Read Edsall on the Democratic Party’s identity crisis

During the run-up to the 2016 election, I wrote a piece calling America “a four- or five-party country jammed into a two-party system.”

Most democracies have more than two parties that play a meaningful role. But, for reasons we’ll leave until another day, no one gets very far in our system, at least in federal elections, without aligning with either the Democrats or the Republicans. And both parties are coalitions that don’t always love their coalition partners so much.

Democrats, as usual, are split between a leftier element and a more moderate center-left element. Lefties are more likely to want single-payer health care for example, while the moderates focus on defending Obamacare and maybe fiddling around the edges to help a few more categories get health insurance.

Those elements struggle for control of the party, knowing they will have to come together on Election Day or they will lose, but also knowing that if they go too far left, some of their most moderate partisans might stray to the Republican side, and if they go too far toward the center, some of their leftier voters will vote Green or Socialist or stay home.

In his column this week, Thomas Edsall of the New York Times explores this tension and reminds us how difficult it can be to manage. The headline and subhead sum it up pretty well:

The Democratic Party Picked an Odd Time to Have an Identity Crisis

Can its unruly coalition take shape against Trump without one wing predominating?

Regular readers of Black Ink know I hold Edsall’s column in high regard and he delivers again today, although his column may annoy some of the leftier Democrats.

Not that he’s the first one to notice this problem, but he discusses it clearly, provides the views of several deep thinkers, and backs up the essential diagnosis with great numbers based on a poll that has asked the same question over recent election years about both parties. The poll question asks:

When it comes to their approaches to issues, would you say that [Democrat/Republicans candidates for Congress] are generally in the mainstream of most Americans’ thinking, or are generally out of step with most Americans’ thinking?

In 2012 (when Barack Obama was re-elected) and in 2016 (when Hillary Clinton was the Dem nominee) Democrats were substantially more likely than Republicans to be described as “in the mainstream.” (In 2012, it was Dems in the mainstream 45 percent/ Repubs 38 percent. In 2016 it was Dems 48/Repubs 31.)

But in the most recent running of that poll question, the portion describing Dems as “in the mainstream” dropped to 33, tied with Republicans.

You can’t cross-examine a poll question. And, of course, winning that “mainstream” question didn’t help Democrats win the presidency or control of either house of Congress in 2016.

Also, I, personally, am open to many of the Bernie Sanders-ish positions like single-payer health care, and various policies designed to help previously marginalized groups of our society. You won’t get me to change my thinking by telling me I’m out of the mainstream. But you might get me by convincing me that the way I’m using my vote and my voice is counterproductive to the goals I favor.

Still, it seems likely that respondents who believe the Democrats are less mainstream than they used to be, are reacting negatively or maybe nervously to some of those emphases on what I’m calling leftier positions. As usual, Edsall reached out to a lot of scholars and other deep thinkers to get their take.

For example, Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossman told Edsall that Democratic politicians are “astute enough” to compromise and accept progress toward goals like universal health care coverage or a higher minimum wage, rather than being trapped into absolutist positions. He wrote:

When in power, liberals have been quite willing to compromise on the form and extent of policy for incremental tangible gains.

But, Grossman went on to acknowledge that:

Democrats are likely to be pushing for lots of individual social changes at once, many of which are individually popular but collectively look to the right and to the middle like a project to remake society, undermine traditions, subordinate domestic strength to global concerns, and make American culture less unique.

Because Democrats… have trouble prioritizing the laundry list of goals and don’t realize that individually popular goals — spur the economy, provide health coverage to those who need it — can become quite unpopular once they are combined and attacked as a big government project by liberal elitists.

Stanford Political Scientist Morris Fiorina told Edsall that over the decades, the message and priorities of Democrats have shifted from policies that helped the working class generally have better lives and reduced inequality across class lines to policies that help specific smaller groups, policies that he described as “inclusiveness/diversity/identity.”

Many of us have trouble understanding how plutocrat Donald Trump, who regularly screwed workers and unions that he employed, draws support heavily from working-class Americans. But part of the explanation must be that blue-collar males, a group that used to be core of Democratic voters, had come to believe that the Democrats no longer cared about them. Drawing more from his exchange with Fiorina, Edsall wrote:

Fiorina cited the results of the 2016 Voter Study Group Survey of 8,000 adults to argue that Democratic elites have adopted a set of issue priorities that are significantly different from those of all voters.

The Voter Study Group identifies 15 percent of voters who fit into what it calls the Democratic-Independent Liberal Elite category. This is the cohort that has often provided leadership for the social justice movement within the Democratic Party. Members of this group have generally been younger, more liberal, better educated and more affluent than average voters.

When asked to rank issue priorities, there were some striking differences between these more liberal Democrats and the average voter.

According to the survey, issues that the Democratic elite gave much higher priority to than the electorate at large included gay rights, 61.0 to 34.3; gender equality, 68.7 to 35; and racial equality, 65.7 to 38.8.

