May 17, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Democrats Don’t Need Purity
Some say the Democrats are purging themselves the way the Republicans did after 2008. It just ain’t so.
As you know, I think there are three things Democrats need to do to retake Congress in November: comb their hair, brush their teeth, and oppose President Trump.
But that’s not what candidates are actually doing.
As Greg Sargent has pointed out, challengers are stumping on issues important to all Americans, like health care and jobs, allowing the president, and his plethora of pathologies, to fester in the background. It appears to be working.
That’s not stopping some Republican operatives, and some unprincipled reporters, from insisting that the Democrats have nothing to offer but Trump-hating memes. Even some Senate Democrats are giving voice to the talking point:Part of this is due to the immense pressure, for reasons honest and dishonest, to treat the parties as two sides of the same coin. During the Obama years, the Republicans ate themselves alive purging moderate incumbents only to leave the field open to moderate and victorious Democrats. Now that a Republican is in the White House, the thinking has been the Democrats will take their turn at purifying their ranks.
The both-sides view was given greater credence by three factors. One, the media’s preference for party in-fighting. (Senator John McCain is a master of exploiting this preference. His “maverick” reputation depended on it.) Two, Senator Bernie Sanders “surprise” showing at the 2016 Democratic primaries. And most importantly, real leftists who wanted to turn the Democrats upside down. For them, Hillary Clinton’s defeat proved everything they said was wrong with the “so-called people’s party.”
Yet reality keeps thwarting the both-sides view.
Considering special elections and primaries since Trump’s election, it’s clear that traditional mainstream Democrats are winning while Sanders-back insurgents are (mostly) losing. Yes, the president has galvanized so much resistance that record numbers of people are running for all levels of public office. But so far, no sign of the cannibalization that marked the Republicans between 2008 and 2010 when they could have taken the Senate as well as the House if not for self-destructing candidates. (Recall: Republican Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch”). The Democrats are now experiencing a rare combination in politics today: unity and energy. As US Senator Chris Murphy, a popular Connecticut Democrat, told Businessweek:
“What should scare the hell out of Republicans is that we have energy and relative unity. That’s hard, because with energy usually comes some opposing forces, and that has not happened in any meaningful way so far.”
Instead of civil war, the more plausible theory explaining Democratic behavior is that they will become more centrist as their base expands. That’s surely what leftists fear. That, too, doesn’t appear to be happening. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote: “The typical Democratic House nominee this year has been very much a mainstream liberal, and if they do win a House majority, I suspect there will be fewer conservatives, and even moderates, than there were in 2007, when they last took over.”
The question, for me, is why?
Why is the party not radicalizing the way the GOP did?
I think there are a few things to consider. One is obvious. Polarization is a major force that polices, as it were, the outer fringes of the party. But it’s not so strong among Democrats that it pushes the party to the far left. Another is also obvious: opposition to this horrible president allows individuals to overlook their serious policy differences. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said: “Just win, baby.”
But I think the main factor is that the parties are simply different. The Republicans are homogeneous—economically, religiously, racially and geographically. They also have way more money than the Democrats do. When billionaires come calling, the GOP listens. This is why the so-called tea party blitzed its way to eminence.
The Democrats, on other hand, are as diverse as the country as a whole. The party contains multitudes with overlapping and even competing interests. As a heterogeneous organization, it’s flatter, less top-down. It’s liberal, too, in that individuals don’t respond to authoritative demands the way Republicans do.
Most of all, it is poorer. Yes, liberal billionaires exist (George Soros and Tom Steyer, to name two), but they don’t speak for their class the way the Koch Bros. do. All of this means that the Democrats have baked-in structures that regulate the party, preventing it from moving to the extremes. The same can’t be said of the Republicans.
Republicans operatives insisting Democrats have no message but “Trump sucks” are projecting. That’s what they did to Obama. It was about “capitalizing on cultural resentment among older white voters,” according to Businessweek’s Sahil Kapur. “In the end, the true power of the Tea Party was in channeling voters’ revulsion to demographic diversity, a phenomenon embodied by the first black president.”
Make no mistake. The Democrats are resentful. They resent that a lying thieving philandering sadist occupies the Oval Office. But that’s not the same as pushing back against the tide of American history. That requires party purity.
The Democrats don’t need purity.
They only need to be Democrats.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.