What Democrats Can Learn From the 2016 Presidential Primary

The New Republic has a fascinating discussion up today that they’ve titled The Split: 19 Reasons the Democrats Will Remain Divided—and What it Means for the Party’s Future.

They’ve collected the thoughts of 23 leading historians, political scientists, pollsters, artists, and activists on the topic. I was initially a bit disappointed that the editors showed their own bias in the introduction when they started off by saying that the divisions in the Republican Party initially obscured the “equally momentous divisions within the Democratic Party.” I immediately thought about how Arthur Schlesinger described pretty much the same split when he distanced himself from “the Doughface” back in 1949.

Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world…

Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.

I’m sure that Schlesinger’s opponents on the left had equally challenging descriptions of his “centrism.” In other words, this split has a very long history in the Democratic Party and isn’t unique to the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Some of the 23 experts assembled by the New Republic went on to make that point.

Much of the discussion seemed to me to be the same-old, same-old regurgitation of the memes we’ve been hearing all along about “establishment vs insurgency.” But there were a couple of entries that broke some new ground and provide the potential for “lessons learned.” For example, Mark Hugo Lopez points out one of the differences that I wrote about yesterday.

When you ask Clinton supporters, or people who see Clinton favorably, you’ll find that more than half will say that, compared to 50 years ago, life is better in America today. Whereas among Sanders supporters, one-third will say that things are actually worse.

Ruy Teixeira focuses on a changing trajectory rather than a split.

You can make the case that Obama has been a very successful and progressive president, but people are impatient. What used to keep people in line, so to speak, when they had these kinds of dissatisfactions was, “Oh, I’m really frustrated, but what can we do? The country is so right-wing. We’ve got to worry about the national debt—there’s no room in the system for change.” Now there’s much more of a sense of possibility. The Democratic Party has contributed to this transformation by becoming more liberal, and by ceasing to be obsessed with the national debt and the deficit.

Rivka Galchen talks about why Sanders is viewed as “authentic” and Clinton is not.

The semiotics of Sanders’s political authenticity—dishevelment, raised voice, being unyielding—are available to male politicians in a way they are not to women (and to whites in a way they are not to blacks or Hispanics or Asians)…It’s nonsense, and yet the only politically viable option, and therefore not nonsense.

It’s not just that research has shown that women are perceived to talk too much even when they talk less, or that men who display anger are influential while women who do so are not. It’s that there is no such thing as “masculine wiles.” The phrase just doesn’t exist. This doesn’t mean that calling into question Clinton’s authenticity and trustworthiness—the fault line along which the Democratic Party has riven—is pure misogyny. It just means that it’s not purely not misogyny.

Given that these rifts have always existed within the Democratic Party, Zeynep Tufekci provides some fascinating perspective on why the Sanders campaign reached a kind of success that most other “insurgents” prior to 2004 have not…the disruption is digital.

First came Howard Dean, who used the internet to “disrupt” the Democratic Party in 2004. Powered by small online donations and digitally organized neighborhood “meetups,” Dean outraised his big-money rivals and revolutionized the way political campaigns are funded. Four years later, Barack Obama added a digitally fueled ground game to Dean’s fund-raising innovations, creating a campaign machine that could identify and turn out voters with a new level of accuracy…

Whether or not Clinton wins in November, it’s safe to expect another Democratic insurgency in 2020—and beyond. Digital fund-raising, organizing, and messaging have given the left the weapons not just to tilt at the establishment’s windmills, but to come close to toppling them.

That is essentially the case I’ve been making for a while now about how technology and social media pose a serious threat to big money in political campaigns.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.