In Search Of a Base: The Democratic Party and the US Election

Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo / Wikipedia

Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections accelerated the destabilization of the party system in the United States. In practice, the Democrats split into three groups, each with its own vision for rebuilding the party base. With Biden’s candidacy, the future of the Democrats remains uncertain, as do the electoral possibilities of the American left within the given framework of electoral policy.

The 2020 US presidential elections take place amidst the gradual dislocation of politics in the Western world. As political participation across Western democracies declines and the traditional social bases of established political parties have “hollowed out,” to use Peter Maier’s phrase, post-WWII political orders have started to unravel.

In the US this dislocation of the political order has led to a gradual realignment of the electoral blocs of the two parties. While Republicans have begun to make in-roads in the white working class, once the traditional base of the Democrats, their opponents have built a coalition of minority groups and wealthier, socially liberal metropolitan voters.

The hollowing out of the social base of both parties has meant that both the Republicans and Democrats have become ever more reliant on their most committed, most partisan supporters. The increasingly vitriolic culture wars between conservatives and liberals that animate US politics are, in large part, an effort to play to these respective, narrowing bases. This process has meant that despite the fact that US society remains relatively moderate in its political views, US politics has become radically polarized.

Donald Trump’s unexpected win in the 2016 presidential election exposed and accelerated this destabilization of the US party system. Within the Democratic Party, the loss of white working class voters to Trump in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, has precipitated a political crisis over the future direction of the party. This crisis has effectively led to the breakdown of the party into three rival groupings each with their own strategic vision for rebuilding the party’s base, what I will term the establishment, the identitarians and the progressives.

Establishment Triangulation

The party establishment, now rallied behind the Biden team, hopes to win over what they call “Biden Republicans,” that is, moderate Republicans who have been alienated by the party’s transformation under Trump’s administration. For Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House Chief, this isn’t just a strategy for the 2020 election but a long-term goal for rebuilding the party’s social base. Assured that minorities and progressives are safely-held constituencies, Emanuel maintains the party must win over the middle class suburbs by adopting the policies of the extreme center.

This “triangulation” strategy certainly isn’t new. In the 1990s Bill Clinton’s campaigns moved the Democratic Party away from the left and towards a center ground that strategists believed would appeal to moderate “swing voters.” The strategy was credited with delivering the Democratic landslide of 2006 as middle class moderates fled from Bush II’s administration.

But this entails huge risks. As the Democratic leadership embraces Bush-era Republicans like Colin Powell and John Kasich in an effort to reach out to moderates, they risk alienating other constituencies, especially progressives.

Holding such a contradictory coalition of voters together – from moderate Republicans to Sanders progressives – requires exaggerating the threat of Trump, casting him as “the greatest threat to American democracy.” Getting rid of Trump, for the establishment, has become the raison d’etre of the Democratic Party. It was the pursuit of this strategy over the past four years that has fed the unhinged Russiagate conspiracies, the Ukraine impeachment inquiry and the constant insinuations about Trump’s tax return or his shady business dealings.

The Demographic Strategy

The identitarian wing of the Democratic Party has rapidly grown in visibility during Trump’s first term. Its adherents see the future of the party lying in the “demographic strategy”: as the US population becomes less white and more racially diverse, the Democrat’s electoral base will inevitably grow. In practice, identitarians conclude, this means that Democrats should more explicitly signal their concern with issues of racial justice, either through supporting movements like Black Lives Matter or by ensuring greater racial diversity among the party leadership.

The Trump presidency has given identitarian Democrats a perfect foil with which to play to their intended base. Casting Trump as a “white supremacist” will more firmly weld non-white voters onto the Democrats (or so some party strategists think).

The hold of this strategy within the party was evident in the 2019-20 presidential primaries. With the most diverse group of candidates in the Democratic Party’s history, many leveraged their claims to leadership with appeals to their own racial or sexual identities.

Kamala Harris cited her personal experiences of racial discrimination. Cory Booker pitched that only he could speak to black voters. Pete Buttigieg touted his political prowess as “a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.” Julian Castro made a point of addressing a debate audience in Spanish. While Elizabeth Warren made the ill-fated decision to “prove” her Native American ancestry through a DNA test.

Such appeals to racial identity allow the Democrats to further reify their differences with Republicans, a tactic that is essential in this era of ultra-partisan competition. Framing politics around the language of racial identity presents the Democrats as a party of a racially diverse coalition and the Republicans as the party of an inherently “racist white working class.”

Such a simplistic racial alignment of US politics allows Democrats to increasingly approach racism as a problem of historically-ingrained social values, rather than a structural element of US capitalism, one that both Democrats and Republicans have faithfully reproduced.

The Progressive Challenge

Sanders’ insurgent campaign in the Democratic Party’s 2015-16 primaries became the impetus for a wider progressive challenge to the party establishment. Over the past four years leftist groups like the Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America have sought to build on Sanders’ challenge to the party establishment by sponsoring well-placed progressive candidates. These campaigns aim to unite the “multiracial working class” around populist policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Vehemently opposed to the establishment’s effort to win over wealthy suburbanites, progressives instead argue that the party must rebuild its base in the working class and draw in the millions of non-voters who have become disillusioned by the political system.

