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The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party

In a Period of Extreme Polarization, Moving Left Could Hurt Democrats

Oscar Berry, Contributing Writer

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Take a look at the political culture in America. From afar, you will see two parties fighting for a majority. These are the governing Republican Party and the opposing Democratic Party. Yet the true situation is more complicated than a snapshot could portray.

There is now as much conflict within both parties between moderates and radicals as there is between Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic Party occupies a large range on the political spectrum, and though it may not seem so, it is rarely unified on any one issue.

For example, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia openly supports curtailing the power of the EPA, is pro-life, and has been given an “A” rating by the NRA. By contrast, Senator Elizabeth Warren is far more progressive, supporting more regulatory powers over the environment, strict gun control laws, and socialized government health care. Both, however, are members of the Democratic Party.

There has always been discord between the moderates and radicals in the Democratic Party, and now they are in open warfare for control of the party. The loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016 left the Democratic Party effectively leaderless. Without an influential leader, Democrats have lacked clear direction since the beginning of this year. There are questions that are plaguing the elected members of the party. Oppose Trump, or work with him? Refuse tax cuts, or try to negotiate? Reject “moderate” Democrats, or broaden the ideology of the party? Even more importantly, can the center-left wing that has led the party for the past decades still compete with the Republican Party?

Without an influential leader, Democrats have lacked clear direction since the beginning of this year. ”

Liberal voters who support a more oppositional stance and have been disappointed with recent Democratic leadership are rallying around a “socialist resurgence” within the party.  For decades, socialist and far-left leaders such as Bernie Sanders have stood on the fringe of the party, never fully accepted as part of the Democratic fold. Now though, Democrats question whether Sanders and his socialist ideology might be the solution. Indeed, Bernie Sanders and his cohorts have become more emboldened, actively vying to reinvent the definition of “Democrat” around their ideology. Yet in order to combat the radical nationalism that is characterized by President Trump and a growing majority of the Republican Party, Democrats have to regain the political middle, and this socialist uprising is counterproductive.

Part of the socialist effort has been demands for “social purity” from Democratic candidates and elected officials. Over the past year, Democratic candidates across the country, such as Jon Ossoff in Georgia, have not been able to secure the necessary support from liberal voters to win their elections.

Moderates in the party bemoaned the “narrow-mindedness” of holding candidates to such strict standards, while socialists have jumped on the opportunity to claim that the center-left is no longer competitive in elections. Indeed, by withholding support to more moderate Democrats, “purists” are actually weakening the power of the party in order to press a narrow ideological platform.

In the past year, there can be no doubt that the Democratic Party as a whole has lurched to the left, forming a more opposition-based ideology against the GOP. This movement has threatened to overcome to remaining moderate holdouts in the party, and would have solidified Sanders’ and his allies’ control.

However, on November 7th, 2017, Democratic candidates Ralph Northam and Phil Murphy won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively. Both Northam and Murphy identify as centrist Democrats, and their victories offered a repudiation of the rapid socialist reemergence within the party since last year. Certainly, the argument that moderate Democrats cannot win important elections has been disproved, but it has not stopped the tide of liberal voters who urge complete opposition to the Trump agenda. With the rising polarization of the American public, there is no doubt that the Democratic Party is trekking further left. This poses a fundamental difficulty for the party as they struggle to be competitive against the Republican Party amongst moderate and independent voters.

If Bernie Sanders succeeds in reshaping the Democratic Party, he might also doom it to failure. For now though, the fate of the party hangs in the balance, and we will have to see who can claim the soul of the party: the socialists or the moderates.

This piece also appears in our December print edition.

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The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party