Can Democrats avoid a civil war?
Every political party claims internal solidarity and promises to work to unify the nation. Sometimes it is true – but more by accident than action. We already know that the left and right – the Democrats and Republicans – are as divided into warring camps as any time since the Civil War.
We have also seen a worsening of the internal division in the GOP that has been on the rise since the 1960s when the conservative wing started its march to dominance over those known as “Rockefeller Republicans.” Today the division is between the mainstream Trump supporters and the old guard establishmentarians composed of so-called moderates and disgruntled one-time conservatives.
But what about the Democratic Party? Is it putting together a winning coalition – or is the party of Jackson (Andrew, not Jessie) on the verge of internal conflict? With so much attention on the partisan divide and the intramural battling within the GOP, we may be overlooking the movement of the philosophic tectonic plates within the Democratic Party.
Will Rogers once jested that he did not belong to any organized political party. He was a Democrat. Would that joke make sense today?
Like the Republicans, the Democratic Party is divided between the pragmatic moderate establishmentarians and the radicals – on the left in the case of the Democratic Party. The significant difference is that the pitchfork bearers in the GOP took over from the establishment. That process started with the election of President Reagan and reached a heightened level of fulfillment with the election of Trump.
On the other hand, Democrats survived an assault from the left in 2016 with the primary victory of Hillary Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders. Progressive disappointment and anger were at least a factor in the defeat of Clinton in the General Election – with the anti-establishment Democrats staying home or even crossing over to vote for Trump.
This year the establishment wing of the Democratic Party again prevailed over the left-wing revolution of Sanders – and again the hardcore radicals are disappointed and angry. But maybe not so much.
We must keep in mind that Trump did not win because he was so popular. He won because Clinton was even more unpopular – although it should not be ignored that she did win the popular vote.
Many argue that the popularity issue now shifts to the Democrats’ advantage. Those pundits argue – with some credibility – that Trump is more unpopular than the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. That does not mean that it will be the case when voters start casting ballots.
Our Revolution – which was a wholly-owned political support organization launched by Sanders for his 2016 presidential bid – was left to go to seed after his defeat. It barely played a role in the 2020 campaign. Even worse, the assets – lists, donors and volunteers – recruited for the 2020 Sanders’ campaign are not being merged or shared with the Our Revolution folks. According to some reports, there is open hostility between the old Our Revolution crowd and the 2020 campaign team.
While some of the new players in the Sanders’ campaign are jumping aboard the Biden bandwagon, it is yet to be a seismic shift in allegiance – or even much more than lip service. Supporters like Winnie Wong alleges that “A lot of Bernie’s very active base are really enraged and pretty horrified.”
What has their feathers rustled is a lack of commitment to progressive issues by Biden in return for the support of the radical left. The former Vice President’s proposals are still centrist – at least within the parameters of the Democratic Party.
While Biden has promised to “work closely” with such far left icons as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and dangles such left-wingers as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Kamala Harris as possible vice presidential picks – the left fears that such statements are political wallpaper. When push comes to shove, they believe it will be one of the centrist women, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, who gets the nod.
The members of the left-wing Sanders’ base are not coming to the negotiating table with a lot of strength, however. They have a candidate who is a two-time loser – and with no future personal potential to lead the crusade in a future campaign – and none of their radical left candidates for Congress were among the Democrat winners in 2018. The left’s potential assets are offset by potential liabilities. Which is greater is debatable.
Sanders did not deliver his voters to Clinton in 2016 because he could not. We may be seeing a repeat of that situation in 2020 – maybe even worse. The issue for the radical left is whether they hate Trump more than they hate being iced out of the prize again in 2020.
Bernie Bros are not dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. They are what Sanders is — a radical left-wing socialist. Many see the options between the Republican candidate and the Democrat candidate as a Tweedle Dee/Tweedle-Dum choice – both are pro-corporate capitalists, in their view.
Democrat unity seems to be banking on those on the far left to hate Trump more than they hate Biden. But that does not take into consideration the potential of a retaliatory vote. In 2016, there were a lot of Sanders supporters who cast a vote for Trump – not because he was their second favored choice but to teach the folks at the Democratic National Committee not to screw them over again. Apparently, DNC Chairman Tom Perez did not get the memo.
Biden can talk unity all he wants, but if he does not deliver serious concessions to the left wing, he risks a revolt. On the other hand, if he does, a lot of those moderate Democrats – especially members of the industrial unions – who are currently leaning slightly to Biden may well teeter back to Trump.
The moment of truth will happen with the approval of the Democrats’ 2020 party platform. The Sanders’ people are the kinds of policy wonks who actually think the political platforms are important to future governance. Rather than expressing the unified policies and aspirations of the Party, the most significant byproduct of these platforms is the production of heated debate and the exposure of deep fissures within the ranks.
Biden and Ocasio-Cortez can hold hands in public for symbolism’s sake all they want, but if the voters on the far left feel they are once again being locked out – or even dissatisfied with the extent to which the Democratic Party has already shifted to the left – there is a real chance that it will be 2016 all over again.
So, there ‘tis.