The Democrats' wavering Hamlet act
The Democrats still can't decide who they are — and who they want to be
The Democratic Party remains deeply divided over what went wrong in 2016 and which way the party should turn as it heads toward 2020 and beyond. That's why the battle between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and liberal Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison over who would take over the leadership of the Democratic National Committee became an occasion for intra-party squabbles and angry recriminations after the votes were counted and Perez was declared the winner.
On one side, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donna Brazile, John Podesta, much of the party's national leadership, and their choice for DNC chairman (Perez) believe that the 2016 presidential election was stolen from Clinton by Russian President Vladimir Putin and FBI Director James Comey. Even without their interference, Clinton managed to win the popular tally by nearly 3 million votes. If it had been a clean race, she would have prevailed easily — which means that nothing fundamental needs to change.
On the other side, Bernie Sanders, the left wing of the party's congressional delegation, millions of activists and young voters, and this faction's preferred candidate for DNC chair (Ellison) believe that the party's problems go far beyond meddling by the Russians and the FBI. Why did the election end up close enough that such marginal mischief-making made a decisive difference? If everything is fundamentally sound in the party, what explains its electoral collapse at the presidential level in such Democratic strongholds as Wisconsin and Michigan — and why has the bleeding spread through all levels of government, with the party losing ground to Republicans from state legislatures and state houses to the halls of Congress? All of it points to the need for a major overhaul of the party and its priorities.
The split isn't going to be healed anytime soon. Yes, having President Trump as a mutual opponent will keep Democrats from descending into outright factional infighting and personal denunciations, at least for now. But eventually sides will need to be chosen and decisions made. The disagreement separating the factions is simply too real and important — and the stakes are too high, involving nothing less than the question of whether the party should stay the technocratic neoliberal course of the past 25 years, or bolt left in a bid to fight Trumpian nationalism with a dose of outright democratic socialism.
And then there's a third option that may prove even more risky — and rewarding.
1. A return to managerial liberal centrism. It's clear that the Democratic Party's establishment thinks its instincts are fundamentally sound. The country is undergoing demographic changes that will serve the party well in future elections. Voters will be so repulsed by Trump's recklessness and resulting instability at home and abroad (and perhaps suffering so badly from the partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a recession) that they will be thrilled by the prospect of electing a responsible manager again. All Democrats will need in 2020 is a modestly charismatic candidate to make the case for competence. In policy terms, this will amount to a reversal of many Trump administration priorities, a modest tinkering with domestic spending programs circa 2016, and a reaffirmation of the liberal international order around the world.
2. Bernie 2.0. It’s unlikely that a 78-year-old Sanders will raise the flag again in 2020, but there will probably be plenty of others eager to propose making a far bigger break from the Democratic status quo. Whether it's Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, or some outsider who leads the charge, younger, more activist voters are pining for someone to champion a much bolder agenda — one that might push for items on the Sanders wish list, like single-payer health care, free college tuition at public universities, stringent regulations on the finance sector, and a wealth tax to combat inequality, with all of it wrapped up in a comprehensive vision of progressive-democratic socialist reform.
3. Trumpism for the left. Options 1 and 2 both treat the American political spectrum as a given and then either grab for its center or its leftward pole. But there's another option available — one that involves following Trump in using a nationalist and populist message to scramble the ideological assumptions embedded in the spectrum. By all means, propose a single-payer health-care system and free college tuition, but combine them with a promise that only birthright or naturalized American citizens will be permitted to enjoy these benefits. Advocate for tough new regulations on Wall Street and higher taxes on the wealthy, but insist that these changes be paired with restrictions on low-skill immigration and the freedom of businesses to ship jobs overseas.
The point would be to demonstrate to a sizeable segment of Trump voters that the president's populism and nationalism are only skin deep. Trump might claim to be the voice of the people, but his policies mainly benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. It's the Democrats, by contrast, who understand that we're all in this together and that policies need to be crafted with this communal solidarity in mind. We have a duty to take care of our own — our fellow Americans — not out of some obligation derived from abstract universal humanitarianism, but out of a conviction that we're all members of a national family.
As they approach 2020, Democrats will need to decide what kind of a party they want to be. Will they opt to be the centrist party of JFK, Barack Obama, and the Clintons, the social-democratic party of FDR, LBJ, and Bernie Sanders — or a left-wing populist-nationalist party inspired above all by the dissenting example of the original populist William Jennings Bryan?
Those are the options. The future shape not just of the Democratic Party but of American political culture more broadly depends upon whether the party's establishment and its voters choose wisely.