Edited by Erin Mayer
Democrats are divided over which political strategy to pursue to defeat President Trump in the 2020 Presidential election. Candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others argue that the “system is rigged” and in need of radical reform. Others such as Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar say that a more moderate path is the best way to attract a large enough bloc of voters to defeat Trump. In this Campaign Blog USRN writers Colin Shanley and Samuel O’Brient present both sides of this complex issue.
- A) The Case for Proposing Large-Scale Structural Reform by Colin Shanley
From 1933 to 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) passed a series of reforms which fundamentally changed the balance of power between the wealthy and working classes in America. In 1964 and 1968 President Gerald Ford’s (R) administration passed a pair of civil rights bills which ensured a minimum level of federal protection for African Americans. Following these historic advancements, the Democratic Party began to lose touch with advancing the direct material interests of it’s constituency, and instead simply positioning itself as simply virtuous and reasonable foil for the increasingly unhinged yet politically successful Conservative movement. The thoughts behind this shift seems to be that voters of color will vote blue no matter how weakly the Democrats fight for them because the alternative is always worse; that middle and upper class moderates are a key part of the electorate and will eventually side with the more reasonable and even-tempered party; and courting wealthy donors is the only way to build power politically.
What this has left us with is a Republican party which has largely hollowed out our political system through gerrymandering states, filling courts, seizing all three branches of government, and forming a political monopoly on many southern states. The Democratic Party is in the midst of an identity crisis. One side is seemingly waiting in anticipation for voters to regain their taste for polished respectability and tepid incremental progress, and the other calling for a broad upending of the political, social and economic status quo. While the core of this latter movement comes from grassroots organizing in social justice and labor, it is represented on the national stage by figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Sanders made the case for large-scale structural reform in 2016, but ultimately lost the primary to Hillary Clinton. The fact that now, three years later, even the more centrist Democratic Presidential candidates seem required to feign support for many of the underpinnings of Bernie’s 2016 platform shows that the atmosphere among Democratic voters is one of rejection of the failed strategy of Clinton, which relied on the assumption that voters are willing to turn out just to defend the status quo. The Sanders position, however, argues that it is necessary to speak past Trump and make a case for why a vote for the Democratic Party will make a significant impact on one’s life. In a political system so riddled with voter suppression, where winning the popular vote by millions of votes is not enough to ensure victory, the only option is to overwhelm the system with a widely expanded electorate. We can no longer play the game of gambling over the handful of voters who vote regularly and switch between parties. The United States trails the majority of the developed world in voter participation. A big reason for this is the fact that people feel unable to make significant changes in their own lives through politics. In the modern era, the appeal of Liberalism for many people is mocking and opposing the absurdity of the Republican party, rather than actual excitement for the tax incentives and halfhearted public programs that today’s Democrats have produced. That’s why the supposed conflict between major progressive programs and electability is somewhat of a facade. The only reason why the widespread popularity of these programs is not obvious is because people’s conceptions of public opinion is based on wealthy and insulated political pundits rather than actual studies on the subject.
The only way the Democratic Party can win the election, hold power, and fuel a mass movement is through the enactment of major political policies. Issues such as tax-payer funded universal healthcare and education can pull previously apolitical people into the process. Once people can clearly see the lines between the party working for the common voter and the party representing the wealthy elite, the left’s political momentum will finally outpace the steady increase of rising inequality and ecological destruction.
The Case for a Democratic Centrism by Samuel O’Brient
In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed Former Obama Administration Chief of Staff and Commerce Secretary William M. Dailey once stated “Centrist voters typically decide general elections, so hard-left or hard-right platforms don’t help.”
Dailey’s sentiment is a valuable one that is often overlooked by far left pundits and analysts. The era in which we are living is one of increasing polarization, with red and blue voters becoming more divided with each political speech. During the 2016 race to the White House, populism took center stage as Donald Trump made headlines on the right and with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) on the left. Both candidates did an excellent job of stirring their bases while failing to summarize how their lofty promises would be accomplished. This served to divide the left at a time when united was our only chance of defeating Trump and in short, it cost us the election. When Hillary Clinton received the Democratic nomination in 2016, much of Sanders’ base opted to either write in his name or simply not to vote. Sanders was by far the most popular candidate among millennial voters, a group that outnumbered both their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in terms of numbers of voters. If this group had stood behind Clinton, she would have defeated Trump.
As we draw closer to the Democratic primary, the field remains overcrowded but the polling numbers do not lie. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has been the dominant front runner since he entered the race, remaining ahead of Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris. All of which are considered the far-left candidates. Adding to the mix is fellow moderate Pete Buttigieg, easily the most obscure candidate in the race who skyrocketed to fifth place in the polls where he has successfully stayed for months, ahead of several more established competitors.
It should also be noted that Biden announced his candidacy months after his aforementioned competitors, giving all three more time to garner support. Perhaps more important than his standing among Democrats, though, is his standing among non-democrats. A CNN poll taken in July 2019 indicated that Biden has a higher net favorability rating than any of the other leading Democrat candidates. Biden’s score of 42 points puts him 15 above Sanders. Harris is considered to be more moderate than either Sanders or Warren and is only two points behind Biden. This may be an indicator that non-democratic voters are considerably more open to a moderate democrat than one they see as being too progressive.
As indicated in the aforementioned quote from WIlliam Dailey, independent and centrist voters often end up being the deciding factor in general elections. For any Democratic candidate to defeat Trump, they will need to swing voters from the center of the aisle and the moderate right. Evidence is increasingly clear that this will only be accomplished by a moderate candidate such as Biden. In early 2019, a Gallup poll indicated that although America was starting to learn more towards the left, it was still overall a conservative nation. Moderates are by far the most dominant group, averaging well above moderate democrats and slightly above moderate conservatives. Given all this, it seems a logical conclusion Democrats will need to swing needed voters from the center of the aisle or the moderate right.
The New York Times’ Lynn Vavrek noted in a May 2018 op-ed that extreme candidates may do a good job of exciting their bases but they can easily be a better job of firing up their opponent’s base. This could prove particularly dangerous if Democrats were to nominate a candidate like Bernie Sanders whose fierce disposition and blatant tendency to bombard his competitors could easily serve to also make conservative voters feel attacked. Biden has been attacked for his dealings with multiple segregationist senators decades ago. However, the legislative progress requires bipartisan study and support from both sides of the aisle, as was noted by Brookings Institution’s Alice M. Rivlin.
As was noted during the second Democratic debate, many polls have indicated that Democratic voters are more concerned with having a candidate that can defeat Donald Trump than one who they personally agree with on major issues. These Democrats have recognized the big picture-that unseating Trump should be every voter’s top priority. This will only be accomplished if democrats can apply the pragmatic approach of nominating a candidate who can reach across the aisle and garner support from non-democratic groups including libertarians, centrists and independents. Such a feat will only be achieved by a moderate candidate who can appeal to voters on both sides.
Photo by Samuel Branch