alignment; pragmatic moderates and centrists seeking the path of least resistance to a 2020 electoral victory over President Donald Trump; identity-focused leftists whose politics are guided more by perceptions of privilege—perceptions that can be true but are often exaggerated for the purpose of suppressing criticism—than by a rigidly defined set of ideals and beliefs; and authoritarian advocates of ideological purity, a few of whom appear to suffer from a quasi-pathological sense of superiority. 

Indications of intraparty divisions within the Democratic Party became visible long before the election of Trump. It is perhaps fair to say that his rise to power exacerbated those divisions, but he certainly isn’t responsible for them. As a longtime supporter of progressive criminal justice policies, the first hint I received that trouble might be brewing was when I began to notice that some identitarian leftists were quite happy to temporarily renounce their progressive ideals—more specifically, their stated commitment to a more merciful, less punitive justice system that prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment and refrains from doling out unnecessarily harsh sentences to nonviolent offenders—when the defendant(s) in a particular criminal case happened to belong to a disfavored demographic. I’ve since come to understand that in some identitarian circles, vengeance is often conflated with justice when the offender in question hails from a privileged background.

Identitarian animosity directed towards the privileged classes mirrors the animosity that fuels much of the discourse among progressive purists. Take the interesting case of Pete Buttigieg, who by virtually every possible metric is a bona fide progressive. He wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment, decriminalize drug possession, and extend anti-discrimination policies in housing and employment to include members of the LGBTQ community. He opposes Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, supports universal background checks for firearm purchases, opposes the death penalty, supports universal healthcare, and believes the United States should recommit itself to the Paris climate accord. But because he hosted a fundraiser in a wine cellar and believes that a public healthcare option is a more doable goal than jumping straight to a single-payer system, growing numbers of progressive purists are derisively characterizing him as a “centrist” Democrat. 

Ideological purists on both sides of the spectrum exhibit very little tolerance for dissent. Their consistency can be endearing in a world where flip-flopping is the norm, but their distinct lack of intellectual humility often renders them unwilling to entertain the possibility that they might, you know, be wrong about something. When someone like Buttigieg comes along—someone who is slightly less progressive than the left-wing critics trying to discredit them, but still progressive nonetheless—and decides to offer an alternative perspective on an issue of great importance, they’re immediately deemed a wolf in leftist’s clothing and shunned by know-it-all purists. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because various Republican presidential candidates and their supporters went through a similar ordeal in 2016 when they dared to challenge Donald Trump’s vision for the Republican Party.

The political class normally tries to be more circumspect in how it handles these sorts of divisions, but there are exceptions. Take Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has parked herself firmly in the ideological purity camp. In a profile for New York Magazine, she was asked what role she might play in the party if former Vice President Joe Biden were to win the presidency. She replied with a groan, lamented the fact that she and Biden were members of the same party, and argued that the party “can be too big of a tent.” In June of last year, she also suggested that instead of letting voters decide for themselves how they feel about John Delaney’s healthcare plan, he should just “sashay away”—in other words, drop out of the Democratic primaries altogether—because, like Buttigieg, he doesn’t believe a single-payer system is the best way to achieve universal healthcare.     

The man AOC has endorsed for president, Bernie Sanders, has openly embraced the rhetoric of class warfare, but he doesn’t go out of his way to attack his Democratic competitors or exploit the divisions within the party. He recognizes that the Democratic nominee will need the support of a united party to defeat President Trump. Unfortunately, some of his supporters—in particular, those who believe that Sanders himself is beyond reproach and will lash out at anyone who dares to suggest otherwise—may have undermined Sanders’ efforts to try and maintain amicable relations between the various factions vying for control of the party. In doing so, they’ve also handed a heavy burden to the more kind-hearted and courteous Sanders supporters who are now being forced to answer for the behaviors of the bad apples among them—an issue which has, in my opinion, been blown a little out of proportion by media outlets that still think Twitter is reflective of real life. 

Interestingly, none of the Democratic candidates in this year’s presidential race have managed to successfully emulate the campaign style that then-Senator Barack Obama rode to victory in 2008. Biden likes to reminisce about his time serving as the second-in-command of the Obama administration, but he has struggled to separate himself from the rest of the pack, and his poor performance in the Iowa caucuses could be an indication that the tide is starting to turn against him. Buttigieg has tried to market himself as the right person to carry Obama’s mantle, but his lack of support among African American voters has dogged him for months. Andrew Yang isn’t necessarily trying to be Obama, but he, like Obama, has tried to cobble together a diverse coalition of supporters. Problem is, the numbers just aren’t there; most recent national polls show him trailing far behind Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and even Michael Bloomberg. And Amy Klobuchar, who has been busy courting the same swing voters Obama managed to win over before they swung back to the GOP in 2016, isn’t faring much better than Yang.

Does this mean that the Democratic Party has moved on from Obama for good? That may very well be the case. Sanders and Warren have made it quite clear that they have neither the intention nor the desire to become the next Obama. In their view, Obama harkens back to a time of normalcy, a time when compromise wasn’t a dirty word and reaching across the aisle to get things done was widely considered a healthy and useful tactic. But for better or worse, they don’t want to go back to that time. They’re not interested in mending fences or seeking common ground with Republicans. They didn’t enter this race to unite the country; they entered this race to change the country, and a return to Obama-era politics isn’t the kind of change they’re hoping to bring about. Their goal is to push this nation further to the left than it’s ever traveled before, and that necessarily precludes breaking bread with moderates, centrists, and disenchanted conservatives left behind by Donald Trump’s Republican Party. 

It isn’t clear which faction will emerge victorious once the dust has settled, but one thing that is clear is that the Democratic Party has to be more than just the anti-Trump party. As a left-leaning Independent myself, I must admit that I would much prefer a big-tent Democratic party that tries to live up to its purported commitment to diversity by rejecting ideological purity and the intellectual monotony that comes with it. Disagreement isn’t just unavoidable in a democratic society; it’s a precondition for progress, a catalyst for important and necessary conversations about how to address the most pressing issues of the day. Besides, if the purists within the party are certain that their ideas are the best ideas on the table, they shouldn’t feel threatened by constructive, good-faith criticism coming from within their own ranks. 

That being said, I’m fully aware that many Democrats do not feel the same way and have appropriately prepared myself for a future in which moderates are no longer welcomed in this discussion. And I’d advise all the moderate lefties remaining in the Democratic Party to do the same. There’s a bitter air swirling around these primaries, an air of palpable (and entirely justifiable) dissatisfaction with the party’s impotent performance against Trump in 2016. Fair or not, someone has to take the fall for that defeat, and that someone might just be you.     

Ultimately, it won’t be the Democratic establishment that decides which direction the party will take. That hasn’t stopped from them trying, of course, but there’s little they can do to avoid what’s coming down the pike—a knock-down, drag-out fight for the soul of the party that may not be decided until the very last primaries in June. After that, the victorious faction will have its legitimacy put straight to the test in a heavyweight bout against President Donald J. Trump. If they manage to win that contest, we’ll finally know what kind of party the Democratic Party is meant to become. But if they lose? Well, if that happens, I’ll see you back here in another four years so we can rehash this debate all over again. 

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