Big Tent Tensions

It’s become a truism in U.S. politics that the Democratic Party represents a broader ideological coalition than the Republican Party, in the context of a “sorting-out” of the party system in which both are vastly more cohesive than they were in the days when regional and ethnic loyalities mattered most, and it wasn’t that odd to find Lester Maddox in the Democratic Party and Jacob Javits in the GOP.

There’s also a continuing debate on the political consequences of the relative asymmetry of the two parties’ ideological cohesiveness. Some Democrats look enviously at the superior “discipline” of the GOP now that it has all but merged with the Conservative Movement. And less publicly, some Republicans probably envy Democrats their ability to tolerate some dissent in the ranks, providing the Donkey Party with greater geographical diversity and tactical flexibility.

So when I looked at a new study by Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College published by Third Way, I didn’t see a lot that surprised me in terms of his analysis of the broader array of ideological perspectives in the Democratic Party. Yes, I would take issue with Eberly’s assumption that ideological self-identification alone is the best measure of the views of people in each party, given the abundant evidence that it is misleading. And yes, I noticed that a lot of Eberly’s argument about the tenuous attachment of “Democratic-leaning independents” to the party was based on data from 2000-2004, not exactly the most typical of periods.

But my main beef with Eberly’s take involves his conclusion:

The real question for Democrats is whether liberal party activists will cede control of the agenda and allow the party to move in the direction of its moderate, non-activist voters.

Do “liberal party activists” control the agenda of the Democratic Party? I don’t think so.

I must have missed the moment when the major Democratic candidates for president in 2008 (or for that matter, 2004) embraced the single-payer approach to universal health coverage that is undoubtedly popular among “liberal party activists.” I also failed to notice newly elected president Barack Obama supporting nationalization of the banks, or a multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus package, or reversal of Bush administration policies on surveillance, at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. Obama sure did go to the mats on behalf of the “public option” on health insurance–in itself considered a major compromise by “liberal party activists”–when the deal when down on health reform, didn’t he? And hey, Democratic congressional leaders most definitely saluted when “liberal party activists” demanded crackdowns on or actual expulsion of Blue Dog Democrats who were voting against major party legislation, didn’t they?

I could go on and on, but you get the point. A Democratic Party that could not bring itself to levy sanctions on Sen. Joe Lieberman after he endorsed and campaigned for the GOP candidate for president–which enraged even some “centrists” like me–is hardly in the grip of “liberal party activists.”

There are tensions associated with the relative ideological diversity of the Democratic Party that are difficult for party leaders to manage. That comes with the territory of being a party that sure “looks more like America” than the opposition. But the idea that hanging onto self-identified moderate voters requires some sort of ritual flogging of “liberal party activists” makes little sense politically or morally. The party leadership is rigorously interested in appealing to moderates, sometimes even against its own principles and prejudices. Beyond that, Democrats of every persuasion will just have to learn to get along, which given the circumstances, they’ve done reasonably well.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.