Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The Democrats’ liberal lemmings

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 21: Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), (R), greets DNC Chairman Tom Perez, (L) on stage as he gets ready to speak to a crowd of supporters at a Democratic unity rally at the Rail Event Center on April 21, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sanders and Perez are holding several rallies around the country trying unify the Democratic party. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
George Frey/Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders greets DNC Chairman Tom Perez at a Democratic unity rally in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Next month I’m returning to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a lovely place and, for progressives, the ultimate “safe space.” It sometimes seems that Republicans need a green card just to visit, and that the island only issues 10 per year.

But this creates a problem: What passes for political wisdom can become, shall we say, insular. As a journalistic eminence murmured after enduring a dinner party where, in his view, progressive piety strangled reality by the throat: “As Martha’s Vineyard goes, so goes Cambridge, Berkeley, and the upper West Side of Manhattan.”

Which puts me in mind of certain Democratic liberals — and lemmings.


Hold the outrage, please. I like to think I’m as progressive as the next guy, including ardent support for voting rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, racial justice, and preventing dangerous people from slaughtering innocents with guns. Over the years, I’ve devoted considerable energy to these issues. But, for me, the current ideological fratricide among Democrats evokes the mythic rodents who commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs.

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This year’s contest for DNC chair — in essence, a tiresome rerun of the fight between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — featured lemmings galore. Among them were the raucous activists who booed the liberal Tom Perez for beating the even more liberal, and more controversial, Keith Ellison, perpetuating the ongoing divide between the merely progressive and the truly pure.

Inescapably, this spectacle raised questions. What slice of the populace do these folks represent? At this critical juncture, were Perez and Ellison the best choices Democrats had? What about Pete Buttigieg, the young and appealing mayor of South Bend, Ind. – who, having succeeded in a red state, emphasized expanding the party’s appeal in middle America? And what does all this fractiousness portend for the Democrats’ ability to reverse their electoral fortunes?

Nothing good. To heal the wounds, Perez and Sanders launched a unity tour. Quickly, it foundered on their support of the Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Neb., Heath Mello — who, it transpired, had taken antiabortion positions as a state legislator. Quickly, abortion-rights groups pounced, asserting that the party’s support for Mello was unacceptable.

Progressives like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defended the right of a local candidate to hold views at odds with theirs, sensibly distinguishing between a would-be mayor of Omaha and, say, a Supreme Court nominee. But the head of NARAL denounced this as “politically stupid.” Swiftly, Perez capitulated, asserting that Democrats’ commitment to abortion rights “is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”


Bravely spoken.

Let’s be clear. The Democratic Party firmly embraces reproductive rights — and should. And, yes, the antiabortion movement is tainted with misogyny, patriarchy, and fundamentalism. But, unavoidably, the debate over abortion includes a genuine ethical issue regarding how we define life. And, as a practical matter, a significant minority of Democrats oppose abortion; some are women who support maternal leave, better child-care policies, and wage equity.

Abortion rights should not, in itself, be a litmus test of decency — or of who gets to be a Democrat in Nebraska.

But doctrinal purity is contagious. Shortly, Sanders stumbled, flatly stating that Jon Ossoff — a Democrat opposing a an antiabortion GOP zealot in a bright-red Georgia congressional district — was “not a progressive.” Really? When did Georgia become Vermont? And when did progressive orthodoxy become so rigid and exclusionary?

But among Democrats, this ideological Stalinism is all too common. A few years ago, a friend and leader in the gun-control movement refused to support the incumbent Democratic senator from Arkansas, deeming him too compromised on guns. He lost to a Republican who opposes everything she cares about. Now Republicans control the Senate, and Neil Gorsuch sits on the Supreme Court.


This illustrates the complex relationship between moral urgency and political actuality. The civil rights movement was not driven by political exigency, but by the uncompromising commitment of brave men and women who transformed our national conscience. But translating civil rights into law required a Democratic president working through a Democratic Congress.

Too many activists fail to grasp this — or that their desire to thwart Donald Trump exceeds their party’s ability to do so. Thus some on the left threaten primary challenges against Democrats they perceive as insufficiently militant.

This is political self-immolation. The Democrats are defending Senate seats in red or purple states like Montana, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Pennsylvania — all of which Trump carried. Do these petulant purists really think that a Warren-style Democrat could win in Montana? Or care that they risk losing the last bastion of legislative resistance to Trump — even, perhaps, the filibuster?

Already, Democrats are ceding most of America with alarming celerity. Since 2006, the party has lost 10 percent of its seats in the Senate, 19 percent in the House, 20 percent in state legislatures, and 36 percent of governorships. The 16 percent of counties won by Hillary Clinton resemble, demographically, a cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard — urban, affluent, well-educated, and, increasingly, politically homogenous and sociologically isolated. In such circumstances, political antennae rust, litmus tests flourish, and a vision of “deplorables” sets in that mirrors the intolerance of the right.

No surprise, then, that many middle-class and blue-collar Americans — including former Obama voters — feel that national Democrats favor the wealthy. Programmatically, this simply isn’t so. No doubt this misperception owes much to the GOP’s rank dishonesty. But ideological rigidity and cultural condescension surely do not help — nor, frankly, do enormous speaking fees from Wall Street.

So what should Democrats do? Some think the party should focus on turning out its core demographic — well-educated whites, women, young people, and minorities; others on winning back some of the voters it lost to Trump. But this is a false choice. Nor is it sufficient for Democrats to define themselves merely by opposing Trump. Instead, the party needs to prioritize engaging voters rather than excluding them.

This requires what went missing in 2016: a compelling and unifying vision of how Democratic policies improve the lives of more Americans, helping unleash the potential of every person — wherever and whoever they are — to lift themselves and their country. This message of inclusion and economic opportunity transcends geography and demographics and, as well, any single issue or constituent group no matter how important. It says, rather, that every American is not merely worthwhile, but valuable.

That is what a national party looks like.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.