For a long time it has been obvious that a lot of journalists are addicted to the notion of “Democrats in disarray.” Nowhere is that more on display than in Tim Albert’s latest piece for Politico, “The Democrats’ Dilemma.”
I was interested in what Albert wrote primarily because he contrasts two congressional Democrats from my home state of Minnesota: Ilhan Omar from the the 5th district (the city of Minneapolis) and Dean Phillips from the 3rd district (western suburbs of Minneapolis). He notes that Omar identifies as part of the “Squad” of other newly-elected women in Comngress: Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley. Meanwhile, Phillips is a businessman who has joined the Problem Solvers caucus, a club of business friendly centrists.
This passage captures Albert’s thesis.
To better understand these dueling visions for the Democratic Party, I sat down with both Omar and Phillips, spent several days in their communities and talked with some of their constituents. What I learned is that, despite the cautionary tale offered by years of vicious Republican infighting, Democrats are dangerously close to entering into their own fratricidal conflict. On matters of both style and substance, the fractures within this freshman class are indicative of the broader divisions in a party long overdue for an ideological reckoning.
I suppose that Albert chose Omar and Phillips because they are both part of the freshman class that was elected in 2018. But he wouldn’t have found as much of a contrast with Phillips had he had compared him to Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who has represented the other major metro area of St. Paul for 18 years and just won re-election by over 36 points. Similarly, Angie Craig, another member of the freshman class who won in a suburban district, wouldn’t have provided as much of a contrast with Omar. Craig is now co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus and a member of the Progressive Caucus.
Instead, Albert chose the two Democratic members of congress who provide the sharpest contrast without ever mentioning the rest of the delegation. Frankly, there are a lot of Democrats in Minnesota who wouldn’t necessarily align with either Omar or Phillips. Even the one member of Omar’s district that Albert interviewed voiced concerns about her.
“I was shocked. I don’t like her on Twitter,” Aden tells me. “She’s very smart, and I didn’t think she would talk that way. It was an embarrassment for me as a Somali-American, because we do not like extreme left or extreme right. But she will do better. This is new to her—she will learn how to handle it.”…
“Trump is a radical. Maybe I should say he’s a racist, because that’s what I believe. But I don’t want to see others becoming radical as the result,” Aden, a naturalized citizen and a loyal Democrat, says…
“I just worry Ilhan will be too much left, like the woman in New York,” Aden says. “You know—AOC.”
I would suggest that Aden speaks for the vast majority of Democrats both in Minnesota and around the country. The behavior of some of the more radical members of the party has been disconcerting. But they are also wary of becoming aligned with corporate interests and recognize that someone like Phillips, who still touts the possibility of bipartisanship, isn’t likely to be any more successful in his efforts.
Given all of that, I have two main responses to Albert’s article. The first is that Democrats don’t have a dilemma, they have a party based on coalitions, as Bernice Johnson Reagon defined so powerfully. That is demonstrated in Minnesota by representatives as diverse as Omar, Phillips, McCollum, and Craig.
Secondly, I’d suggest that the largest faction of the Democratic Party would be those who don’t align completely with either the “Squad” or the Problem Solver centrists. They’re not interested in becoming the Tea Party of the left (as Omar suggests), but recognize that the only sane response to the current Republican Party is electoral defeat. This is not a group that fears standing up for their principals, they just know that addressing the problems we face will require more than simply yelling louder than the opposition or pleading for bipartisanship. You’ll see them at the polls when primary season gets underway.
UPDATE: Here is a data point that backs up my final assertion.
It's a cloistered conversation often between Extremely Online people, so it's easy to miss from the outside. You can watch a group of activists going at it for hours on social media and then every time there's a poll of actual voters it looks like this https://t.co/qJbmuLwfRK
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) March 8, 2019