E J Dionne had an excellent op ed (“Stop the sniping, Washington Democrats. Learn from the grass roots”) in the Washington Post earlier this week arguing that the ongoing conflict within the democratic party about whether to move to the left or stay in the center is not just harmful; it is irrelevant to what’s happening in the country. He observers that “old arguments feel comfortable, but they’re inadequate for the moment.” Sort of like a moth-eaten T-shirt.
He refers to an ongoing study by Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol and colleagues who have been looking at counties in Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that went for Trump over Clinton in 2016. Skocpol has been interested for some time in local party and institution building and published an important piece just after the elections about the republican advantage over the democrats at the grassroots level. See my discussion of that piece and Skocpol’s ongoing project studying conservative groups here.
In this new work, she and colleagues are looking at democratic organizing at the local level. They have found that what Dionne calls “anti-Trump organizations” have emerged in all ten of those counties. The key point for him is that the people on the ground couldn’t care less about what happened in 2016. Hillary and Bernie supporters are working together comfortably because they share a civic sense that something has gone terribly wrong in this country and they want to do something about it. In Dionne’s words, “they don’t have time for litmus tests.”
He then makes the natural connection to the just-concluded 2017 elections where democrats and progressives scored impressive victories from Washington state to Maine. Some of those wins were by centrists, such as Ralph Norton in Virginia. But others were much more progressive. Lee Carter, also running in Virginia, won as a self-described democratic socialist. Dionne concludes that each wing of the democratic party is correct in its own way. In some places people want more centrist candidates and in other places, it is best to be bold. But even more important, it is crucial for democrats and progressives to recognize that they need to work together to protect core values and defeat Trump and the republican agenda in Washington.
It will be interesting to see what Skocpol and colleagues come up with in terms of data and conversations they may be having with voters and with organizers. But, for now I think Dionne’s conclusion is correct: there is no one clear position the democratic party needs to take or can take. The United States is a very diverse country and what democrats or people in one place or another prefer is going to vary from one place to the next. In a discussion of the 2017 elections for the Dig podcast, host Daniel Denvir noted that Northam actually voted for George W. Bush twice and in so doing questioned the governor-elect’s liberal/progressive credentials. It is a fair point, but let us also remember that Northam defeated the much more progressive Tom Perriello in the democratic primary by nearly 12 points, outpolling Perriollo in liberal northern Virginia and in Richmond.
Having said that, it is important to stress that very progressive candidates taking very progressive positions did extremely well just about everywhere in the elections, results that can be attributable to general eagerness to stand up to Trump and the republicans as well as to grass-roots organizing by the many groups that spun up after the 2016 elections. So, for many places, running a strong progressive is going to be a better strategy than running a centrist, because it will energize grassroots workers in organizing and get out the vote efforts. At the same time, it may be the case that in the current environment, the grassroots are going to turn up at the polls anyway, as long as the democratic candidate is significantly more progressive than his or her republican opposition–an absolute certainty these days.
But let us also zoom out and take a wider view of politics. In a large country with a two-party system, the two political parties are, by definition, coalitions of interests and political tendencies, which, also by definition, will not agree about everything. Within the democratic party, it is not possible for either side to fully defeat the other in this battle. At the same time, recent polling (“Most Americans Are Liberal Even if they Don’t Know It”) has demonstrated that on economic and livelihoods issues, Americans have very progressive attitudes about tax fairness, universal healthcare, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government-supported programs. By nominating more progressive candidates in many places, including in rural areas, former manufacturing centers, and the south, democrats will keep the base energized and turn out more voters in future elections. But not everywhere. As Dionne says, listen to the grassroots.