Many analysts have dusted off the well-worn trope of “divided Democrats.” This decades-old framing, common to both political scientists and public commentators, interprets disagreements among Democratic officeholders as evidence of deep, intractable divisions within the party.
But this go-to narrative conjures up the image of two equally matched factions in an ideological battle for the “soul” of the Democratic Party. In reality, Democrats are not a deeply divided party — at least not compared with the past. This standard narrative of Democratic division risks overlooking the party’s slow but sure reorientation over the past few decades.
Democratic division in historical perspective
Democratic infighting has been on display over the past year, as has often been true historically. This is often summarized as the gulf between the centrist Manchin and progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).
But as I show in my new book, deep divisions and the fights they gave rise to have shaped demographic and ideological change within the Democratic Party since the late 1960s. Back then, incompatible positions regarding Black civil rights and the war in Vietnam ripped the party apart. Since then, mobilizations of voters of color, feminists, environmentalists and the LGBTQ movement reoriented the party away from its traditional base in the South and conservative White voters, helping to consolidate a more progressive coalition.
Revived Republican competition after the Reagan revolution temporarily gave moderates like Bill Clinton an opportunity to distance Democrats from these progressive causes in the 1990s and draw the party closer to the business community. But these efforts largely failed to stem the party realignment already underway. The coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 bore little resemblance to the White Southern male voting base embraced by Clinton’s New Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton distanced herself from the New Democrat legacy to fend off Sen. Bernie Sanders’s challenge from the left.
Democratic divisions today
Since the 2020 election, the overwhelming majority of Democratic officials and officeholders have united around the most ambitious policy agenda seriously considered by Congress in well over a generation. Today, divisions among Democratic members of Congress, while real and significant, are not deep — they do not split the party into two warring factions — or even numerically large.
Moderate holdouts on Build Back Better can literally be counted on one hand in the Senate and on two hands in the House. Their outsize power to shape party negotiations and block marquee legislation is not due to their representativeness of the party mainstream or their cachet with its leaders. It is a product of razor-thin, no-room-for-error majorities.
Slim majorities can enhance the power of moderates. Figures like Manchin and Sinema become more prominent because of the rural-state bias of the Senate, where every state is represented by two senators, no matter how large or small the population. Senate Democrats represent tens of millions more voters than do Senate Republicans. Yet they control only 50 percent of the seats.
After Democrats’ surprising victories in last year’s Senate race in Georgia, it was clear that an evenly divided Senate would give the most moderate Democrats a great deal of leverage, because they could make or break any bill with their votes. Progressives who favor big, bold federal action have been in the majority — but cannot exercise a similar veto power. This put a spotlight on Manchin and Sinema’s decisions.
However, these two aren’t as far from their Democratic colleagues as the high-profile votes may make it appear. On issues that make it to a vote on the Senate floor, Manchin votes with the majority of his party more than 90 percent of the time, and Sinema does so 97 percent of the time. Although Manchin holds centrist positions on most issues and his antiabortion stance puts him out of sync with the Democratic mainstream, he’s even farther from the Republicans on a wide range of policy issues.
The narcissism of small differences
Manchin’s and Sinema’s obstructions may have been few and far between, but they are highly significant. Their objections have significantly constrained the policy reach of Biden’s presidency and may well prevent the Democrats from fulfilling promises to ameliorate economic insecurity and inequality, fight climate change and protect voting rights.
But while Manchin and Sinema may be at one extreme of the Democratic Party, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are at another. Most Democrats fall in between. But the two extremes are quite different. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’s high profiles come from a large network of activist supporters, small-dollar fundraising, and deep support in the party’s progressive caucus — meaning that they are deeply rooted within a significant faction of the Democratic Party. Manchin and Sinema’s high profiles are a product of Senate rules and tough coalition arithmetic, making them outliers. It’s clear in which direction the party is heading.
Adam Hilton (@adhilt) is assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and author of “True Blues: The Contentious Transformation of the Democratic Party” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).