There is a convention going back into the mists of time whereby the Democratic Party is thought of as a disorganized and divided mess. The early 20th-century humorist Will Rogers, himself a Democrat, once said:
The difference between a Republican and a Democrat is the Democrat is a cannibal. They have to live off each other, while the Republicans, why, they live off the Democrats.
He wasn’t trying to be funny on that occasion, and it made a fair amount sense to think of the Donkey Party as an unwieldy paradox back when it was the preferred political vehicle of rural populists, southern segregationists, urban machines, and ethnic minorities doing battle with a Grand Old Party that mostly revolved around defending economic privilege and deploring anything that wasn’t WASPy.
But the “Democrats in Disarray” meme has lived on, and for a brief moment in the late autumn of 2016, it was pretty accurate, as Democrats reeled from a shocking defeat against a presidential candidate who looked more like a cartoon villain than a serious aspirant to high office.
As New York’s Eric Levitz explained last November, however, any talk of Democrats being fatally divided or in despair during 2017 was visibly rebutted by the steady drumbeat of Democratic victories in special and off-year elections.
Democrats don’t have nearly as many special elections to show they’re feeling their oats this year, and they’ve lost some of the huge, double-digit lead in the generic congressional ballot that was regularly appearing when Levitz wrote his upbeat assessment of Democratic prospects. And for those (both conservatives and conflict-seeking mainstream-media folk) who deeply cherish the Democrats in Disarray meme, those special elections are helpfully being replaced by party primaries in which Democrats are running against Democrats! Imagine that! Worse yet, in some of these primaries the winners are self-proclaimed progressives! And as we all know, the American people have a deep craving for sensible centrists who want to cross the party aisles and get things done. If Republicans don’t have any of those anymore, then by God, it’s critical that the loyal opposition keep the faith and avoid extremism.
Veteran political writer Walter Shapiro has written a useful skewering of this all-too-common narrative, which has been sent into overdrive by the June primary victory in New York of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley:
[A]n emblematic story led Sunday’s New York Times under the print headline, “Democrats Brace as Storm Brews Far to Their Left.”
The themes of the Times story and dozens like it are familiar. They all highlight young activists such as 28-year-old giant slayer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upended potential Nancy Pelosi successor Joe Crowley in the New York primary. Risky issues are highlighted as main stream Democrats recoil from demands for single-payer health insurance and the abolition of ICE (the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement)….
Yet by the historical standards of Democratic internecine warfare, today’s disputes are like 6-year-olds battling with foam swords.
Spoken like a man that remembers the fraught intraparty ideological battles over the Iraq War, Clinton’s “New Democrat” movement, Cold War defense spending and national security strategy, and civil rights. Democrats are more unified on a host of issues — including hot buttons like abortion policy, criminal justice, and the social safety net — than they have been for years. And Democratic Socialists represent but one influence bubbling up from the grassroots. As Shapiro notes, for a party allegedly in the grips of an existential crisis, they’re in pretty good shape:
It’s hard to identify a Senate or House seat that is being lost because of excessive Democratic activism. Even if a Democratic incumbent like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is troubled by calls to ax ICE, there is scant evidence that this makes her more vulnerable than before in a state that Donald Trump carried by better than a two-to-one margin.
No incumbent — not even Heitkamp or Joe Manchin in West Virginia — is being denounced as a DINO. According to a new Monmouth University Poll, moderate Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a high-profile special election in western Pennsylvania earlier this year, holds a hefty lead in his bid for a full term. Lamb is a prime example of a Democrat who has prospered by defying litmus-test politics in his opposition to Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
While Shapiro knows a lot of history that many of today’s political journalists either don’t know or have forgotten, there’s really not much excuse for the hyperventilation so evident about the Democratic Party falling apart or “going off the deep end.” So why is this narrative so ever-ready?
Some of it is simply the result of a lazy habit of “balancing” the chaos coming out of the White House every day with the “disarray” allegedly found within the opposition party. But a deeper motive, particularly in conservative media, is the need to distract attention from the ideological revolution going on in the GOP by suggesting that something equally if not more alarming is going on across the partisan barricades. The idea is very simple: If you can’t expand your support beyond the ranks of the party “base” by “moving to the center,” then a good fallback position is to deny your opponent “the center” by alleging it’s being taken over by extremists. Aside from blurring the natural public and media focus on the strange people running the country and almost daily destroying old GOP positions on issues ranging from trade and deficits to the environment and NATO, the “here come the socialists!” cry appeals viscerally to the false-equivalence needs of MSM reporters and pundits who are constantly seeking protection against claims of liberal bias.
And so Ocasio-Cortez becomes, somehow, a vastly more significant figure than her most obvious recent conservative counterpart Dave Brat of Virginia, who similarly upset a congressional leader of his party in 2014. That’s true even though Brat almost certainly was emblematic of a strong rightward trend in the GOP, while the jury is definitely still out on whether Ocasio-Cortez is a harbinger of a world to come or simply an adept local pol who upset a complacent incumbent in an incredibly low-turnout primary in an incredibly atypical district.
It’s possible we are about to witness an extremist polarization of both parties to an extent unknown since the Spanish Civil War. But that’s not at all clear at this point, and as for Democratic divisions, none seem to matter nearly as much as a common revulsion toward Donald Trump and his enablers. As Shapiro observes, parties are ultimately defined by presidents. We see what that has meant for the GOP since 2016. Let’s give Democrats a chance to display their own proposed new leadership in 2020 before deciding they are equally feckless or reckless.