One of this year’s dominant news stories is how Donald Trump has roiled the GOP. Yet Democrats face an internal rupture that may be larger and more durable. That is my takeaway after reading “The Split,” the New Republic’s extraordinary June 14 symposium of liberal activists, historians, intellectuals, political scientists, pollsters and writers.
“The schism between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is knit into the DNA of the modern Democratic Party,” writes historian Rick Perlstein. In 1924, he recounts, Klan supporters in the party’s rightward wing dominated the Democratic convention. In 1937 opponents of FDR opposed the New Deal. “Hillary Clinton’s eagerness to please Wall Street,” he writes, “can be traced, in part, to that ideological split.”
Yale professor Jacob Hacker says that President Obama’s failure to govern as a hard leftist heightened these tensions. “There’s a sense,” he writes, “that supporting the Democratic establishment and going the conventional route hasn’t been that productive.” Duke Law professor Jedediah Purdy adds that the president promised “transformative politics” but didn’t deliver “the substance.”
The critique of Mr. Obama sometimes sounds vaguely Republican: “The Democratic Party today engages in delusional happy talk about economic recovery,” complains Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “while a staggering 47 million Americans are struggling in poverty.” By contrast, writer and left-wing activistMychal Denzel Smith says young Democrats are unhappy with “the ways economic inequality persists,” and activist Astra Taylor bemoans the Democrats’ failure to follow through on the vision of Occupy Wall Street.
Some of the symposium’s participants also attack Bill Clinton. Mr. Smith doesn’t name the former president but suggests that his anticrime bill sustains “systemic, institutionalized racism.” Mr. Perlstein adds that “Bill and Hillary Clinton won the White House with the business-funded support of the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to downplay the ‘big government’ solutions championed by FDR.” At least, political scientist Ruy Teixeira rejoices, today’s Democrats are no longer “obsessed with the national debt.”
Mr. Purdy writes that Sanders supporters “have no love for or confidence in elites, Hillary’s habitus. And why should they? They’ve seen growing inequality and insecurity, the naked corruption of politics by oligarchic money, total cynicism in the political class.” Mr. Hacker says: “This may be the first time in my life that there’s been a full-throated critique of the Democratic Party as being excessively beholden to money and too willing to work within the system.”
These disagreements are diminished for now by Mr. Trump. As Mark Green, former New York City public advocate, says, “the programmatic differences” between Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton “are dwarfed by the differences between either of them and the first proto-fascist president.”
Still, the left’s frustration over the lack of radical change is undeniable. Young and minority voters feel a keen sense of urgency. “Clinton and the Democrats in Washington don’t understand the level of anxiety that Americans, and particularly the young, feel about their economic prospects,” writes journalist John Judis.
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