Conversely, the issues given much higher priority by all voters than by Democratic elites included terrorism, 58.2 percent to 11.6 percent; crime, 57.4 to 18.2; taxes, 56.9 to 18.9; budget deficit, 50.7 to 5.3; religious liberty, 48.5 to 21.7; and immigration, 46.1 to 16.7.

To put it bluntly, there is a huge gulf between the priorities of the Democratic elite, which exercises significant influence over party policymaking, and the general public.

This is Edsall’s closing, speaking for himself:

There is no way the Democratic Party would jettison the party’s social justice wing nor should it. The record does suggest, however, that Democrats need to do a better job of managing the conflict between the centrist corpus of the party and both of its activist left wings — one cultural, one economic — if it expects to fully capitalize on the opportunities that President Trump and his allies have bestowed on them.

Again, to read Edsall’s full column, go here.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/04/2018 - 05:25 pm.


    Mr. Edsall’s first sentence is “The Democratic Party is a traditional political organization dedicated to winning elections.” When an essay begins with such a fundamentally erroneous statement, we can be sure that while it might cite interesting poll results, it will not offer useful analysis.

    The Democratic Party is not “dedicated to winning elections.” Like the Republican Party, it is dedicated to providing services to that portion of private wealth that, in essence, has hired it. The two parties compete in an economic marketplace, not a political one. Winning elections is useful to the ability of each Party to satisfy its economic clientele, and therefore so is cultivating and maintaining a voting base, or a political clientele. But the hierarchy – economic clientele first, political clientele second – is essential to understand the subject that Mr. Edsell purports to address.

    In particular, it is essential to understand why we never discuss issues of wealth and power in this country, only fight culture wars. With respect to the subject of Mr. Edsell’s column, it explains why, within the Democratic party, the so-called “social justice wing” – the liberal party element that actually is much closer to the center – is at odds with the element that advances a populist economic and national security critique – and that actually lies qualitatively further to the left. It also explains why, among party leaders, the social justice platform, which does not disturb the interests of the Party’s economic clientele, is attended to and the populist platform, which collides violently with the interests of that clientele, is vigilantly repelled. Even though, were the populist platform embraced, it eventually would retrieve a goodly portion of those deceived to vote Republican by decades of authoritarian messaging and, you know, win elections.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/05/2018 - 10:17 am.

      This begs the question of how we fix our democratic republic and the electoral and campaign finance laws and practices that have essentially destroyed it, making every election a mockery of our once great country.

      I sort of wish Edsall would stick to the great ape angle: on a fundamental level we differ little from our cousins in what is left of the wild and in zoos save in the complexity of our manipulations of power within groups.

      There are apes who don’t want a lot of hoopla and those dominant ones who cause it in occasional power struggles; the difference between humans and other great ape groups is the latter apes seem to have more respite than us from the hoopla that we have choreographed in our complex version of democracy that has been so thoroughly corrupted.

      Democrats still are the only game in town to fix democracy, but while Mr. Holtman points to the schism between those devoted to a status quo of corporate control and those who actually wish to serve most of the people, all prevent any chance of that fix in failing to make the case to enough voters.

      All the dominant apes will continue to run around banging and jumping on this or that to serve whomever they serve until we manage to institute the needed reforms, and I doubt any of them have a handle on the real problem: we broke our democracy and seemingly no one can or will fix it.

      We all have similar identity from a wide enough perspective; we’re all citizens of the fascist state to which our once proud democratic republic has been corrupted. Folks just have to recognize what has happened and decide who and what can bring us back, but I’m convinced the right Democratic Party controlled Congress and POTUS can do it, say a President Elizabeth Warren if you want a real reformer.


  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/04/2018 - 06:10 pm.

    Social engineering

    “…Because Democrats have trouble prioritizing the laundry list of goals and don’t realize that individually popular goals — spur the economy, provide health coverage to those who need it — can become quite unpopular once they are combined and attacked as a big government project by liberal elitists.”

    The “conservative” phrase for this phenomenon is often “social engineering,” and it’s generally used in a pejorative sense – that such “social engineering” is more or less automatically bad, either for individuals or, more often, for society as a whole. What I rarely, if ever, see acknowledged, however, is that **failure** or **refusal** to change, or adopt policies to ease some new social problem or address an existing social condition, itself constitutes just as much “social engineering” as does the more activist position. Any and every policy is, at some level, “social engineering,” and whether it makes you angry or optimistic largely depends upon whether the policy – or its lack – has an impact on your life and the lives of your friends and neighbors.

    Or, to oversimplify to some degree, if desegregated schools represent “social engineering,” and are viewed as bad because they represent government interference in the natural workings of our society, so do decisions to segregate schools represent conscious decisions by policy-makers to allow, or encourage, very different attitudes and actions which have the effect of keeping races and/or ethnic groups separate in an educational context. We can debate which is the more pernicious exercise of government influence, but I’d argue that both represent “social engineering.”

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/05/2018 - 10:06 am.


    The Democratic Party is always a coalition of interests, and as such, is always in the midst of an identity crisis. In olden times, we were a coalition of a liberal northern party, and a racist southern party. That was fun. Our politics has rearranged itself since then, but although the parties are different, many of the problems of putting together a unified party are the same.

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