The Democrats Are Moving Left Without Self-Destructing
During the first years of the Obama presidency, the Republican Party found itself out of power in Washington—and went to war with itself. Right-wing insurgents, mobilized under the Tea Party banner, brought out the knives against fellow Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative, particularly in party primaries and often with disastrous effect. Angry voters nominated a succession of hard-right candidates who took down more electable incumbents, inhibiting the party’s efforts to win back the Senate for six years even as it won control of the House in 2010.
Democrats, likewise shut out of power in the early years of the Trump presidency, face a similarly rebellious activist flank that risks pulling their party to an unelectable extreme by defeating Establishment-friendly candidates. But so far the left-wing “resistance” hasn’t sparked an intraparty civil war so much as a genteel coffee-table discussion. During the first big wave of primaries this month, Democratic centrists did something their GOP counterparts often couldn’t during the Obama years: They survived. Instead of nominating radical outsiders, voters mostly went with moderate incumbents. Putting off any significant discussion about what the party truly stands for is just fine for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who on May 8 said at an event in Washington, “Just win baby.”
That evening, two of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats—West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly—coasted to renomination. Manchin crushed his liberal challenger by 40 points, while Donnelly ran unopposed. Both have angered the left by casting numerous votes in favor of Trump’s agenda. In the last year, Democrats nominated other moderates, such as Jon Ossoff (who lost a Georgia House race), Conor Lamb (who won in Pennsylvania’s House special election), and Doug Jones, who pulled off an upset against a tainted Republican Senate candidate in deep-red Alabama.
Liberal voter intensity and grass-roots energy, driven by anger at Trump, sometimes evokes comparisons to the Tea Party. But the resistance has less money, is less organized, and therefore is less able to bend the party in its direction. “I envy how well-funded the right is,” says Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the progressive activist group MoveOn. “It’s not the most glowing thing to say about the progressive movement, but at this point in the Tea Party cycle they were purifying the ranks. And we’re still catching up to that.”
At the same time, the resistance is avoiding the suicidal tendencies of the Tea Party, which nominated radical candidates who blew winnable races for the Senate, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In 2010 and 2012 the movement defeated Republican incumbents with strong general election appeal such as Delaware’s Mike Castle and Indiana’s Dick Lugar, only to watch Democrats win those races. “The only significant races we won in 2010 were in races where Republicans ate themselves alive,” says Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. “What should scare the hell out of Republicans is that we have energy and relative unity. That’s hard, because with energy usually comes some opposing forces, and that has not happened in any meaningful way so far.”
While red states such as Indiana and West Virginia drew the most attention on May 8, Democrats also stopped populist insurgents in important swing states like Ohio. Democratic leaders had worried that their preferred candidate, former Obama official Richard Cordray, might lose to Dennis Kucinich, the outspoken populist ex-congressman who won the backing of Our Revolution, an advocacy group that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign. But Cordray trounced Kucinich by 40 points. Rather than representing a broad divide between two poles of the party, Cordray says, he and Kucinich shared many policy positions, lessening the temptation of grass-roots activists to defect to his left-wing rival.
Trump is enough of a unifying force that Democrats can paper over policy differences. The party also isn’t nearly as much of a top-down organization as the GOP, where big donors like the Kochs exert outsize influence. “Our donors have much less impact on our grass-roots structure than Republicans do,” Murphy says. “That’s one of the outstanding questions for us: Are they still going to have a big money advantage that we’ll have to counter with an enthusiasm advantage?”
Progressives have found ways to move the policy conversation to the left, without attacking moderates. Potential presidential contenders such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker, Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders have endorsed single-payer health care and a federal jobs guarantee, two left-wing pipe dreams that were confined to the fringes during Obama’s presidency. Progressives are thrilled that a number of candidates—mostly in safe blue districts—are running on those ideas this year. “Democrats are being bolder and proposing big solutions to big problems,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, a senior adviser to Sanders. “We have been way too limited in our thinking, and I’m very glad Democrats are breaking out of that as a whole.”
By contrast, the Tea Party was less about policy and more about capitalizing on cultural resentment among older white voters. While its leaders styled it as a fiscal conservative movement, its goals were rife with contradictions, such as reducing the deficit while cutting taxes and preserving Medicare. In the end, the true power of the Tea Party was in channeling voters’ revulsion to demographic diversity, a phenomenon embodied in the election of the first black president. “The Tea Party movement became effective because they were able to vilify President Obama and tag every Democrat to him,” says Mike Caputo, Democratic minority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates. “If you were running for dog catcher, they would do a mailer telling about how you and Obama used to have lunch together.”
Democrats still face huge challenges, including a depleted bench. The party lost more than 1,000 legislative seats during Obama’s presidency. “The progressive movement hasn’t done enough to cultivate the bench down-ballot,” Ganapathy says, adding that the left is “lacking the sort of roster that we need” to elect liberal candidates in higher-level races. Democrats also have a geographical disadvantage. In the House, GOP-drawn congressional districts have stacked the deck against Democrats, whose voters are concentrated in urban areas. In the Senate, red states with fewer than a million people carry the same weight as California, with 40 million residents.
“We have to simultaneously represent working-class voters in Michigan and Brooklyn hipsters and Southern California farm workers,” Ganapathy says. “That’s a more diverse coalition, and it presents more of a challenge. If that means we’re going to have some more discordant views in our party, we have to be OK with it.” —With Joshua Green and Tim Loh