What’s Left For the Democratic Party

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The world’s oldest active political party now faces a historic identity crisis after Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton two weeks ago.

In hindsight, this ideological void should not have been completely unexpected given Bernie Sanders’ strong challenge against Clinton for the party’s nomination during the primaries. But it was the general consensus among party leaders that any healing of wounds inflicted as a result of party infighting would be tempered by the fact that one of their own would be stewarding the ship of state while the kinks were ironed out behind closed doors.

Of course, Trump winning threw a major wrench in the plans.

So, the question then becomes: What’s the next logical step for the party of FDR and Barack Obama? Granted, partisan facelifts are certainly not uncommon in the long history of the republic, but it was the GOP that seemed to have the cards stacked against them until shortly before midnight on Nov. 8th, when the pendulum surprisingly swung in Trump’s favor.

The truth is, however, that both parties required a serious overhaul; it was simply a question of which party would crack first. Since the Democrats lost the presidential election, the spotlight now falls squarely on them to reassemble quickly for the 2018 midterms, and then soon after that for the general election come 2020.

It is yet to be seen at this early stage if the party will be able to find a leader with sufficient appeal to unite both the burgeoning Sanders/Warren faction with the Obama/Clinton establishment. To his credit, President Obama accomplished this extraordinary feat back in 2008 when he secured the Democratic nomination. For better or worse, the outgoing commander-in-chief has had two consequential terms in office, partly because he effectively modernized the Democratic Party for a twenty-first century America. As a result, today’s Democrats are the most liberal they have ever been on social issues and are positioned to follow suit economically if Sen. Sanders’ vision for the party is ultimately adopted.

That last point is a major “if” and partly speaks to the reason for which the Democrats now find themselves in disarray. By pandering vociferously to such issues as abortion, gay rights, climate change, and social injustices – issues venerated by the establishment – the party lost touch with a sizable chunk of Middle America. These blue-collar workers increasingly felt alienated from a coastal elite that seemed to prioritize issues popular among its urban members and academia, instead of dealing with the nitty-gritty realities of globalization. It was the latter who fueled Trump’s ascension to the highest office in the land, and it is these people who must be recognized if the party is to succeed again in the future.

An honest postmortem assessment of the 2016 primaries shows that Sen. Sanders’ resounding success over Clinton in the rustbelt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana – all of which changed from blue to red since 2008 – is the place to begin. Perhaps this insinuates that the party must indeed transform into a social democratic party on both the cultural and fiscal front. But it should be noted that this, too, could potentially alienate a sizable chunk of the party that is relatively wealthy, young, college-educated, and fiscally conservative. After all, Clinton still beat Sanders handily in the primaries, which indicates that, regardless of alleged meddling by the party higher-ups, the American public at large probably won’t find that message palatable.

As a result, the Democrats might have to endure a long stretch before they finally put the pieces together, or until demographic changes significantly play to their advantage. This process may not necessarily go smoothly, and it may well be that a Tea Party-like leftist counterpart infiltrates the Democratic Party during Trump’s presidency, especially if the GOP is successful in implementing their policy agenda. Accordingly, the Democrats might play it safe in 2020 by nominating an establishment-type figure like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. If they feel particularly risky (or desperate), they can gamble on a fresh, unknown young face like HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, or even Rep. Joe Kennedy III to test the waters for future prospects of success.

In any event, they are going to face a tough, upward hill to climb. As Sen. Sanders is presumably done running for office due to his age, the leftist populist torch will likely now be reclaimed by Sen. Warren, who seems to be the logical successor for the movement. If Warren becomes the party’s standard-bearer, it then becomes a question of whether the country would be willing to go that far left.

Only time will tell.

About the Author

Paul Ingrassia
Paul Ingrassia (FCRH '17) is enrolled in the interdisciplinary mathematics & economics major on a pre-law track. He also hopes to complete a minor in political science. Paul enjoys writing on a number of subjects including presidential politics, American conservatism, and issues pertaining to economics and public policy. Contact Paul at pingrassia2@fordham.edu.