Much ado has been made about the partisan divides in American politics between the far left and the far right, with the center being hollowed out. Both sides of the political aisle feel we’ve become too polarized, as encapsulated by the solidary response to an attack on a GOP baseball game that left Steve Scalise (R – LA) in critical condition.
The Democratic Party has a divide of their own that mirrors the same phenomenon. Articles have been written ad infinitum about the clash between the so called Bernie and Hillary wings of the party. Hopes of unity following the election of Donald Trump have slowly faded as the fighting has continued. The clearest example was the race for chair of the DNC between moderate Tom Perez and Sanders backing progressive Keith Ellison. Since that fight, there’s been no shortage of infighting about the direction of the party, as the sides have continued to fight over the best way to approach special elections in the Trump era.
Both sides of the party see what they want to see in the special election results, which is unsurprising considering their brand of politics may depend on the results. For example, if Rob Quist would have won the special election in Montana, progressives would have been able to make the argument that it’s because of his liberal politics. Instead, they argued that Democrats didn’t pour enough money into the race while moderates hailed Quist as prove the Bernie wing is too far out of the mainstream to be electable. The reverse happened in Georgia, where liberals lambasted moderates for nominating the inexperienced and not liberal enough Jon Ossoff, who lost the election despite bringing in an eye-popping $25 million in campaign contributions.
For a sizable segment of the Sanders wing, politics has become a test of purity. Because Sanders has 20 plus years in Congress with no real significant baggage, that’s the puritanical vision by which steadfast lefties judge all other politicians. Elizabeth Warren, for example, is often labelled a sellout shill for not endorsing Bernie so she could retain power if Clinton was elected.
Cory Booker’s progressive credentials are dead and buried after he voted against a bill to import cheaper drugs from Canada, despite the fact Booker spent hours explaining his decision and rewrote a bill with the help of Bernie Sanders that fixed the price and regulatory control problems he had with the original bill.
For anyone but the Vermont Senator, this crowd is going to be tough to win over for candidate’s future, be it in congressional races or the Presidency. They tend to identify roughly 4 people who pass their purity test; Sanders, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz challenger Tim Canova, and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Senator Sanders will be 78 when 2020 rolls around and Tulsi Gabbard will only be 39, probably making one too old and one too young to run for President. Turner and Canova simply don’t have the experience to get anywhere near a Presidential bid. So that leaves exactly zero people who these progressives have deemed acceptable. It’s possible Elizabeth Warren could win back their heart or a Kamala Harris type could win them over, but it won’t be easy. One deviation from the liberal orthodoxy and you’re in neoliberal shill timeout.
The moderates have an even bigger problem than progressives. Decimated by Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss in 2016, their wing of the party is quite clearly in the doghouse. Their approach to competing with all the Koch network funding that exists on the right is to take huge corporate sums of their own, making the party far more favorable to Wall Street and corporations than their base. On issues of foreign policy, unmitigated free trade and support for both Saudi Arabia and Israel has left a bad taste in the mouth of most of the Democratic base. These are policies that are fundamentally unpopular.
Clinton hasn’t helped. Rather than realizing that losing a Presidential election to Donald Trump after being a first lady, two term senator, and Secretary of State is probably where you should call it quits, she continues to demand a spotlight. Clinton’s appearances, during which she continues to blame her election loss on anything but her own poor candidacy, have cause a number of Democrats to call for her to step off the national stage. This is a good representation of just how badly moderates are losing, as Clinton was a party favorite leading up to 2016.
The differences between the two sides on policy are significant, but not the key tenant of the disagreement. Most of the Democratic Party would love a single payer system, for example, and Hillary Clinton certainly would have signed the bill had she been President and had it ended up on her desk. The issue is that moderates don’t think single payer is worth pursuing, while progressives think it’s the only policy worth pursuing. The same goes for areas like federal marijuana legalization, free college tuition, and breaking up the big banks.
The moderate approach to politics goes like this: pursuing progressive policies is impractical. Most Americans don’t support super liberal programs, so even if we could somehow get something like single payer passed through the Senate, it would destroy our political capital and the American people would vote us out in the next election. We should be focusing on incremental progress, and eventually we’ll get to the progressive stuff.
The progressive approach is as follows: the Clinton wing claims they’re just being pragmatic, but their reason for opposition to progressive policies is that they take big campaign contributions from the industries that would be affected. Liberal policies like single payer and free college tuition are enormously popular among the American people, and Democrats won’t start winning elections again until they push for a progressive populist agenda.
Until the Democrats figure out how to bridge these gaps, it’s hard to see how they regain power at the federal or local level. While the party has largely been shifting left in recent years, the moderates still command party leadership and fundraising. Either progressives need to cede ground to moderates and run another Clinton type with far less baggage in 2020, or the moderates need to shift left and let progressives run the party agenda. You can’t have both, but if the party truly commits to either one they should be well poised to defeat Donald Trump and take back Congress in 2020.
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