The war for the soul of the Democratic Party is nothing new, but you wouldn’t know that from a lot of Democrats’ behavior in the last year. Despite the fact that Barack Obama led an economically populist insurgency to the top of the Democratic Party in the wake of the largest financial crisis most of us have ever experienced, DNC partisans tend to portray Bernie Sanders’ 2016 support as an anomaly. After the most embarrassing result in the history of elections, the only prominent Democrats who seem to have learned lessons from 2016 are those planning to run in 2020—like Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker. They all support Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill, yet uber-centrist Durbin does not. The Senate Minority Whip was asked on Connected to Chicago on WLS-AM about Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos’ warning about the party becoming too liberal, and Durbin said:
“We need to be balanced. She’s right about that. And as downstater like her, I understand she represents a challenging district. We don’t give up on our values, but we better be sensitive too that there are people with more moderate views, and people who may disagree with some parts of the Democratic platform as they as they are presented. We’ve got to be open to that possibility.”
The host then asked Durbin, ”So you could lose it by being too liberal?” He replied:
“You can. I think you can overdo it. We have to really appeal to that sensible center. It’s a thin stripe now. It used to be a lot wider stripe, but it’s an important and determining factor in most elections.”
Let’s just get some facts out of the way first. A Harvard-Harris Poll from last month found that 52% of all Americans favor a single-payer healthcare system. A Pew poll from June revealed that 64% of liberals want a single national government-run healthcare program, with another 24% wanting a mix of government and private programs. These are all-time highs. From 2001 to 2008, a quarter of all Democrats classified themselves as economically liberal, and that figure has now risen to 33%. This chart from Gallup provides unassailable proof that Democrats have been getting more liberal throughout the entirety of the 21st century.
Additionally, FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten asserts that the Democrats don't need any Trump votes to be successful in next year's congressional elections.
Let's start with the basic fact that Trump won just 45.9 percent of the vote in 2016. That doesn't make his victory any less legitimate — winning (the Electoral College) with less than a majority is still winning — but Trump has a smaller base than every president elected since 1972, except for Bill Clinton in 1992. Trump voters are not a majority.
More importantly for the sake of 2018, they don't represent the majority of voters in the majority of congressional districts. Trump won more than 50 percent in 205 of 435 districts. If House Republicans won every district where Trump won a majority in 2016 but lost every other one, Democrats would control 230 seats. Among seats won by a Republican in 2016, Trump fell short of a majority in 40 districts. Democrats need to win only 24 of those to win control of the House.
So let’s go back to Senator Durbin’s assertion that the political center is where the Democrats’ focus should lie. He even admits that the center is “a thin stripe now,” yet still believes that we should prioritize it in the face of nearly two decades of evidence of a leftward shift. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t related to the fact that the “center” is where most large political donations exist.
Additionally, this is a philosophical problem that many centrist Democrats can’t seem to escape. They adhere to the trope that 90% of all people have their minds made up, and campaigning is just fighting for that remaining and unaffiliated 10%. The problem with that mindset is it looks at the electorate as something that cannot be expanded, and remember—more people didn’t vote than voted for either Clinton or Trump. Amongst consistent voters, sure—this theory is basically true. But the lessons from Obama’s win in 2008 and Bernie’s moral victory in 2016 is that when the Democratic Party recruits those who don’t always vote, they look to be unbeatable on a national level. The tension within America’s only liberal party (which isn’t really that liberal) rests between focusing on either big or small donors. The closer we get to the center, the less we value small donors, and they really make a difference.
Not only was Bernie’s campaign mostly funded by small donations, but so was much of Donald Trump’s. That has continued into 2017, as the Republican Party has raked in over $40 million in donations of $200 or less. The Democrats have collected almost half that, at around $25 million in small donations. This dynamic has always favored the right, but this chart shows that gap shrunk considerably when Barack Obama came into office, which is even more evidence that when you preach an economically populist message, people listen. Hell, that’s basically what won Trump the presidency.
The writing is on the wall for the Democrats—the only question is whether they choose to read it. Those who want to advance their careers have clearly received the message, but those who simply want to protect their status—like Dick Durbin—are pushing back against much-needed changes that the Democrats must undertake in order to regain their status as a national party. You would think that electing the face of centrism and having her lose to a wild baboon flinging his shit around would serve as a wake-up call to the Democrats, but establishment shills like Durbin and DNC Chair Tom Perez somehow still seem to believe that it’s possible to be a liberal party without supporting liberal policies.
The Democrats don’t need to turn into the Democratic Socialists of America, but anyone who says that Democratic voters aren’t craving more economic populism is willfully misreading public sentiment, and it’s hard to see any other reason to do that other than protecting the very same donors who helped bring the Democratic Party to its current nadir.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.