Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr

As the People’s Summit comes to a close in Chicago, the backlash from mainstream reporters is already coming in. Perhaps the best case in point comes in this New York Times piece by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, which posits a clash between party leaders who “want to win” in tough districts, and militant base progressives who “want it all.”

As usual, the intramural battle on the left is being framed as one between intelligent pragmatists who want to win, and unrealistic ideologues who want to make themselves feel good.

But this is an overly simplistic and deeply misleading way of thinking about the schism within the Democratic Party and the left more generally. There are reasonable and unreasonable people on both sides of these battle lines, and some people who straddle the divide depending on the circumstances. Most important, the Democratic Party will need to channel the energies, talents and priorities of both the populist and pragmatist wings to make gains going forward.

Let’s examine the populist left. First, the establishment wing must be able to grant that many of the populist left’s premises have proven themselves over time. Clinton’s own SuperPAC did the research and discovered that the Obama-Trump switchers who made the difference in the election were driven by economic anxiety and a loss of faith in the Democratic Party to resolve their concerns. Sanders remains the most popular politician in America. And Jeremy Corbyn’s success in Britain shows that an invigorated populist left can indeed succeed despite the dire predictions of all the so-called serious people.

It seems clear by now that the Democratic Party must have a bolder vision of universal social guarantees and anti-elitist sentiment, particularly against Wall Street and corporate behemoths, to reverse its poor fortunes over the last two decades. And it seems to be learning its lesson: more and more establishment Democrats are fully embracing the cause of single-payer healthcare as Trump and Ryan act to gut the Affordable Care Act, and there is a reason that presidential hopefuls like Kirsten Gillibrand are dropping F-bombs in their speeches.

But establishment pragmatists also have points that cannot be ignored. First and foremost is the reality that the path to retaking the House lies less in rural economically ravaged districts full of angry voters, than in bourgeois suburban neighborhoods uncomfortable with Trump’s lack of seriousness and gentility. It must be admitted that while Ron Quist failed in Montana with a folksy brand of populism, Jon Ossoff is succeeding in suburban Atlanta with a distinctly anti-ideological approach that is appealing to Romney voters. It is certainly true that in order to retake the House and many state legislatures in 2018, the Democratic Party will need to field many more candidates like Ossoff, who won’t be exciting to the progressive base and will lead some progressive critics to unfairly accuse the party of selling out its principles.

That doesn’t mean the progressives are wrong, though. The weakness of the establishment argument is that it does little good to retake the House with anti-ideologues if the Democratic Party is unable to take specific action to transform the broken economy and create noticeable improvements in people’s lives. Marginal voters who delivered the 2016 election to Trump were willing to hand him the keys to power because their experience showed that electing Democrats had done almost nothing to salvage their communities and their way of life. Trump might be an uncouth racist–and many voted for him because of that–but even those who disliked him personally were willing to give him a chance hoping that he might bullishly wreck enough china in Washington DC to bring back the factories and re-center the economy away from privileged urban technocrats.

A Democratic Party that lacks the fortitude to enact state-based single-payer healthcare, punish Wall Street and provide real jobs instead of inadequate retraining programs, will not be a Democratic Party that retains any newfound majorities it may get. Moreover, there are many swing rural districts full of angry, economically anxious voters where a Sanders-Corbyn-style populist approach will win the day electorally as well.

Overall, though, the key to bridging the divide within the left is to understand where each side can best be put to use. There are many Democrats in safe districts who do not uphold progressive values and principles, and who often make the difference between the success or failure of progressive policy. Militant progressives should be let loose to wreak havoc upon them. Had Barack Obama and the center-left establishment joined forces with the netroots to defeat Joe Lieberman in Connecticut rather than defend him, the age of Medicare eligibility might be 50 today. Governor Jerry Brown is standing in the way of single-payer healthcare in California, and should feel the heat. Conservative Democrats in deep blue seats should face progressive primary challengers so that voters know that if they elect a Democrat, they can count on real change.

Meanwhile, there are many establishment players who know what it takes to win in districts where progressive ideas aren’t so popular, and where a populist approach will fall on deaf ears. It will do progressives no good to purify the ranks if Democrats simply don’t hold enough seats to enact policy. Even in deep blue California, oftentimes the most progressive approaches fail because Democratic legislators in tough districts don’t have the courage to face the red backlash that would ensue.

But the greatest danger is that opportunists and those of bad faith on both sides will ensure that no mutually productive alliance between the populist left and the pragmatists is allowed to form. On the establishment side, organizations like Third Way have no interest in allowing truly progressive policy to be enacted and no intention of stemming the flow of wealth to the top .1%. They only hold out olive branches as a means of co-opting their opposition. On the populist side, there are those who see the degree of their own marginalization as proof of their righteousness, and wear ignorance of the complexity of the real challenges facing the party with moderate and conservative voters as a badge of honor. Like conservative radio shock jocks, some progressive pseudo-activists build their brand on being purer and more “of the people” than the many who have spent years getting their hands dirty within the party before them. They will pull out all the stops to prevent productive steps toward unity from taking place, not from ideology but rather from personal ambition.

For Democrats to succeed, both approaches will need to work in tandem: pragmatists to win seats in places that populism will not reach, and progressives to rally base voters and Trump switchers while ensuring that Democrats actually hold to their promises to transform our broken economy once elected.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.