Owing partly to the disorientation of the Democratic Party establishment following the 2016 election and partly to a deeper populist backlash against the political class in general, this progressive movement has achieved a number of high-profile wins by candidates like Jamaal Bowman, Charles Booker and Cori Bush.

But despite chalking up such significant wins, the progressive wing of the Democrats was dealt a huge blow with Bernie Sanders’ utter defeat in the primaries.

This defeat was unambiguous. Not only did Sanders lose several states that he had handily won against Clinton in 2016, like Michigan or Wisconsin, but he lost despite having a significantly better-funded and better-organized campaign. Even more damning, the constituencies that Sanders’ campaign had hoped to mobilize – young people, working class voters, nonvoters – simply failed to come out in large numbers. Instead, the Democratic primaries saw an influx of wealthier, suburban voters, who turned out for Biden in much larger numbers.

Sanders’ subsequent capitulation to the Democratic establishment’s agenda, his unconditional endorsement of Biden and his criticism of followers who wouldn’t follow suit, has been a thoroughly disillusioning end to the campaign. This is a historic defeat for a US left still in the infant stages of its reconstruction.

A Party in Disarray

The breakdown of the Democratic Party into these three groupings speaks to its disarray as it erratically searches for a social base in this era of mass disengagement from politics. Trump’s election increased the stakes of that search, leading to further disarray as these three rival strategic visions compete to shape the party’s 2020 campaign.

Establishment figures like Rahm Emanuel have vocally criticized both the progressive and identitarian strategies for alienating crucial middle class suburban voters. In response, prominent Democrats, concerned that Biden would be unable to enthuse black voters, publicly campaigned to have his team select a black woman as his vice presidential pick.

Meanwhile, progressive and identitarian agendas are already fighting over the crumbs of a future Biden administration: a recent progressive demand that Biden refuse to appoint anyone with ties to Wall Street in his future administration has been condemned by prominent black Democrats who insist such a policy would undermine the party’s commitment to promoting racial diversity.

The disarray sown within the Democratic Party helps to explain why the party establishment was unable to effectively respond to Sanders’ challenge this time around. In 2016 the Democratic National Committee explicitly maneuvered to secure Clinton’s victory. But in 2020 they were unable to consolidate their support behind a single candidate until the very last moment.

Split between establishment and identitarian strategies, their attacks were confused. For some, Sanders’ policies were too radical and would alienate moderate suburbanites. For others, he was just another straight white man whose policies didn’t really differ from those of Warren.

This incoherent messaging revealed the disorientation of the Democratic leadership. It was not until the last minute that Barack Obama intervened behind the scenes to secure the nomination for Biden.

While the party has not descended into outright factional strife, there is a growing crisis in the Democratic Party, one that will be deepened and prolonged should Biden lose in November.

The Democratic Party and the Left

With its choice of Kamala Harris as vice president, the Biden campaign has attempted to bring together the messaging of the establishment and identitarian strategies. Its goal is at once to appeal to disillusioned Republicans and suburban moderates, while also signaling its commitment to racial justice and representation.

This strategy is fraught with risk. Joe Biden is a huge liability, not because, as an old white man, he is somehow unable to relate to a racially-diverse electorate, but because his political career exposes the decades of Democrats’ complicity in the structures of US racism.

Consider, for example, the fact that many of Trump’s most reprehensible policies were largely expansions of existing practices introduced or maintained under Democratic administrations. His infamous “Muslim ban,” for instance, expanded an Obama-era law. His controversial border wall with Mexico is an extension of a border security strategy first introduced under Bill Clinton and subsequently expanded under both Bush II and Obama. Despite Trump’s cruel ICE raids, deportations of undocumented immigrants were far higher under Obama’s first term, a fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager to acknowledge today.

Meanwhile, almost all the recent uprisings for black lives have been directed against police forces in Democrat-run cities and states.

These gaps between the party’s rhetoric of racial justice and its concrete political practice are ideal targets for Trump, allowing him to paint Biden as just another candidate of a corrupt and hypocritical political class. Trump’s campaign has already begun to draw attention to Biden’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill, which many criminal justice reformers blame for increasing mass incarceration of black Americans.

Trump has also begun to rehearse his talking points from 2016, denouncing Biden for his support of damaging free trade agreements, unrestricted immigration and destructive wars in the Middle East.

Although Biden maintains a comfortable lead in the polls it is still entirely possible that he will lose in November. And this loss would accelerate and deepen the current crisis of the Democratic Party. While such a situation might offer opportunities for a rising progressive challenge to the party’s leadership, it is worth asking what the benefit of inheriting such a hollowed out and compromised party might be for the US left.

Afterall, the Democratic Party’s crisis is part of a wider crisis of Western politics. As the recent experience of Jeremy Corbyn, PODEMOS, SYRIZA and La France Insoumise have demonstrated, it is far from certain that the terrain of electoral politics is a favorable one for executing a project of radical social transformation today.

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