Is there really a rift in the Democratic Party?
On October 3, 1982, just a few weeks before President Reagan’s first midterm elections, the Washington Post ran a story entitled, “The Democratic Party’s Identity Crisis.” With Republicans controlling the White House and the Senate, Democrats struggled to find a coherent message to reclaim their place on the national stage. “Voters rightly wonder just what the Democrats are offering in return for votes in these congressional elections,” wrote Robert G. Kaiser. “The answer, of course, is that they are offering something that isn’t Reaganomics. What they’re not is what they’re selling.”
Kaiser’s message rings especially true today, as the nation approaches 2018 midterms. Journalists and partisans alike have expressed concern that Democrats lack a strong message—that they are only standing against Trump, not for anything in particular. A big factor, at least according to the media, is that there remains a significant divide in the party between the left-wing flank and the more moderate, establishment center.
Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for President Obama, explains this dynamic in his new podcast: “A lingering debate from 2016 is whether the Democratic Party should move to the left or the center—it’s a debate that been a bit overblown by the media, since most of the Democratic candidates in 2018 have fairly similar agendas, no matter where they’re running. But it’s still something I heard from people who participated in [my] focus groups.”
A close look at public opinion polling confirms that Democrats are indeed divided on some issues. According to the Wall Street Journal, “opposition to Mr. Trump has partially masked a set of conflicts within the Democratic party.” On foreign policy, for example, a net 18% of the college-educated “professional class” within the party thinks the “US should be more actively involved in world affairs,” whereas a net 35% of the “blue collar” wing feels that “the US should focus more on issues here at home.” Similarly, a net 48% of the professional class views globalization as having been good for the US economy, and a net 3% of the blue-collar class views it as having been bad.
But as the WSJ notes, these ideological differences haven’t stopped Democrats from uniting in opposition against the GOP throughout the first half of the Trump administration. In nearly every major legislative fight throughout the past 18 months, Democrats have come together and voted as a bloc. What’s more, it doesn’t seem like these tensions have hurt Democrats on the campaign trail, considering that they’ve won a host of special elections in red states, and are projected to win back a majority in the House in just a few days, according to FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver.
What to make of all this? Is there anything unique or historically distinct about the current state of the Democratic party? How significant of a threat does intra-party strife pose for Democrats’ political prospects moving forward? To get to the bottom of some of these questions, I sat down with Robert Erikson, Professor of Political Science here at Columbia.
“I think now [the midterms are] more about opposing Trump because the Democrats don’t have a strong coherent message,” Erikson said. However, he was more hesitant to embrace the view that the lack of a strong, unified pitch will be an issue for Democrats—at least in the immediate future. “If Democrats don’t succeed, everyone will say ‘oh, they didn’t have a message.’ I think it’s actually more important for the in-party to have a message.”
Erikson didn’t seem overly concerned about the perception that Democrats are too focused on opposing Trump. After all, the nature of American politics is such that power swings back and forth between the parties, often irrespective of the messaging strategies and policy positions that they adopt in a given election year. Most of the time, the politics of opposition are enough to win back governing majorities.
Just look at the data: since the Great Depression, the party occupying the White House has only managed to gain seats in the first wave of midterm elections twice. According to a CNN poll conducted in 2017-- when Democrats’ approval rating sat at a 25-year low-- Republicans were even less popular, with only 30% of Americans holding a favorable view. “There are signs,” CNN’s Ryan Struyk writes, “that more of next year’s vote may be driven by a dislike of a party than affection for one.”
But while American political history illustrates that Democrats may not have anything to worry about right now, it also suggests that opposition is not a viable long-term strategy. This is what Erikson was getting at when he mentioned that it’s more important for the “in-party” to have a compelling message; to hold onto power in American politics, the majority party must convince disaffected Americans that they should vote for the incumbent, even if their lives haven’t tangibly improved throughout the party’s tenure. This can be a difficult task, considering that the opposition party has free reign to make bold promises that cannot be evaluated against a recent record—simply because they haven’t been in power.
Thus, it is exceedingly likely that Democrats will need to develop a stronger pitch if they are to regain (and maintain) control of Washington in the ensuing election cycles. To do so, they’ll need to escape the positive feedback loop that defines their current existence, wherein an absence of a strong message brings about party division, and party division makes it even harder to develop a strong message.
Where to begin?
Jon Favreau has some ideas. Throughout his podcast, “The Wilderness,” he talks about how Democrats can craft a powerful identity by standing up for the working class. In Chapter 6, “The Big We,” Favreau explains that Democrats cannot only rely on expanding the electorate and bringing new voters into the political process. They also have to win back some of the non-college educated white voters that made up 34% of the Obama coalition—many of which jumped onto the Trump train in 2016. To these ends, Democrats should look to restore their once-strong relationship with labor unions, and take steps to distance themselves from Wall-Street. This will help the party shift its focus back to the people, and demonstrate that it is not beholden to special interests.
Favreau also mentions that healthcare is “one of those issues where you’re seeing a lot more consensus between folks on the left and the center left,” with the majority of party-members supporting “Medicare for All.” Indeed, with 70% of Democrats expressing support in a recent poll conducted by The Hill, it seems advisable for Democrats to define their identity around healthcare and other areas of agreement. It also follows logically that Democrats should shy away from more divisive intra-party debates, like abolishing ICE, wherein the party is evenly split.
But in a broader sense, Favreau argues that for Democrats to develop a convincing pitch and build a winning majority, they’ll have to stand up for what they believe in. Instead of abandoning its commitment to racial and social justice, the Democratic party should seek out the non-college educated white voters that are “less likely to be driven by racial resentment, and more likely to support things like raising the minimum wage, abortion rights, and same sex marriage,” he says. Appealing to this group— “the 25% of Obama-Trump voters that still identify as Democrats”—will allow candidates across the country to present a single, powerful message, rather than a disjointed and inconsistent one.
In the event that Democrats do win back governing majorities in 2018, 2020 and beyond, they’ll need to learn some of these lessons. Opposition alone cannot hold together the New Deal coalition, which carried FDR to victory in four consecutive presidential elections, and ensured Democratic control of the House for all but four years from 1933 to 1995. Once the anti-Trump resistance movement is over, Democrats will have to stand up and explain to the American people why they deserve to control the federal government.
The good news for Democrats is that they’re already off to a pretty good start. In Texas, challenger Beto O’Rourke is running a boldly progressive campaign, believing he can convince the dark-red Lone Star state to vote for him without compromising his values and pandering to social conservatives. Championing his authenticity, O’Rourke has substantiated a populist message by rejecting corporate PAC money and demonstrating loud and clear that his only motive is to represent his constituents in the US Senate. Whether or not O’Rourke succeeds in 2018, he has proven that Democrats can be competitive in all parts of the country, regardless of perceived demographic constraints.
The idea that Democrats shouldn’t have to speak out of both ends of their mouths to win elections is also something I heard from Professor Erikson. “Maybe Democrats in 2016 could have argued with Trump if they thought he was being a demagogue on things like trade,” he said. “Instead of saying ‘we don’t like trade either,’ they could have argued the point—argued what they believed.”