The Joe Biden dust up of recent days has been most instructive. It says a lot about a man of a certain age bracket, who was raised in a different time, imbued with a different code of social etiquette. But the fall out from it speaks to a lot more than just the candidate himself. It speaks to the issue of who the Democratic party is composed of in 2019, and more importantly, how the Democrats will either 1. unite and win back the White House, or 2. fragment, and potentially experience a serious schism.
The Democratic Party of today has two activist bases. They are separate and distinct from each other. In several important respects, they are downright hostile to each other. I can’t think of a time when this has been the case and the party in question still managed to capture the White House.
The piece, by Michael Tomasky, goes on to describe the two bases, first the traditional base, composed of lawyers, teachers, and civil servants. It is a group that upholds Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the NAACP. It supports climate change legislation. This is the activist base of the last 30 years of the Democratic party, which has nominated every candidate from Walter Mondale to Hillary Clinton.
Then there’s the second activist base. They’re young, they’re urban, and their key value is diversity. They came up through the Obama years. They’ve experienced a world of limited social mobility and more oppressive social inequality than has been present since the sixties. This is the AOC base, just to give it a label, as a reference point.
For this base, the current Democratic Party needs radical surgery. For the first base of more traditional liberals, that’s not so. The first base is comfortable moving to the left, especially on economic issues. But because the first base is older and lives in places that occasionally elect Republicans, they don’t want radical surgery. They see what it took to elect, say, an Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th district, or a Sharice Davids in Kansas’ 3rd district. Second-base leftists don’t tend to live in these swing-ish places, so they’re more impatient about change.
This is the fragile reality the Democratic Party faces. As I said, I don’t recall a modern political party having two such bases. The closest analogy is the Democrats of 1972. Then, the traditional activist base was white blue-collar union members. The second base consisted of the young people who came out of the civil rights and antiwar movements to spur George McGovern’s nomination. Not a comforting analogy.
So, this brings us to Bernie Sanders, which this article calls “the McGovern of our time.”
The first base is generally resistant to Sanders, in no small part because he’s not a Democrat, and first-basers are serious party loyalists. One of the biggest questions that hovers over the Democrats in this campaign is whether Sanders did so well in 2016 because he was the only non-establishment choice on the menu (and everyone figured Clinton would win easily anyway, so why not cast a protest vote), or because voters were particularly committed to him. The Iowa results 10 months from now will go some distance toward answering this question of how many first-basers actually embrace Sanders.
That brings us to the crucial question: Is there a first baser who is capable of energizing both bases? Or vice versa? This candidate must be capable of reconciling the issues which divide the two bases, which Tomasky enumerates as Medicare for All, and abolishing ICE, while also handling climate change, wages and inequality, corporate power, and civil rights.
So this is what the Democrats are up against. They need a candidate who can unite, even if temporarily, even if with band-aids and glue, these two bases. If none proves capable of doing this, Trump will probably win reelection. Then vicious recriminations will ensue, and, depending on how those play out, a party schism is totally within the realm of possibility. The Whigs collapsed after their emotionally crushing loss in the 1852 election and over deep internal divisions. So it’s happened before and can happen again.
This is very sober stuff. But it does need to be considered in a wide field of contenders, with candidates from both bases. Tomasky points out that the key difference between the two bases is not issues, but rather sensibilities, which is why Biden may have irreconcilably crucified himself with the second base. But whomever gets nominated, the overriding consideration at all times must be beating Trump. Four more years of him in the White House is unthinkable. We can mend domestic intra-party squabbles, but we need to 1. not fragment, and 2. make beating Trump our first, last and only consideration in putting together the Democratic ticket. Here’s Tomasky’s bottom line:
Trump is uniquely disliked. No one will again make the mistake of thinking he can’t win. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that beating him will be easy. The Democrats, as has too often been the case, are running against not just the other guy, but themselves.
Food for thought.