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A Crisis in the Democratic Party?

One thing is for certain: The Democratic Party is in a perilous position, and it remains to be seen how it responds

Ben Clark

Naked Politics Blogger

Following the 2018 midterms, it might seem odd to question the current state of the Democratic Party. Blue wave or blue ripple, Democrats undeniably fared better in the election, winning back the House and several Governorships.

However, there is a growing division within the party, a division that will seriously harm the ability of Democrats to win the presidency for years to come.

Such a division concerns the increasing voice of the ‘radical’ left-wing branch of the party disrupting the more moderate, centrist core. One only has to look at the increasing numbers of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA): since Trump was elected in 2016, the DSA membership has grown from 7,000 members to over 50,000. Such an increase has translated into political support for multiple left-wing candidates running as Democrats, enhancing the rift.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, argued that “immigration is not a problem” in a recent interview with VICE News. Elected to the 14th Congressional District of New York, she also joined a sit-in outside Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi’s office in mid-November to challenge the Democratic stance on climate change, arguing for more aggressive action to be taken by the party.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Image from Vanity Fair

Whether you agree or disagree with her views, they are problematic for the party. Not only are they painting a picture of a disunited party, but they are also too radical for the rest of the country. Such views are fine in strong Democratic districts and states, like New York. However, they will not appeal to voters of the swing states where cultural issues are of most importance.

Exit polls in Ohio in 2016, for example, highlighted that 43% of voters in the state thought immigrants hurt the US. It is swing states that Democrats need to win if they are to control the presidency, and they won’t be won on a DSA platform.

So, how to heal the rift? The way I see it, Democrats have four options.

The first is to continue to allow Democratic Socialists to voice their own beliefs against the wishes of the moderate core. Such an option is viable. However, it is dependent on whether the core can ensure the public believes the party is united around moderate values come national election time. And with the radical branch increasingly disruptive, such public belief will disappear.

The second option is to adopt more positions held by the Democratic Socialists. This would certainly strengthen the party’s base and gain it more votes. However, such votes would be gained in states that are already solidly Democrat. Such gains would therefore be unnecessary, serving only to weaken the chances of Democrats winning swing states. Indeed, by moving the party towards values held by Democratic Socialists, Democrats could lose the presidency for a generation. This option must therefore be avoided at all costs.

The third option is to nominate candidates that have views that lie in-between the DSA’s and the moderate core as to create unity. Progressives such as Bernie Sanders fit this bill. Indeed, for 2020, I believe that Sanders’ is the best option. Arguing for measures such as universal healthcare and free college will endear himself to the DSA-wing, while his criticism of leftist “open borders” advocates ensures he is acceptable by the moderate core of the party and, more importantly, voters in swing states.

However, it is a fine balance to achieve. Therefore, for the long-term future of the party, I believe that the final option of the moderate core forcing the Democratic Socialists out of the party altogether is necessary. While this would hurt the party’s support in solid Democratic states, such states will still turn blue come election time. More importantly, such an action would give Democrats a far greater chance of winning swing states, thus the presidency.

To do this, the moderate core must adopt a clear policy programme that reflects their centrist beliefs. This would certainly produce vocal opposition from Democratic Socialists. However, it would eventually force those with more radical views out of the party as to form a third party. Just as Ross Perot’s Reform Party hurt Republicans in 1992 and 1996, the formation of a left-wing party would hurt Democrats at the next couple of elections. However, the nature of the Electoral College as a two-party system ensures that no third parties survive for long. For the long-term ambitions of the party then, the most viable option is to force Democratic Socialists out.

Nonetheless, for 2020, Democrats should focus on short-term unity, hence the need for someone like Sanders. Indeed, someone like Sanders running as the Democratic nomination would also provide an important gauge for how Democrats should operate in the long-term: if they win, the party can nominate more progressives and my argument disappears. If they lose, then the DSA-wing of the party must be forced out.

One thing is for certain, however. The Democratic Party is in a perilous position, and it remains to be seen how it responds.

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