There’s a better way being charted — and by a few surprising figures — and the party establishment should follow it.
You might think the party establishment doesn’t have much to worry about — after all, first Hillary Clinton and then Joe Biden defeated more left-wing candidates in the most recent presidential primaries, and establishment figures such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) remain in charge on Capitol Hill. But while the establishment has kept formal power, the left has gained a lot of ground the past several years. On race, economics and basically every other issue, the Democratic Party is markedly more progressive than it was even five years ago, often pushing policies that were initially proposed by left-wing figures such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
The party establishment has noticed — and is fighting back. Immediately after the 2020 election, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), blamed the “defund the police” slogan for ruining the Senate campaign of Clyburn protege Jaime Harrison. As election analysis, this was nonsense — Harrison lost by a very similar margin as previous Democratic candidates in South Carolina, so it’s hard to pin his defeat on a new slogan. But as intraparty warfare, it was a great tactic. Democrats wanted someone or something to blame when the election wasn’t the total annihilation of the Republicans that they were expecting. Clyburn’s critique simultaneously absolved himself and other party leaders for the party’s underperformance while knocking Black Lives Matter activists who have long suggested that Democratic establishment leaders aren’t bold enough on racial issues.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the No. 5 in leadership in the House and the favorite of more establishment Democrats to become the caucus’s leader whenever Pelosi retires, recently started a political committee to defend longtime House incumbents against primary challenges — in other words to block the path by which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and several others in “the Squad” got into Congress. A coalition of more establishment Democrats, including Clyburn and Clinton, has gotten unusually involved in an open-seat primary in a heavily Democratic district in the Cleveland area, backing the opponent of Nina Turner, who was a strong supporter of Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
Onetime Bill Clinton adviser James Carville is the informal leader of a group of more moderate Democrats who are publicly attacking those in the party they view as too “woke.” The party’s centrist wing declared the victory of the more moderate Eric Adams in the New York City mayoral race a decisive defeat for the left, even as more left-wing candidates won several major races this year, including in New York City. Establishment Democrats in Buffalo are now trying to strip power from the office of the mayor after the left-wing candidate India Walton won the Democratic primary there.
Some of the conflict with the Democratic Party falls along familiar generational and ideological lines, with a bloc of younger and more progressive Democrats fighting an older guard. And there is a real debate over electoral strategy, in terms of how far left the party can go and still win elections. But it’s not all about electability, age or ideology. After all, both Turner and her leading rival in the Democratic primary, Shontel Brown, are fairly progressive, and either would be a huge favorite to win the general election. And the more left-wing Turner is actually older, at 53, than both Brown (46) and Jeffries (50).
Two other elements at play — institutions and icons — better explain some of the conflicts in the party. The more centrist wing is much more comfortable with established institutions, from corporations to churches to the official Democratic Party. It generally believes that such institutions are serving the country well — and where they are falling short, they can be reformed. In contrast, the left wing is much more skeptical of such institutions, and that includes the party itself, which it views as too tied to the status quo and resistant to change. You can see these themes reflected in how the factions attack each other: More centrist Democrats say progressives are trying to tear down the Democratic Party, while critics of more centrist figures cast them as “corporate Democrats.”
The left is also more skeptical of the policy and electoral records of the people who have led the party for much of the past three decades, such as the Clintons, Clyburn, Barack Obama and Pelosi. Many in the party’s left see a lot of shortcomings in the Affordable Care Act, one of the prized achievements of the establishment wing. The Democrats have lost more House elections (five) with Pelosi and Clyburn at the helm than they have won (four), so the left questions their electoral chops, too. But figures such as the Clintons are icons in the party, and taking them on can be fraught. Turner, while aligning with Sanders, has sharply criticized both Clyburn and Hillary Clinton — which likely explains why they are trying to block her from getting to Congress now.
The Democratic establishment can proceed with the confidence that it is likely to win many of these intraparty fights. Casting the left as insufficiently concerned with winning elections, overly concerned with racial and identity issues, and too critical of Democratic luminaries will be persuasive to lots of Democratic voters. And the party establishment can also raise money from big donors who are wary of the left’s policy ideas.
But such victories will be pyrrhic. More recently elected Democrats such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ocasio-Cortez and others have brought energy, fresh ideas and diversity to the party, so the establishment’s obsession with blunting such candidates is very misguided.
Raising money from big donors specifically to defeat left-wing candidates in primaries makes this approach even worse — it fundamentally contradicts the Democratic Party’s broader goal of reducing the influence of the wealthy in politics. Just as problematic are establishment attacks on progressive Democrats for pushing too hard to achieve racial and economic inequality. Isn’t the entire point of the Democratic Party to push for greater equality?
Finally, the Democratic Party will make better electoral and policy decisions in the future if it can honestly look at its past — which means good-faith criticisms of Obama, Pelosi and other party icons should be encouraged, not informally banned.
Instead of fighting with its left flank, there’s a better path for the party establishment — the Biden-Schumer path. Biden (78) and Schumer (70) have long records as more center-left, establishment figures. But both seem to recognize that the left has good ideas and that it’s counterproductive to constantly attack the younger and more progressive faction of their party. So sometimes they adopt ideas that it’s hard to imagine either man supporting a decade ago (for Schumer, mass student loan forgiveness; for Biden, trillions in new spending on domestic initiatives). Both are also cultivating strong relationships with progressives (Schumer with Warren, Biden with Sanders). And neither spends a lot of time interjecting themselves into Democratic primaries in safe districts or states.
Biden and Schumer are showing that people in the party establishment can stay in power, push their own ideas, and also be open to the ideas and influence of those to their left. More center-left Democrats should follow their lead.