By Heberto Limas-Villers and Fairooz Adams
A few days ago, the Democratic National Committee voted for a chairman whose primary task will be rebuilding the party nationally, after nearly eight years of losses. During the Obama years, the Democrats have been losing not only in red states but also in reliably liberal states like Massachusetts and Vermont. If the Democrats want to be a party capable of resisting President Trump’s more radical proposals, they desperately need to reform themselves.
Alas, the candidates on stage last week are probably not up to the task. On the left wing of the party, Congressman Keith Ellison represented the insurgent progressive faction best personified by Bernie Sanders and his “Our Revolution” project. Representing the moderate-establishment wing of the party (and desperate to be electable again) was former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who was more supportive than Ellison of a rural-based approach to grow the party in traditionally conservative areas. Perez won in the second round of voting, with 235 delegates to Ellison’s 200. Upon securing victory, Perez promptly made Keith Ellison the vice chairman of the DNC- an olive branch to the left wing. But regardless of this seeming victory for “moderate” Dems, the party will not recuperate until Democrats address the elephant in the room: their ideological identity.
For a long time, the strongest Democratic factions were the liberal faction behind Ted Kennedy on the one hand, and the southern Dixiecrats on the other. The resulting compromise platforms and candidates were moderate and in line with the ideas of many Americans, which led the Democrats to strong electoral successes during the postwar period. With the cultural polarization of the 60s and 70s and the subsequent rise of Ronald Reagan in the GOP, many Dixiecrats crossed the floor and became Republicans-leaving the Democratic Party’s moderate-liberal faction with an incredible amount of power to dictate policy and party direction. But the increasingly liberal left began to decline into irrelevance, only holding power in true-blue cities lining the coasts and dotting a few cities in between. This changed in the election of 2008. Encouraged by Barack Obama’s historic victory, the left began to dominate the conversation within the Democratic Party. Many Democratic activists assumed the march of history would favor an ever more strident progressivism, and they organized themselves and called on their candidates to be more leftist-many times at the expense of being elected.
This came truly apparent to the public with the election of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her anti-matter twin can be found in the form of Ted Cruz. Both are simultaneously similar and opposite, and should both major political parties come to resemble them, the outcome is certain to be explosive. Until the rise of Bernie Sanders, Warren was the main force driving the party to the left, to the point of criticizing President Obama for his policies. Compounded by the radicalization of the progressive youth, it is hardly surprising that for some time it appeared the Democratic Party was bound to tear at the seams.
Predictably, Hillary Clinton’s loss in the general election has emboldened the immoderate leftist faction of the Democratic Party, who will tell anyone within earshot that Bernie Sanders would have won the general election.
Maybe. Whether or not Sanders would have won remains extremely dubious. Yet that does not matter to the staunchly progressive activists, and that is what is the most dangerous. The immoderate wing in the Democratic Party today is somewhat similar to Republican activists of the past few decades or so, in that they believe that embracing ever-more extreme candidates is the answer to their problems. As of late, the Republican Party consistently over-promised and under-delivered, so much so that eventually an aberration like Donald Trump who promised to break the political leadership out of stagnation captured the hearts and minds of a huge number of Republican voters.
If an incompetent extremist of Donald Trump’s sort can hijack the Republican Party and attain the presidency, then one certainly may do the same in the Democratic Party sooner than we like. Consider that the seething populist anger that brought Trump to power has been nascent in the GOP for some time. The Tea Party expanded not too long after President Obama’s assumption of the presidency, seemingly radicalizing the GOP. Yet Mitt Romney, the epitome of a northern, moderate, Eastern Establishment caricature, won the Republican nomination in 2012, and it seemed as though moderate establishment types were still in control. But then Donald Trump came along. In a similar vein, Tom Perez’s victory should be no consolation for the moderate wing of the Democrats- it may well be the last stand of a dying faction, ready to crumble beneath the liberal-populist wave.
What is to be done? What is the responsible path forward? Ironically, the best way to push the Democrats closer to the center may be to move the Republicans closer to the center. As it stands, the Democratic Party is a coalition of racial minorities and affluent coastal whites. Meanwhile the Republican Party continues to be the party of business, but also culturally conservative working class voters. A centrist, nationalist Republican Party that is able to carve out a critical mass of racial minority voters will leave no choice but to force the Democratic Party to attempt to woo working class voters. The Democratic Party doesn’t need to win all working class voters either, just a critical mass.
By tying the prospects of both major parties to diverse coalitions, it is possible to achieve some sort of moderation in American politics. In another article for The Hamiltonian Republican, our colleague Luke Phillips referred to the late senator Jacob Javits’s call for ideological diversity within parties for the health of the Republic. He is most certainly right. A strong and healthy America will require a fair amount of diversity within the Republican and Democratic parties.
Herein lies the paradox of possibilities that Donald Trump presents. He will most certainly radicalize a larger segment of the Democratic Party and possibly produce a generation of hyper partisans. We have yet to see if moderates will be able to hold their ground.