The Democratic Party is divided, with the Biden administration frequently stuck in the middle, on a wide range of electoral and policy issues. But these tensions often come down to a single question: With the GOP becoming more radical, should Democrats position themselves largely as the “normal” party? Or should they push an aggressive vision, as Republicans are doing, but from a liberal point of view?
Right now, there’s a big opening for Democrats to run as the status-quo party because the Republicans have abandoned that space.
Traditionally, in countries around the world, there exists a conservative party whose political program is generally aimed at, well, conserving traditional norms, policies and hierarchies. This kind of conservatism is defined less by new policies than by a lack of them — the primary goal is to leave things in place, to oppose dramatic change. George H.W. Bush was arguably the last Republican president to clearly fit this mold. Other modern Republican presidents, particularly Ronald Reagan, weren’t trying to maintain the status quo but instead seeking to aggressively move the nation to the right — to not only stop liberal advances but reverse those that had already happened.
Donald Trump’s aggressively right-wing campaign and presidency were the culmination of this approach. Trump was not looking to conserve anything.
This kind of disruptive Republicanism has unsettled many wealthy individuals, major industries and political figures who might otherwise either back the GOP or stay on the political sidelines. So a long list of prominent Republican officials, such as former Ohio governor John R. Kasich, backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, Joe Biden in 2020 or both. Employees at Wall Street firms, which donated more to Mitt Romney than to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race, contributed significantly more to Clinton and Biden than to Trump. Donations from people at Facebook and other Big Tech companies went overwhelmingly to Democrats. Moderate and conservative figures, such as billionaire and onetime Republican Mike Bloomberg, spent millions backing Clinton, Biden or both, as did other ultrawealthy people, like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who previously weren’t that involved in politics.
And seeing this opening in the political center, many Democratic candidates, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), ran in the 2018 and 2020 cycles effectively as nonpartisan figures. They emphasized their government experience and willingness to work with people in both parties more than their commitment to liberal policy priorities.
Of course, it wasn’t just Trumpism that made the Democratic Party seem more hospitable to billionaires, former GOP officials and moderates. Under Bill Clinton and Obama, Democrats gradually shifted to become a business-friendly party that in many ways reinforced the United States’ economic status quo. That posture left the party conservative enough to win the votes of Republicans turned off by Trump. At the same time, many industries and wealthy individuals had shifted toward more multicultural stands, such as embracing same-sex marriage and more racially diverse workforces, that aligned them with the Democratic Party.
All this helped Biden win in 2020, and it appeared that Biden and Democrats were poised to maintain and potentially grow a broad, united coalition that would generally uphold a pro-business, pro-diversity status quo. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, under Biden, the Democratic tent isn’t expanding, and those within it are fairly unhappy. Democrats haven’t become a strong status-quo party.
So why not? First of all, it’s very hard for any party or leader to make maintaining the status quo their core mantra. No one runs for president proclaiming, “I will not change much.” One reason Trump was able to seize power within the Republican Party was that it was offering up more of the same at the presidential level — after all, one of his main rivals for the 2016 nomination, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, was the brother and son of former GOP presidents.
You see this tension clearly in Democrats’ intraparty debate over whether to forgive student loans. In his 2020 campaign, Biden positioned himself as the least disruptive Democratic candidate, but he still felt compelled to answer his rivals with a long list of policy ideas, including proposing legislation to forgive all undergraduate student debt for people making less than $125,000 a year. Now, left-wing Democrats are demanding that Biden implement some kind of debt relief for students via executive order, while centrist Democrats argue doing so would alienate non-progressives and make it even harder to keep the party’s coalition together.
Second, it’s particularly difficult for a Democratic president to be a status-quo leader because the party’s core identity is one of change and progress. For example, when Biden last year proposed the expansions of child care, paid leave and other provisions that were later bundled into the Build Back Better bill, many people were surprised. As a fairly left-wing person, I was pleasantly surprised — I had expected Biden to be a go-small president. Some more moderate Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans were significantly less pleased — they too had expected Biden to be a go-small president. Spanberger memorably said of Biden last year: “Nobody elected him to be FDR.”
Biden’s campaign had left ambiguous whether his moderateness meant that he would not do big things at all or whether he would do big things, just as not as big what progressive rivals such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would do. But really it shouldn’t be surprising that Biden’s definition of moderate mostly turned out to be the latter — Democratic politicians love to get policies passed. The problem, however, is that Democrats now have a strong “don’t change too much” wing — many of those ex-Republicans, wealthy individuals and moderate Democrats. That wing led the opposition to BBB, making the bill divisive in the party even before Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) effectively killed it.
Third, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is more vocal and powerful than it was in the Clinton or Obama days. It stands forcefully opposed to Democrats becoming the status-quo party, creating tension with wealthy people who might otherwise be more aligned with Democrats. Billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk, once an enthusiastic Obama supporter, said he is now backing Republicans, arguing the Democratic base is too left wing. Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who was a strong critic of Trump, has slammed Biden’s economic policies; progressives, meanwhile, are attacking Amazon for opposing the unionization of its stores. LinkedIn’s Hoffman is now concentrating some of his political spending not on the GOP but defeating left-wing candidates in Democratic primaries.
Fourth, the Republican Party is moving right, and that creates pressure for Democrats to move left. For example, after the Supreme Court decision overturning the right to abortion, the Biden administration has sought to put Democrats in a safe position, defending the general right to an abortion but sticking to fairly limited policy responses. But with Republicans acting to make it much harder for women to get abortions, many Democratic activists want more from Biden, including aggressive and novel steps such as setting up abortion providers on federal land in red states.
Biden and his aides appear wary of adopting policies on abortion and other issues that would move them from simply opposing Trump-style conservatism to implementing Warren-style liberalism. But as Republicans enact more extreme policies, the demands for Democrats to answer with equally aggressive steps will increase.
For 18 months now, Biden has tried to walk a fine line — to be a president of change but not too much change. This has led to frustration both from conservative Democrats and progressives. Sometimes, you just have to choose: Perhaps Bloomberg and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), who says America should not have an economic system that allows someone to accumulate a billion dollars, can both still vote for Democrats. But whether billionaires should exist is a binary question without a middle ground.
Do Democrats want to be a progressive party that some pro-status-quo people hold their noses and vote for or a status quo party that progressives hold their noses and vote for? It’s time for them to decide.