U.S. : Democrats in Turmoil

Douglas County Democratic Party headquarters. Photo by: Democratic Headquarters - Downtown Roseburg, Oregon.

All eyes are on Washington DC as Donald Trump rampages through the Republican Party like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Weekly scandals, many of which would bring down any other politician, has the country on the edge of its seat waiting for the next episode–or the end of this presidency. The chaos threatens to change the Republican Party as we know it. One would theorize this political calamity would be great news for the opposition party, the Democrats. Unfortunately, they are going through a less dramatic implosion.

Public perception on the morning of November 8, 2016, was that Hillary Clinton would easily take the presidency. She was a careered politician against a populist businessman with no experience in governing. However, when the votes were counted and the winner announced, Clinton lost. The defeat shattered the confident Democrats and caused an already fractured base to shatter.

Damage to the Democrats power was not limited to the loss of their seat in the Oval Office. They also lost both the House and Senate majority. Initially, it appeared that Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell had the ability to push through any legislation they wanted. Tax reform, Supreme Court nomination and the destruction of ObamaCare were on the Republican agenda. There was little the Democrats could do. In response, the Democrats rallied their base under the slogan, “Resist”.

“Resist” galvanized the base, but it wouldn’t fix the endemic problems plaguing the party. Democrats have had little success in expanding their message beyond “resist.” In July, the Democrats infamously tried the slogan, “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. While humorous, the slogan has no proactive vision for what the party seeks to achieve. This is proving to be a serious problem.

As Barack Obama took office in 2009, hardline Republicans created a similar movement to “Resist”. Large protests and political action groups formed the Tea Party. The difference between the Tea Party and the current Democratic resistance is that the Tea Party were actually able to get people elected to office. Since Trump took office there have been five special elections in various districts. The Democrats were unable to win a single seat, even though one Republican candidate assaulting a reporter on the eve of the vote. Common sense suggests that Republicans were due for a string of losses after the record breaking turnout against Trump and his administration. However, the results of the special elections have borne this out.

Both Republicans and Democrats have various factions within their ranks. These factions have their own agenda, often in direct conflict with the interests of another. Under normal circumstances, it is healthy to have some conflict or tension within a party. It prevents any one person or group from wielding too much power while also allowing multiple perspectives to a given problem. The trouble for Democrats is that there is no longer unity in the Democrats message to the American people.

The presidential primary run of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has exacerbated the split in the party. Hillary Clinton, a ‘New Democrat’ and eventual nominee for President, represented the ‘old guard’. Like the previous Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, she is more centrist in her political views. Her political contributions included a large number of small donations, but most came from wealthy donors. Her link with Wall Street soured many left leaning Democrat voters.

Bernie Sanders, the face of the political Left, is a Progressive and not a true Democrat. He is an Independent who’s beliefs happen to coincide with left leaning Democrats. He began his campaign with very little backing, but his grass roots initiative galvanized the left. He soon became the single greatest threat to Clinton’s candidacy. During the primaries, the scales were tipped against him, but he pushed forward. The clashes between Sanders and Clinton exacerbated the ever widening rift within the Democratic Party.

For liberals, Clinton represented everything that was wrong in Washington. She and the Democrats in power were seen to be overly friendly with Wall Street and ‘Big Business’. The Party has been moving further from the Left and more to a ‘Right-Center’ in recent years. In order to garner votes from moderate Republicans, the Party has slowly skewed more right center. This move has alienated their more liberal base, costing them votes with little return. Efforts that cost support from the left included: support of free trade agreements, a willingness to reduce welfare programs and support for military force in the world.

Bernie Sanders became the mouthpiece of the left. His continuous call for increased taxes on the wealthy and universal health care as energized the far left. When Clinton eventually took the nomination, she attempted to reach out to Bernie’s base to heal the wounds inflicted during the primary. For the sake of the Party, there those who were amenable. Unfortunately, there were many who refused the olive branch.

The immediate aftermath to November 8th was “What happened?” Moderate Democrats blamed the Progressives for sabotaging their candidate. They believe they had weakened Clinton during the primary, thus she was vulnerable during the presidential run. Furthermore, there are anecdotal stories of Bernie supporters either refusing to vote or casting a protest vote for Trump. There is no clear data to show whether this had any real impact on the results of the election.

Many Progressive Democrats are angry because they believe Clinton shouldn’t have been the nominee in the first place. They feel had Bernie been the nominee, Trump would not have won the 2016 election. The pervasive sentiment seems to be that Clinton and the Democrat establishment had anointed her to be their nominee before the primaries began. Many believe that the establishment failed them and that their voices were inconsequential. Animosity on both sides is tearing the Democrats apart.

Today, all eyes are looking toward the 2018 election cycle. As Democrats struggle to find their new identity post-Trump, there likely will be casualties. The Progressives are gaining ground and want to oust longtime New Democrats who they blame for the party’s current state. This will not be easy. There are many career politicians and lobbyists who will fight tooth and nail before they release their power. There have been multiple calls for a third party, but accomplishing this is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The good news for the Democrats is that Trump’s approval rating is the lowest in history for a new president. If they play their cards right, there is a real possibility of taking back both houses in 2018. However, this is unlikely with their current strategy. The 2016 election may have been what sparked the most recent division in the Party, but a many people believe it is time to move on. Democrats may need to lose the mantra of “Have you seen the other guys” and come out with a single, powerful message. Time will tell if they can pull themselves together long enough to accomplish this.

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