As we crawl towards the conventions in July, it’s time for the parties to take stock not only of their chances in November, but also their long-term health. Much has been made over the last year about the growing rifts in the Republican Party and what those divisions mean both for its ideological direction and its electoral chances. In one sense, the Trump versus Cruz contest has the highest of stakes, deciding whether control of the party will rest with a far-right ideological conservative or a billionaire harnessing the attitudinal counter-culture. On the other hand, whether Republicans choose Ted Cruz as their small government champion or Donald Trump as their warrior against political correctness, the party continues to show no ability to reach out to the center and achieve an actual governing coalition. But divisions on the Democratic side, if not as openly hostile or immediately threatening to 2016 success as those of the Republicans, are also showing themselves to be a serious, long-term challenge. Yet, remarkably, the current, increasingly contentious race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is doing nothing to litigate, much less resolve, the question of which path the party should take.
There seem to be two fundamental issues confronting the Democratic Party in its post-Obama future. First, whether broad-based economic populism will be central to the party’s core message. A more measured approach might attract (as President Obama did) the support of educated suburban voters increasingly alienated from the Republicans’ harsh social and vehemently anti-government rhetoric, though partial to traditionally conservative tax and regulatory policies. A more aggressively populist one might make inroads into the white working-class voters once a staple of the Democratic coalition. In practice, the debate amounts to whether Democrats will move beyond more modest economic goals of increasing infrastructure spending, the minimum wage, and the earned income tax credit to more fundamentally attack and reform the wealth structure in America.
The second, and more pressing, issue for the future of the Democratic Party is whether and to what extent the party’s generally applicable economic agenda will be filtered through the prism of identity politics. Depicting the party’s domestic agenda by emphasizing expanded racial and gender equality can be described most charitably as appropriately highlighting (at long last) the unique struggles of racial minorities and women in housing, employment, policing, and other sectors of American life, or more cynically as exploiting the culture wars and identity issues central to keeping the “Obama coalition” intact.
Every day the news brings fresh reminders of these two important philosophical tensions for Democrats, as well as new fault lines that have appeared along them. Regarding the first division, President Obama continues to push for a Pacific trade pact opposed by many members of his own party. The economic recovery continues unabated, as does wage stagnation. Joblessness marches steadily downward, though the problems of underemployment and inefficient employment persist. As for the second division, Black Lives Matters activists continue to robustly and unapologetically shine a spotlight on pervasive racial inequalities in policing and the criminal justice system. The Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate is pending before the Supreme Court, as is the President’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans immigration enforcement policy. So-called “bathroom laws” invalidating equal treatment ordinances for LGBT citizens are currently roiling the South.
You might not know it from listening to the two Democratic candidates throw haymakers at each other at last Thursday’s debate, but the Democratic Party’s approach to addressing these two existential questions is not in serious dispute. On economic issues, Clinton moved early to embrace the basic policy goals of the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, embracing the need to fight income inequality as a top domestic priority back in July. Her economic agenda from the beginning has included calls to “enhance” Social Security (rather than simply protect it) and raise taxes on capital gains and other earnings beyond simply increasing the top marginal rates on income, in addition to more modest Democratic goals such as raising the minimum wage. It was also early in the campaign when Clinton rolled out an aggressive Wall Street regulation agenda, calling for high-frequency transaction and risk fees for large financial institutions, instituting additional leverage, capital, and other controls on non-banking financial institutions (what some have termed the “shadow banking” industry), and a host of other detailed reforms to use and strengthen the powers created under the Dodd-Frank legislation. So well before the campaign got underway in earnest, Clinton, like Sanders, chose the full-throated, economic-justice route. What about Sanders’s increasingly vicious attacks on Clinton’s campaign finance practices and personal relationships to Wall Street and wealthy donors? While certainly creating a meaningful contrast between the two, it’s not really a substantive policy dispute. Clinton has also called for Citizens United’s reversal and increased campaign finance regulations as a matter of policy. Sanders’s critique is related more to this particular campaign, and one that we’ll come back to in a moment.
The identity politics issue has seen the same dynamic in reverse. Clinton had always planned to run her campaign on breaking down barriers for women and minorities. Indeed, her current agenda and stump speech are a veritable checklist of Obama coalition identity groups. Sanders, on the other hand, appeared to initially run solely on an economic agenda tailored to the white working-class and young progressives. Early in the campaign, for instance, he made some vague but seemingly dismissive comments about immigration reform and the Black Lives Matter activists. Now, Sanders is aggressively pushing a criminal justice reform agenda aimed at wooing African Americans and has fully endorsed the President’s immigration policies. Sanders has shifted in favor of full LGBT rights and marriage equality in much the same way that Obama and Clinton did. More notably, he has embraced Democrats’ increased use of highlighting racial inequities, rather than tamping down identity politics in an effort to reassure working-class whites. Sanders now relishes pointing out how no one questions whether he was born in the United States, despite the fact that both his and President Obama’s fathers were foreign-born— “maybe it’s because of the color of my skin being different than Obama’s,” he drolly remarks to his crowds.
