The Coming Democratic Party Civil War
“Party powerbrokers seek to stop the grassroots surge.”
“Establishment candidates accused of conspiring to steal delegates.”
“Candidate’s supporters feel cheated by an unfair electoral system.”
“Campaigners claim primary opponent is bought and paid for.”
“Party Establishment facing revolution from the grassroots.”
These are the kinds of headlines that have dominated election coverage ever since Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign morphed into an existential threat to the Republican Party as we know it. Promising massive rollbacks on free trade, refusing to tackle entitlement reform, and undermining our major military alliances are all huge departures from party orthodoxy, yet Trump has continued his grinding path toward the nomination. His last serious rival, Ted Cruz, is nearly as antagonistic to these pillars of the GOP platform.
The traditional Republican candidates, with their traditional Republican policies, have been on the losing end this whole electoral cycle. The staggering defeat of what was once called the “governing wing” of the Republican Party has been the subject of numerous articles and commentaries, with many sounding the death knell of the Grand Old Party.
Yet these pyrotechnics of civil strife tearing apart the Republicans have obscured another conflict brewing, one that threatens to tear apart the Democrats just as viciously.
Until recently it was quite easy to ignore the mounting tension in the political left, thanks to both to the media’s consuming obsession with the GOP’s self-immolation, and to the Democratic standard-bearers’ studied performances in friendliness.
The first few Democratic debates might be better described as love fests, with all candidates endeavoring to avoid criticizing one another, declining to go on the attack even when goaded by the moderators.
As the election has heated up and Bernie Sanders has morphed from a protest candidate into a serious threat, so too has the rhetoric changed. Hillary Clinton has started laying into her opponent both directly and through her proxies, and Bernie has retaliated in kind. Recently he even suggested that Hillary’s vote to invade Iraq and her ties to Wall Street disqualified her from the presidency.
The fighting stretches beyond these two candidates. Bernie’s calls for a political revolution has been heard by many, mostly young, activists who are fighting to wrest control of the party from the established leadership. The rise of the “Bernie or Bust” movement, which promises to opt-out of the electoral process if he is not the nominee, reflects a widespread distrust, or disenchantment, with the Democratic leadership. This newly invigorated branch of the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to like Democrats very much.
The Democrats since the 1990s have been a progressive party with a technocratic and broadly pro-market stance. This has served them well electorally and made them far more competent in government than they had been when their political center of gravity was farther to the left. The rise of Bernie Sanders and his acolytes shows a desire to return to those bad old days. And if they can’t make the party turn back time, they may walk.
Already we can see battle lines being drawn. Progressive activist groups have been on the attack against Julian Castro, President Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. They accuse him of being insufficiently progressive. This is because he is one of the Clintonite technocrats who does not despise markets qua markets.
It seems likely that no matter who wins the Democratic nomination that this sort of fratricidal behavior will only grow. Whether it can survive these fights, as it does with the GOP, remains to be seen.