Last Saturday, while most political junkies were tucked comfortably in their beds, Hawaii Democrats were fighting a pitched battle for the soul of their party. The incumbent governor, Neil Abercrombie, was walloped by a little known state senator. Meanwhile, US senator Brian Schatz was barely fending off his own primary challenge from US Representative Colleen Hanabusa. Yet what was so surprising is that such a struggle even happened.
In an election cycle in which Republicans are seemingly immersed in full-scale intra-party civil war, Democrats are keeping their powder dry. A party that used to be divided over the most primal issues in American politics — race, war, labor vs. business — is more unified than at any other time in recent history.
When Democrats do tussle it’s on parochial issues. In Hawaii, it was about Abercrombie’s abrasive personality, his controversial appointment of Schatz to the Senate, and long-standing ethnic divides in the state. Other primary battles this year, such as the challenges to US representatives Charles Rangel in New York and John Tierney in Massachusetts, are as much about personality as ideology.
It’s consistent with the 2008 presidential primary battle between President Obama and Hillary Clinton. While they disagreed over the war in Iraq, the ideological differences between the two were paper-thin. This was a fight about personality and temperament, and any hard feelings within the party quickly dissipated after Obama emerged victorious.
Today, on issue after issue, there is striking unanimity among Democrats — on gay marriage and abortion; on tax increases for the wealthy; on protecting Social Security and Medicare; and on addressing income inequality. Indeed, President Obama’s ill-fated effort to strike a fiscal Grand Bargain with Republicans now seems like ancient history — a proposal unlikely to be floated by any Democrat in the foreseeable future.
This newfound harmony is, ironically, a product of the nation’s growing political polarizations. As the GOP has become more conservative, Democrats have found common cause against a shared political enemy. When Republicans rejected Obama’s efforts at creating a post-partisan presidency — and doubled down on mindless obstructionism — their actions had the effect of uniting Democrats in partisan fervor. That 60 Democrats could be held together in the Senate to support Obamacare was unprecedented — and this unanimity was driven, in large measure, by unanimous GOP opposition.
With little hope of political compromise, Democrats saw no reason to water down progressive values. At the same time, centrist Senate Democrats Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Kent Conrad, and Ben Nelson have either retired or were forced from office. A similar situation occurred in the House. The result is that the Democratic caucuses in both houses of Congress are increasingly liberal, which is a reflection of the party as a whole. According to the recent Pew poll on political polarization, the number of Democrats who can be considered liberal on all or most issues has jumped from 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent today. On virtually every issue identified by Pew, Democrats have moved left over the past two decades.
All of this stands to reshape the nation’s politics. While Republicans are being forced to adopt conservative policies that are marginalizing the party, Democrats are moving into much better political territory.
On immigration, the party’s leftward shift — coupled with strident GOP opposition — has solidified Democrats’ hold over Hispanic voters. On gay marriage, abortion, and contraception, Democrats are staking out turf as the more socially tolerant party, improving their standing among young voters and women. And on economics, the GOP’s rightward move is creating political space for Democrats to push for higher taxes on the wealthy, increased government spending, and an expansion of Social Security — all of which many in the party once considered too “big government” to be politically advantageous. Even gun control, an issue that many Democrats never wanted to discuss, is seen as having a political upside.
Divisions among Democrats still exist. Obama’s hopes for a free trade agreement in Asia will face stiff resistance from pro-labor Democrats. On the local level, fights between education reformers and teacher unions seem likely to heat up. Plenty of red state Democrats will be sounding a lot more like centrists than liberals on the campaign trail. But none of this is likely to spark an intra-party war or undermine the Democrats’ kumbaya moment. The idea of Democrats not being in disarray may seem counterintuitive, but it looks like the new normal.Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.