The left wing of the Democratic Party has a plan, and it goes like this:
With the party controlling both houses of Congress along with the presidency, Democrats in the Senate need to vote as a bloc (with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the winning 51st vote) to eliminate the filibuster, the parliamentary procedure that enables the minority party (in this case, the GOP) to require 60 votes to advance most forms of legislation. With this accomplished, the Democrats should then ram through a long list of policies, ranging from additional trillions of dollars’ worth of pandemic relief to various institutional reforms that will enhance the party’s electoral prospects going forward.
That’s the plan, but it’s already falling to pieces. That’s because former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded as a condition of reaching a power-sharing agreement with Democrats that the new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promise to keep the filibuster in place. This was never a serious threat because any such promise was unenforceable; Schumer could agree to it and then break the deal the moment Republicans filibustered something the Democrats passionately cared about passing.
Yet if the goal of McConnell’s gambit was to preserve the filibuster, it must be judged a smashing success. That’s because by forcing the issue right up front, McConnell prompted two Democrats — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — to state forthrightly on the record that they have no intention of supporting the elimination of the filibuster, now or in the future.
Not only does that mean the left’s plan is dead in the water. It also means that McConnell has already called Schumer’s bluff in advance, preventing him from using the threat of eliminating the filibuster as leverage to persuade Republicans not to use it to slow down or scuttle legislation Democrats favor.
Who’s to blame for the left’s plans running aground so soon? Many will be tempted to direct their ire at party leaders or the supposedly wishy-washy, cowardly senators who refuse to wield power with the ruthlessness Republicans regularly do. But the real culprit is the party’s voters, many of whom simply don’t favor the policies such hardball tactics would enact. That’s the Democratic reality: The party may hold (extremely narrow) majorities in both houses of Congress, but those majorities are comprised of elements that are far from being uniformly left wing.
The Democratic Party is quite ideologically broad. It ranges from Bernie Sanders fanboys and AOC stans on one side to Michael Bloomberg-admiring technocratic neoliberals on the other, with Joe Biden attempting to straddle the extremes from the somewhere in the middle.
But even this way of talking about the fissures in the party makes them sound too neat and tidy. You have highly educated very progressive urban professionals whose views often align with left-wing activists, who want to push policy as far left as they can. You have large numbers of suburban voters, many of whom are more moderate on policy, and some of whom used to be Republicans, found Donald Trump personally repulsive, and began voting blue as a result. These voters are broadly supportive of the new administration but don’t necessarily want to see a massive expansion of government spending. Then there are culturally conservative but economically populist voters, notably in the Midwest, who are nonetheless somewhat receptive to Republican warnings about the imposition of “socialism” and the threat of urban unrest.
Some of these groups are whiter than others, but they’re also made up of minority voters, who are themselves further divided in a multitude of ways. Younger Black voters align electorally with urban progressives, but older Blacks tend to be more skeptical of big, ambitious government plans. Hispanics, meanwhile, favor Democrats overall but with significant regional variation (Latino voters in California were much more likely than Latinos elsewhere to support Sanders over Biden in the state’s primary last year, for example), and with some ominous signs of rising support for Trump this past November, especially in Texas and Florida.
That’s a portrait of a highly fractious party.
Which is fine in all kinds of ways. For one thing, that’s the way our electoral system is supposed to work, with different factions clustering together in a rough-and-ready coalition for the sake of achieving maximal power at the ballot box. (Parliamentary systems incentivize these factions to become independent parties and then form governing coalitions after votes are counted.) It also enhances flexibility, enabling the party to adopt a divide-and-conquer strategy in state and local elections, with candidates in different regions running campaigns that suit the particularities of specific electorates.
Things become trickier once governing begins. Now the party’s great strength — its ability to gain the support of a broad range of voters — can become a liability, at least from the standpoint of its most committed factions, who desperately want the party to act decisively. The problem gets exacerbated even further when the party’s majority is very narrow and it faces a unified opposition, since that requires unanimity, or something very close to it, on nearly every bill. That forces all the party’s factions to reach, maintain, and enforce a compromise position that everyone can affirm.
But what should the compromise position be? The left, naturally, insists it should be theirs — not just on the policy substance, but out of political expediency. Sending people checks will be wildly popular! Just as making the District of Columbia into a state will be both a triumph of democracy and a boost to the party’s power in Congress, which will help it achieve other good things for the country. But these and other accomplishments will only be possible if the Democrats take away the power of Republicans to block them at every turn with the filibuster.
The problem, of course, is that there are Democratic senators whose constituents don’t want the party to enact certain items on the progressive wishlist— think an expansion of the Affordable Care Act or the Green New Deal. The left’s claim, that these senators should support its agenda anyway, on the rationale that these recalcitrant voters will come around once policies get enacted, requires a greater degree of risk-taking and a greater willingness to undertake a leap of faith than is common among elected officials these days.
Which means that the left’s deeper problem is that there is insufficient support in the Democratic electorate for what it wants to do. Until that changes, or until the Democrats win much bigger electoral victories, the left will find itself playing a weak political hand and continually having to compromise with less impassioned factions in the party.
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