During the primaries, Donald Trump’s appeal could be summed up in two words: “He fights.” The assumption embedded in this assertion was that the rest of the Republican Party did not. Among the right’s most vocal activists, the GOP was thought to have caved to Barack Obama and the Democrats at every available opportunity. Among their liberal counterparts, however, the precise opposite was the prevailing wisdom. On tax cuts, environmental issues, health care, gun restrictions, and more, Barack Obama was perceived to be only too willing to compromise with Republicans. What progressive crusaders saw as contemptible Clintonian triangulation was, more likely, an acknowledgment that governing requires compromise, but intransigence is a virtue when the stakes are low.
From the wilderness, the ideological rigidity of unsavory zealots might look more like commitment than mania. Considering how well the GOP performed in elections during Obama’s tenure in the White House, a little zeal might seem like a desirable trait for Democrats to court. Quite unlike the early Obama years, though, the political press focuses almost exclusively on the governing party and the president; the tactics and positions to which anti-Trump opposition has resorted just don’t rate. As such, the Democratic Party’s descent into radicalism is occurring under the radar.
This week, the U.S. Senate voted 69 to 28 to confirm Marvin Quattlebaum to a U.S. district court in South Carolina over the objections of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Those objections were explicitly racial. On the floor of the Senate, Schumer insisted that his no vote was tied to the fact that Trump has nominated “the lowest share of non-white candidates [to the bench] in three decades.” He later defended his opposition to this candidate by insisting that Republicans blocked two African-American candidates for this role, so “I said now this new fellow is white, and we need the bench to have real diversity.” There’s no ambiguity here; this is the explication of a racial quota system. Rarely, however, is the discriminatory logic for such a scheme elaborated upon with such naked disregard for even the superficial appearance of meritocracy.
Schumer’s logic is self-reinforcing. If almost any measure can be justified if it stimulates the passions of the base voters who will propel Democrats back into power, then there are no bounds on acceptable political conduct. For years, the passions of the Democratic base were stirred by fringe figures like influential Minister Louis Farrakhan, but they were tamped down by sober Democrats with an eye on the broader electorate. As the Democratic Party embraces radicalism, Farrakhan has come along for the ride.
“White folks are going down,” Farrakhan declared at a weekend speech. “And Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.” Expanding on these anti-Semitic remarks, Farrakhan contended that the Jews hoped to boil Jesus alive in excrement. To his credit, Rep. Danny Davis—one of many prominent Democrats to have cultivated a relationship with Farrakhan—denounced the comments even absent significant media pressure. Most of those who spent years cultivating a relationship with this noxious figure, though, have been silent.
The deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Keith Ellison, tried to create some distance from Farrakhan in a Washington Post op-ed last December amid questions about his willingness to entertain radicalism before his rise to national prominence. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jeryl Bier found that Ellison’s contrite tone in print was betrayed by his prickliness about the subject on television. The deputy DNC chairman insisted that the kerfuffle over Farrakhan was only a rehash of “something that happened in 1995,” but documents revealed that Ellison and Farrakhan dined together as recently as 2013 at an event attended by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
This flirtation with liabilities shouldn’t surprise anyone. Ellison’s history with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam is no closely guarded secret. Nor was his habit of making inflammatory statements of his own. Equating 9/11 to the Reichstag fire that brought the Nazis to power and opposing a missile shield for Israel on the grounds that more dead Israelis represented an inducement to a negotiated end to 2014’s hostilities in Gaza are just two of many examples. None of this was an obstacle to Ellison’s ascension to leadership in the Democratic Party.
The radicalization of the Democrats is set to intensify as primary season begins this week. Like the GOP before them, the party out of power appears to have been seduced by the allure of ideological homogeneity.
Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to endorse seven-term Chicago-area Congressman Dan Lipinski for reelection. Lipinski faces a stiff challenge from his left in the coming primaries and has piqued the ire of the Democratic Party’s activist base due to his opposition to abortion, the Affordable Care Act, and immigration reform. Simultaneously, California’s Democratic Party was withdrawing its support for another lawmaker, the state’s senior U.S. Senator, Dianne Feinstein. Despite being a reliable Democratic vote in the upper chamber of Congress, Feinstein failed to lean into nouveau liberal causes like government-provided health insurance, a universal $15 minimum wage, or tuition-free college education.
The pressure the activist base has placed on Democrats to endorse progressive policies and identity politics over electability shouldn’t be over-estimated. Centrism, defined as anything to the right of single-payer health care, is the subject of unyielding scorn in liberal opinion venues, and the party is listening. Last April, newly elected DNC Chairman Tom Perez joined Senator Bernie Sanders for what was, ostensibly, a unity tour designed to wash away the residual hostilities lingering from the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries. To the excitement of the party’s populist wing, that unity tour soon took on the feel of a debutante’s ball announcing the arrival of a vaguely familiar Democratic Party marked once again by reactionary views on trade, Wall Street, and taxation.
The conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats’ embrace of maximalist rhetoric and uncompromising leftism is not a cost-free proposition. It will divide the party and reduce its appeal to both influencers and average voters. Moreover, the party will be writing checks that it does not want cashed. The bill for breaking the promises Democrats make today will come due sooner than they think. Those are valid concerns, but they’re for another day.
For now, despite this radicalization, the Democratic Party is poised to benefit from the public’s antipathy toward united one-party government in Washington and Donald Trump’s conduct as president. If progressives successfully engineer a takeover of the Democratic Party in this year’s primaries and are rewarded with electoral victories in November, it may come to be seen as a referendum sanctioning the party’s leftward drift. With the party’s centrists on the ropes, the fight will move on to 2020 and the battle for the Democratic soul.