Democrats are dividing and conquering themselves

Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

byJoel MathisOctober 11, 2021October 11, 2021Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare via Email

The biggest problem in American politics these days is that Republicans have largely turned against democracy, going along with Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and laying the foundation for the party to recapture the White House in 2024 — even if Democrats win the support of voters.

The second biggest problem? Republicans are largely unified as a party, while Democrats are not. That makes the first problem even more pressing.

The GOP’s unity was on display Saturday night in Iowa. Trump held a rally with the state’s most senior Republicans at his side, including longtime Sen. Charles Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds. Grassley, a pillar of the party establishment, not only received Trump’s endorsement for his upcoming re-election campaign, but he also went on the conservative TV network Newsmax to complain that Trump is somehow a victim of last week’s Senate report detailing how the former president tried to use the Justice Department to subvert the 2020 election.

Grassley wasn’t shy about his motives for embracing Trump. “I was born at night, but not last night,” he told the crowd. “If I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart.” That’s the choice that most other prominent Republicans have made, as well.

Democrats, meanwhile, are arguing with each other about nearly everything. In the last week, we’ve seen bitter intraparty battles over the size of President Biden’s proposed “Build Back Better” bill, about whether or not it’s appropriate to hassle Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in a public bathroom for her moderate positioning on that bill, about how harshly Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized Republicans in the debt ceiling fight, and even about how to shape the party’s agenda — whether the party should emphasize broadly popular policies over progressive priorities, or if “popularism” is actually too limited to accomplish much good.

It’s a lot. Put all those arguments together, and they create the overall impression that the Dems are in disarray — and certainly much more fractious than the Republican Party. Democrats are dividing and conquering themselves.

This is a problem, because the party’s infighting is taking place in the shadow of the GOP’s drift into Trumpian authoritarianism. Democrats should be strengthening democracy’s defenses, in part by showing that they can govern effectively when they get the chance. They’re squabbling with each other, instead.

Last week, New York writer Jonathan Chait declared in a column that “anybody fighting Joe Biden now is helping Trump’s next coup.” His argument was aimed mostly at NeverTrump Republicans, like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who joined their party in opposing last week’s vote to raise the debt ceiling. “Romney did not seem to have any misgivings that increasing the chance that Biden fails would necessarily increase the chance that Trump returns to power,” Chait observed, and later added: “Biden leads the governing party. Trump is the leader of the opposition. To oppose the one is to support the other.”

Does Chait’s formulation also apply to Democrats like Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), moderates who are among the main obstacles both to party unity and to passing Biden’s agenda? It’s discomfiting to think so. After all, both senators are arguably doing the democratic thing by staking out stances somewhat to the right of their party — Manchin represents a deep red state, after all, while Sinema’s Arizona constituency is fairly purple. As always, it’s important to remember that in a 50-50 Senate, Democrats won’t get anything done without their votes. Treating them like the enemy isn’t likely to accomplish anything.

Then again, the Democratic agenda isn’t getting very far very fast with them on board. And it’s not at all clear that Manchin or Sinema have any misgivings that they might be increasing the chance that Biden’s presidency fails, thus improving the odds that Trump returns to power. If nothing else, it would be nice if they signaled that they understand the stakes.

It’s easy to be unified when you’re in the opposition: There is no agenda that can be enacted, so every vote and every piece of messaging can be focused entirely against the people and party in power. Once your party does attain power, decisions must be made, priorities set, and votes taken — and that process can get complicated. That’s where Democrats find themselves. Ultimately, the party will be judged on what it gets done, and whether it can halt the decline of America’s democracy. But right now, Democrats are busier fighting each other.


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