WEST DES MOINES, IA - JULY 24: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests at a town hall meeting at Valley High School on July 24, 2015 in West Des Moines, Iowa. The campaign stop was the last of three stops Sanders scheduled in Iowa today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Since election day two distinct views for the future of the Democratic Party have come into focus. One championed by the Bernie Sanders wing of the party has doubled down on the vision laid out by Bernie, but particularly in the face of Republican healthcare reform has pushed for a single payer system with gusto. The other side has struggled to find its footing, lacking any broader policy vision or call to action, it has found itself eaten up by anti-Trump hysteria. Much of it fueled by a worked up base driven by the inquiry into ties between Trump and Russia. One side depends on motivating the base with red meat and progressive policy. The other wants to win over disaffected Republican voters turned off by the Trumpian Republican Party and scandal.
These two sides of the Democratic Party are in the midst of an internal struggle that has the potential to cripple the party’s electoral success if it isn’t adequately worked out. The recent string of special elections is a perfect example of how these very real differences materialize in the realm of politics and hamstring the party.
One on side are progressive Democrats who feel close elections in Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina prove that more populist appeal with some semblance of institutional support could topple some Republican seats. On the other side is an establishment that was committed to the Clinton strategy in 2016, dumping money on a supposedly weak district full of supposedly winnable “moderate college educated white Republicans” in the Georgia 6th congressional district. This hotly contested and big dollar race was the worst performance for Democrats based on the difference between polling, projections, and election day vote totals.
Which left many Democrats wondering if the party actually learned nothing from 2016. People needed more than “we’re not Republicans.” In the races where they got that, it seemed to buoy long shot Democratic challengers. In the case of Jon Ossoff his centrist campaign is emblematic of the larger lack of narrative or platform the Democratic establishment is currently suffering from. While it was a one off race in a very conservative district where massive improvement was made, it still is one misstep in a series of missteps that shows how the Democratic Party is seemingly unwilling to campaign on a populist message with the same amount of resources and institutional support.
It’s not worth re-litigating the primary or the way the special elections unfolded, but to the extent that the highlight broader issues within the Democratic Party they are still worth looking at.
The party’s difficulty forging ahead in the age of Trump and clinging to a strategy hellbent on offering an anti-Trump and nothing more, is definitely an issue worth looking at. Especially considering that the candidates who pushed a progressive message of change and actively campaigned on a more progressive platform, received very limited support from the party. Take Rob Quist in Montana, he did his best to make the election a referendum on the Republican healthcare bill and while he didn’t win he over performed significantly. The exact opposite of Jon Ossoff who the party rolled out all the stops for. Neither person won and arguing who did better is pointless, but they are good examples of two vastly different approaches the Democrats can take going forward.
One approach didn’t work too well in 2016 and doesn’t seem to have improved much since. The other hasn’t quite landed a win, but it’s a perfect foil to Trump’s right wing populism and hasn’t been tried enough to declare it a failure yet.
Maybe a more populist tone isn’t the answer to the Democratic Party’s soul searching, but it’s better than continuing to fail by virtue of changing nothing. Furthermore the progressive wing of the party is not simply going to moderate without giving their vision for the future a fair shake. If the Democratic Party doesn’t take on a more populist tone, but doubles down on the failed strategies of the past, it will have learned nothing from losing to Donald Trump and alienated some of its most passionate would be supporters.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has articulated a comprehensive vision for the future based on policies with successful models from around the world to replicate. Whether it’s single payer healthcare, universal college education, or criminal justice reform, there are real life policies to look at and learn from. Policies that millions of Americans could benefit from and polling data suggests are willing to give a try. Despite what has been peddled by the “we’re not Trump” crowd, there is a vision that amounts to a lot more than pie in the sky promises of a Scandinavian like American utopia. Medicare for all is a real policy position with an ever increasing base of public support. Universal college education is increasingly being viewed as a necessity in the global economy and for a time criminal justice reform had broad bipartisan support.
Despite all that the Democratic Party seems stuck in a state of disbelief that the shear fact they aren’t Donald Trump or members of his party isn’t enough to win elections. Unfortunately it never will be, but lucky for them there is a fairly flushed out agenda with a lot of support just waiting for them to adopt it.