For the past several years a reoccurring theme in American political journalism has been the so-called “civil war” within the Republican party, which roughly began about five years ago when the Tea Party first emerged on the scene as a major political player, and with just a quick glance at the convoluted field for next year’s Republican primary race there is little doubt that fractures between ‘establishment’ and Tea Party Republicans remains an issue for the party of the right. However, recent weeks have revealed similar fractures on the left of the political spectrum; from Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform to President Obama’s recent spat with Elizabeth Warren over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If the Democrats go the way of the GOP and divide into competing camps they will lose national-level appeal and only bolster the already dreadful partisanship of Congress.
The very public shots fired between the President and Sen. Elizabeth Warren over his proposed trade deal with a host of Pacific Rim nations (including Canada, Japan, and Mexico) has revealed a divide between the anti-establishment movers to Obama’s left and those who support the President. Obama sees his view on trade as more in line with the American people (which polls suggest is true) as well as a component of his broader attempt to reform American foreign policy to pragmatically engage with the world. Senator Warren, on the other hand, represents the increasingly vocal populist wing of her party, who see such trade deals as corrosive to American manufacturing and damaging to families in the middle class. While Sen. Warren is not entirely wrong, and she makes a strong argument for the dangers the TPP may pose to the financial regulatory gains made since the Dodd-Frank Act was passed, the TPP offers a plethora of benefits to the American economy, and with increasing global trade seen having “unstoppable momentum”, having America lead the way has its own merits.
Trade has become a pivotal issue for progressives on the left looking to distance themselves from the President, as well as to reform both their party and the political debate. Following the 2014 midterm elections, in which Republicans won a resounding victory and captured both houses of Congress, it seems only logical that congressional Democrats would start to distance themselves from an increasingly lame-duck President; casting their eyes on future elections instead of supporting an already fairly unpopular leader. Yet this current shake-up within the Democratic Party goes beyond mere electoral politics and hints at coming ideological shifts.
Local politics can often serve as a signal as to what may soon be expected at the national level. This was seen in the case of the Tea Party, where in the early years of the Obama Administration Republican strategists set their sights on state-level positions before fielding anti-establishment candidates for national office. An example of this growing localized progressive movement is Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City. Campaigning on a platform to reduce inequality in his city, De Blasio has since begun to search for larger audiences for his progressive message. A recent speech he gave in front of the Capital Building in Washington led The Economist to compare his national efforts to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in the 1990s. Even in cities where more centrist Democratic mayors have held on to power there has been increasing pressure from the left – take Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, who recently won a narrower-than-expected reelection against Jesús “Chuy” García, a progressive Democrat and darling of many of the city’s unions.
Hillary Clinton’s only declared opponent (as of yet) in the Democratic primary race is Bernie Sanders, an independent Senator from Vermont who “calls himself a socialist”. Much like Bill De Blasio and Elizabeth Warren, Sanders has built his campaign on combating inequality in America. The fact that so many Democrats are now taking up the mantel of equality may seem wonderful for many politically-inclined Americans, but the way in which the Democratic Party is going about this mission could be dangerous for the party’s future.
A divided Democratic Party would lack the cohesiveness necessary in today’s political climate. As more and more young people become disenfranchised with politics it is becoming ever more tricky to get voters not only to campaign on behalf of your party, but even just to come out and vote for your party. Though recent elections may not make it seem the case, the Republicans continued divisiveness has hurt them at the national level. They continue to succeed locally in deeply conservative regions, and both gerrymandering and an unpopular Democratic president certainly help their electoral chances. Yet at the national level the Democrats are more in touch with a changing America on issues ranging from immigration to marriage equality to gun control. Thus a united Democratic Party, with a sensible centrist or center-left platform, that addresses inequality but does not make enemies of centrists, will have a stronger chance of capturing the White House in 2016 and winning back lost seats in Congress. However, if the Democrats continue down this road of intra-party bickering they will only perpetuate the idea of politics as partisanship and gridlock, and will suffer at the ballot box for it.