So, no, the Clinton-Sanders contest does not represent any meaningful choice on the major strategic decisions facing Democrats today. No matter who they nominate, the party is poised to aggressively highlight economic and identity inequalities rather than tamp down the potential for social and economic upheaval. Depending on your view of the political climate, this might not be the best situation. Back in October, when Trump’s rise still merited a wry smile, Matt Yglesias of Vox published a controversial theory under the headline: “Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble.” His thesis was simple; national Republicans may be in disarray, but state level Democrats can’t even admit they have a problem:
Yes, Barack Obama is taking a victory lap in his seventh year in office. Yes, Republicans can’t find a credible candidate to so much as run for speaker of the House. Yes, the GOP presidential field is led by a megalomaniacal reality TV star. All this is true — but rather than lay the foundation for enduring Democratic success, all it’s done is breed a wrongheaded atmosphere of complacence. The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress…Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist. Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.
Yglesias’s point was far broader than simply “Democrats need to pay attention to down-ballot races.” Instead, he was correctly acknowledging that the party’s political positioning under Obama has worked well at the national level under the stewardship of a powerfully competent and charismatic caretaker, but the strategy was actively failing in state and local races among constituencies that previously voted Democratic. Indeed, a special kind of liberal over-confidence has grown from the intoxicating comfort of purportedly inexorable demographic trends. The massive defeats Democrats suffered in the 2010 and 2014 midterms and in statehouses across the country over the last decade suggest that messaging and tone on social and economic issues remain critically important. And such framing can change in unexpected ways, as the rise of Donald Trump has shown, despite his overall unpopularity with the general electorate. There are thousands of lower-income white voters who chose Obama’s auto bailout and Wall Street regulation over Mitt Romney’s corporate raiding, but who are nonetheless now choosing Trump’s social reassurance in GOP primaries over what they perceive to be Democrats’ smugness and scorn—seeing explicitly racial and gender critiques as divisive and uncaring to their own pain. Maybe Democrats are fine with that, and are willing to ride into the general election with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter at the core of their message (no doubt voters receptive to those issues have been neglected for far too long). But it’s an electoral debate the party deserves to have.
Instead, the debate between the two candidates playing out right now is whether progressives should be Democrats at all. This, of course, is not how the Sanders campaign would frame things. Instead, they lambaste Clinton for participating in a “corrupt” system of campaign finance reform backed by Super PACs. But of course, this critique applies with full force to the entire slate of national Democratic office-holders, including none other than President Obama himself. There is simply no principled way to take the Sanders campaign’s message and apply it as a harmless criticism of only Clinton; the Sanders “revolution” is one against the Democratic Party itself. If raising money from wealthy contributors, supporting any trade agreements, rejecting the claim that “the business of Wall Street is fraud,” and realistically accounting for Republican obstructionism and conservative backlash in crafting legislation is selling out, then the Democratic Party is indeed the sell-out party. Yet, Sanders can’t take his rhetoric to that logical conclusion. Although all too happy to paint Clinton and her Democratic colleagues as compromised members of “the Establishment,” Sanders has still embraced Obama’s legacy and vision as his own. This incongruous positioning is politically smart but serves only to further postpone consideration of Democrats’ strategic challenges. The party cannot both be anti-establishment and celebrate the last eight years of positive change.
For this reason, because Sanders’s message is simultaneously an embrace of the Democratic Party’s agenda but a rejection of its methods and representatives, Yglesisas’s recent conclusion that “Bernie Sanders is the future of the Democratic Party,” is off base. Yglesias argued: “Any young and ambitious Democrat looking at the demographics of the party and the demographics of Sanders supporters has to conclude that his brand of politics is extremely promising for the future. There are racial and demographic gaps between Clinton and Sanders supporters, but the overwhelming reality is that for all groups, the young people are feeling the Bern.” This seems to be a rather unpersuasive argument. Unlike other discrete voting blocs who do not change racial, religious, or gender identities en masse, young people do not remain forever young. Instead, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie ably demonstrated recently, Sanders comes from a long line of liberal iconoclasts such as Bill Bradley and Howard Dean (a comparison made here back in January). Bouie maintained that Sanders did not represent any new movement or continuing ideology, only that the left-wing of the Democratic Party and its emphasis on ideological and procedural purity was larger than before now that white moderates had fully defected:
[F]ar from building a coalition of new voters and expanding left-wing politics to groups who have traditionally eschewed or avoided it, Sanders has simply reconstituted the usual liberal coalition that backs insurgents in a Democratic primary. He has done so with incredible success. But a movement? There never was a Bernie Sanders movement.
The presence of a strong and effective leader often papers over real rifts in large, multifaceted political parties. For the Democrats, President Obama’s successful Presidency and unique ability to unite disadvantaged racial and gender minorities with significant segments of socially moderate women and populist, working-class whites is delaying a much needed reckoning. Perhaps Hillary Clinton can keep the coalition together for this election. The Republicans are certainly helping by presenting extremist alternatives against which disparate moderates and liberals can rally. But whether the answer need arrive now or in four years, the question remains: what happens when Obama isn’t present to stitch the Democratic coalition together again? Acrimonious primaries provide necessary checkups on the health of political parties by presenting competing hypotheses for electoral success and issue advocacy, which are then tested in the general election. In 2016, however, Democrats are getting the side effects without the medicine. The insurgent Sanders campaign has started a conversation, but not one that has any meaning for the future of the Democratic Party. Which is a shame, because whichever of the two plausible messaging choices the Democrats make, the party desperately needs to fully consider them.