Opinion writer

Carly Hein waits for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to arrive at a rally for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello in April in Omaha. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

As Democrats look at a White House in disarray, a president with approval ratings in the 30s and the very real prospect of taking back the House in 2018, one political mission rises above all others: Don’t screw this up.

But can a divided party focus enough to achieve what will still be a difficult goal? And can it avoid falling into the same kinds of conflicts that embroiled the Republicans when Barack Obama was president?

We in the media have a bias that leads us to notice signs of intra-party division, because that means conflict, and conflict is the foundation of all drama. Not only that, there are some people for whom intra-party conflict is an organizing force, something they actively seek out. And they tend to be the ones who are loudest about expressing their views. David Weigel reports from the People’s Summit conference in Chicago, where Bernie Sanders was cheered and videos of Hillary Clinton were presented so that the crowd could boo:

Nearly a year after effectively conceding the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders was the star of this year’s People’s Summit, which has quickly become the country’s largest progressive political conference. At least 4,000 people trekked to Chicago for a weekend of teach-ins, panels and dance parties. In a Saturday-night speech, Sanders planned to tell activists to charge ahead because “ideas that, just a few years ago, seemed radical and unattainable, are now part of Main Street discussion.”

But as Sanders used his star power to unite activists behind the Democrats, some debated whether the Democratic Party could ever be fixed to their liking. Faced with unified Republican control of Washington, progressives were less interested in simple unity than in a purity that they believed could win.

The New York Times called this “a widening breach in their party.” But I’m not so sure. There’s no question that there are many left activists out there whose goal is to upend the Democratic Party. They believe that the party is hopelessly corrupt and that supporting its candidates is next to useless in achieving progressive goals. That makes them similar in some ways to the tea party activists who emerged after Obama was elected. The difference, however, is that the tea party essentially took over the entire GOP. And there is almost no chance that the left activists will do the same to the Democratic Party.

Former labor secretary Thomas Perez narrowly defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for chair of the Democratic National Committee following a contentious battle over the fate of their party. Ellison called on his supporters to rally behind the new chairman. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Why? Because there is no reason to believe that most Democrats are itching for that kind of upheaval. And there’s an interesting contrast with what began in 2009. There was no real substantive difference on policy between the tea party and the establishment GOP; they both wanted tax cuts, an attack on the safety net, the gutting of environmental regulations, the destruction of reproductive rights, and so on. The differences were about attitude and tactics. They argued about questions such as: How far should we go to achieve our shared goal of destroying the Affordable Care Act? Is it a good idea to shut down the government? How about defaulting on the debt?

But the differences between left activists and establishment Democrats are mostly about substance and aren’t really that large. Should we have single-payer health care or some kind of Affordable Care Act-plus? How high should the minimum wage be? Should we make college free for everyone? Those questions become tactical when you pose them as “What should Democrats advocate for in elections?” but at heart they’re about policy. And that actually serves to make the arguments less vituperative than they might otherwise be, when no one is advocating a kamikaze mission to plunge the global economy into chaos.

Now let’s be honest: For some people, fighting against the power is about not only substance but also identity. It’s the thing that gives their work purpose, so an alliance with more centrist elements is by definition a betrayal. I’d include Sanders in that group, despite his occasional efforts to help mainstream Democrats get elected. It’s why he refuses to become a Democrat himself. Sanders doesn’t know how to work from the inside and doesn’t want to; he’s been an outsider for his entire career, and he isn’t going to change now.

Which is fine. You can argue that he and other left activists are succeeding, in that the Democratic Party of today is noticeably more progressive than it was just a few years ago. A $15-an-hour minimum wage has become the consensus position for Democrats, as have paid family leave and more government involvement in health care. Don’t be surprised to see multiple contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination embrace marijuana legalization and single-payer.

The Democratic electorate — the audience both forces are trying to persuade — is perfectly open to more moves to the left on substance, but it’s also pragmatic in a way that makes outright revolution against the party a tough sell. For instance, right now, Democrats, even extremely liberal ones, want to win. The liberal blog Daily Kos has raised just short of a staggering $2 million for Georgia House candidate Jon Ossoff, who’s nobody’s idea of a fire-breathing liberal.

Or note this: Even in the Trump era, many Democrats realize that compromise is sometimes unavoidable. Even now, faced with the most horrifying president any Democrat can remember, the party’s voters are split about down the middle (see here or here) when polls ask whether their leaders should try to work with Donald Trump or resist him on everything. That’s far more openness to compromise than Republican voters ever showed when Obama was president.

We haven’t had a real practical test of the power of the anti-establishment left, and one has to acknowledge that before the tea party took down people like Eric Cantor in primary elections, no one thought it was possible. But are rank-and-file Democrats filled with rage at their party’s leadership? There’s very little evidence that they are. And if they aren’t, they won’t want to burn their party down. They’ll just want to get as many Democrats elected as possible.