What happened to the Democratic Party? Once the party of “hope and change,” the Democrats are incredibly fragmented and barely able to generate excitement around their message. They failed to elect someone who would be the first female President in U.S. history while she was running against an insane mad man and multi-million dollar “man of the people.” They’ve lost hold of the excitement they generated back in 2008 and become an absolute embarrassment at a time when the American people need them more than ever.
As it currently stands, the Democratic Party is primarily divided into two groups: the ultra-progressive Berniecrats, and the left-of-center “pragmatic” Democrats who wish to continue with the same basic economic policies as former President Barack Obama. It’s a divide that likely had been growing since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, with the rise of “Occupy Wall Street” and other protests around the country that demanded radical changes in the United States’ economic policies after the Wall Street collapse of 2008. Now, after he departed from the White House, the Democrats are in worse shape than ever.
The rift within the Democratic Party, however, became most apparent during the Democratic primaries of the 2016 presidential election, in which former independent and relatively unknown politician Bernie Sanders soared into the spotlight. He held massive, energetic rallies. He was impersonated by former “Seinfeld” producer and writer Larry David on Saturday Night Live and eventually made a cameo alongside him. He became a symbol of both American frustration and idealism, of rage at the machine and the belief that, with enough concentrated effort, it can be fixed. Bernie Sanders was an extraordinary force on the campaign trail, to the point where his name became one of the defining cultural icons of 2016.
But once Bernie lost the primary and the excitement around his campaign began to fade, it became immediately clear that something was rotten with the state of the Democratic Party. How could an old socialist generate more excitement from progressives than Hillary Clinton, a candidate to be the first female President? How could the party of the working class alienate them so? How could a major party in America be openly advocating socialism when the term “liberal” was once taboo?
It is now clear that the Democratic Party is deeply divided. Many were outraged at the “neoliberal” policies that they had been carrying out for years. From Bill Clinton to Obama and, if she had won, Hillary, Democrats had ignored the working classes and had far too much support for harmful trade deals and loose regulations. Furthermore, Obama had failed to live up to his much-hyped campaign promises, failing to end conflicts in the Middle East and not delivering on enough of the excitement and progress that his campaign had promised. On the most divisive and heated issues of American politics, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, Obama responded with passivity, not willing to confront the issues head on. This left the Democrats in a fragile state, unable to meet the demands of the American people. The United States did not suddenly evolve into the liberal utopia many had expected Obama could create, leaving some Democrats bitter and spiteful.
Now, with an election for DNC Chairman taking place this Sunday, the entire future of the Democratic Party is up for grabs. There are 10 candidates up for the job, but only two have a big enough national profile to have a legitimate chance of winning. Each is symbolic of the different sides of the Democratic divide. Do the Democrats go for the energetic, Bernie-esque progressive in the form of Keith Ellison? Or do they stick to Obama’s status quo in the form of his former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez?
Either choice has obvious pros and cons. Perez would continue to push for Obama-era policies, which are more practical than anything a Berniecrat would push and could genuinely help the economy. The downside of continuing with Obama’s policies is that they represent more of the same: some tax raises, obnoxious and uncompromising Republican pushback, etc. More importantly than the details of his actual policies, however, is that this sameness will limit the appeal of both Perez and the Democratic Party as a whole. If this election (and, in its own way, the 2008 election of Barack Obama) has proven anything, it’s that people hate the status quo. Everyone wants something to change; the system is broken; revolution is necessary; “Make America Great Again.” His policies may or may not work in practice, but his status as “more of the same” makes him a totally unexciting and uninspiring choice.
Ellison, on the other hand, is more of a Sanders surrogate, representing the progressive, far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Ellison is the far more exciting choice for the Democrats. He represents a revolutionary change in the status quo along the lines of everyone’s favorite grandpa (Sanders, obviously). He could energize the base of Democratic supporters in a way that Hillary never could and that Obama only could back in 2008. Based on voting data, a more progressive, further left-wing Democratic Party is seemingly what this country wants. Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to U.S. Congress, making him the perfect symbol of Trump opposition. His early support of Sanders’ campaign will help gain the support of young voters disillusioned by the centrist wing of the party. He could dust off the cobwebs of the aging Democratic Party and encourage political activism for left-wing causes in a way that America needs right now.
Because now, perhaps more than ever, America needs civic engagement in its political system. In case you haven’t been paying attention, the President of the United States is a both a fearmongerer and an idiot, incapable of articulating sentences correctly while having mastered the art of scapegoating everyone’s problems on Mexico and Muslims. Not only that, but every major move he makes, from bashing and discrediting the media to his worrying relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggests he’s an autocrat waiting to seize power.
The moment in history we are living through is, as best said by military historian Eliot A. Cohen, “…one of those clarifying moments in American history….” It is a time in which the foundations of our democracy are threatened by an unstable, power-hungry leader with no regard for the Constitution or acknowledgment of any restraints on his power. Furthermore, he ran on the Republican Party ticket and energized their base voters in a way that hasn’t been seen in years. In doing so, he’s given the Republicans every reason to support him: If they don’t, they’ll lose popularity and be unable to pass their agenda. When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan criticized Trump for his leaked tape with Billy Bush, Ryan’s popularity among Republicans dropped by 28 points in just over a week. Other prominent Republicans seem to be more interested in passing their agenda and holding onto their political careers than, say, having basic principles and a moral backbone. So, as former G.W. Bush speechwriter David Frum has argued, Trump and his power grabs are unlikely to be opposed by Republicans.
America now finds itself in a perilous place, facing an ironic plot twist: The party of big government is now the only major check on government power. Which is why their internal divides must be healed and they must unify regardless of who becomes Chairman this weekend. Ultimately, the Democrats must do what the Republicans can do best: unify around an agenda, whatever it may be. The major divides within the left, if unhealed, could spell doom for not only the future of the Democratic Party, but of a free democracy in America. The Democratic Party must save America from itself. Hopefully they can save themselves first.
Spiro is a member of the Class of 2019.