This past break, I was having a lively political discussion with a good friend’s mother who is the chief of staff for a prominent Democratic member of Congress. We discussed Tom Perriello’s recent announcement that he would be running in this June’s Democratic Primary for Governor of Virginia against current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam. Perriello’s bid–which will likely follow the policy design and campaign rhetoric of the increasingly popular Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the Party–came as a surprise for Democrats who believed that Northam would walk uncontested into the general election race, which is likely to be one of the most important elections in 2017. She voiced her discontent, stating that Democrats need to be more united now than ever.
Although I didn’t argue, I could not have disagreed more. In 2015, we heard the same logic from prominent Democrats in their opposition to the growing support of Bernie Sanders’s underdog campaign. It is unknown how many prominent Democrats did not run in what was thought would be the coronation Democratic primary because it was “Hillary’s time,” though I am confident that it factored into the decisions of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and more to sit it out. We will also never know how those would-be candidates would have fared, but many Americans who would have opted for these candidates had their voices silenced because of the pressure emanating from the DNC.
I find that the largest proponents of smaller primaries in the name of “party unity” are the same who supported Hillary Clinton throughout the entire primary process. They are the same who run a classic Clinton (both Bill and Hillary) strategy whereby, in occupying a moderate position, Democrats can attract moderate Republicans. While this strategy may have worked in 1990, ever-increasing political polarization and soaring unfavorable ratings among partisans when asked about their opinion of the opposing party have left the center hollowed out.
The “big tent” of the Democratic Party must embrace the plurality of thought under its flaps. 65 million Americans voted for the Democratic candidate in November’s general election. 65 million voices cannot be encapsulated in one strategy, or one vision. As citizens, we are entitled not only to a debate between liberalism and conservatism but equally to a discussion on what liberalism means, something “party unity” squashes out by presenting fear-evoking Republicans as the inevitable victor to a debate that is too extended.
The longevity of the Democratic Party requires mending the growing drift between D.C.-based Democratic Party bosses and self-described progressives. The Bernie Sanders campaign repeatedly voiced discontent with what they called bias of the DNC towards Hillary Clinton and endless scandals, which culminated with the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chair of the committee. Brookings data show that in the 2016 Election young adults “were more likely to identify as liberals but were less likely to identify as Democrats.” Advancing technology has allowed candidates and politicians to interact unmediated with voters, which has left party control weaker than ever. The victory of Donald Trump and his Twitter account over all media and Republican Party barriers is the highest testimony of this phenomenon.
I fear that increasing Democratic deflection of blame for the results of the presidential election on Russian interference will take away from the necessary self-reflection the Party needs. There is no evidence to show that Putin–nor any other outside actor–interfered with the votes cast. Democratic leaders from all branches and all levels of government must have a meaningful discussion of why so many voters, including many who voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, fell out of touch with the party. Why did the “party of the people” suddenly lose the support of their firewall constituency?
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has taken the role of “de-facto” head of the Democratic resistance following the election, conceded on “Meet the Press” that one of the decisive reasons that Democrats lost in November was a lack of “a sharp or strong enough economic message.” Their soon-to-be-announced proposal, he stated, would be “a really sharp-edged, bold, and Democratic economic plan that’s going to help us.” But whose strategy is this? Is it Schumer’s, who has spent the past 36 years on the Hill? Or is it from the Sander/Warren wing, which has seen growing popularity among the youth and more broadly following Trump’s victory?
Schumer is correct that Democrats do not have a clear economic policy at neither a state nor federal level. This void helps explain why Maryland, a state that voted for Hillary over Trump by a whopping 60% to 33% margin, has a Republican governor with 71% approval ratings, the second highest in the nation. We Democrats do not know what we should be fighting for at a state level. We certainly know what to vehemently oppose as displayed by the national uproar to North Carolina’s passage of House Bill 2 (the transgender bathroom law).
However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s joint announcement with Bernie Sanders earlier this month that Cuomo would be pursuing a tuition-free public college plan for low- and middle-income New York students signals a new, more progressive path that follows the continued momentum from Sen. Sanders’ underdog campaign in future formulation of Democratic Party policy. If the New York State Legislature approves the plan, the State would be the first to offer full tuition-free undergraduate and community colleges.
The hesitancy of Democrats from other states to enact similar proposals shows that there are deep divisions within the Party. Uncontested primaries will silence the voices of voters to cast their opinions of their intended vision of the party. Democratic Party voters in Virginia have a civic right to be able to chart the course of liberalism in their state.
I, for one, will be voting for Mr. Perriello because as a citizen-voter I believe that his progressive vision of our Party and our Commonwealth is more successful in defining and broadening the appeal of liberal objectives. Though parties are non-constitutional entities, they must listen to us to claim they are our voices.
Dunphy is a member of the Class of 2018.