The Democratic Dilemma

Democratic Party debate.

The Facebook fights are raging these days.

Democratic loyalists fall into two strategy camps: progressive and old school. The progressive camp believes in the power of unabashedly progressive candidates, fueled largely by small-dollar donations and shoe leather, to inspire thousands of new voters from the ranks of those demographics whose participation rates have lagged those of older white Americans. The old school camp, fueled largely by major donors and establishment political operations, believes in the Bill Clinton recipe of winning the votes of supposedly centrist white voters, including suburban pro-choice women and the “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” crowd.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either strategy. Each has its own logic. Each has had its victories.

The dilemma is that the two strategies are nearly always competitive and almost never synergistic. Hillary Clinton whiffed badly with millennials, for example. But how would Bernie Sanders have done with the country club crowd?

Is it possible for the two strategies to work together?

Yes, but only for a candidate with rare talent in just the right circumstances and, even then, not in a sustainable way. Barack Obama pulled it off in 2008, but I can’t think of a second example. Was the Obama formula sustainable, such that other candidates, including congressional candidates, could use it? I’d say no, for three reasons. First, Obama had exceptionally rare talent. Second, his timing was perfect, coming off a disastrous Bush presidency with the economy cratering and Sarah Palin on the opposing ticket. Third, his tone and his words sounded more progressive than they really were. As a candidate, he was beyond inspiring. But as president, he was less so. Whereas Roosevelt welcomed the hatred of the economic royalists, Obama played nice with them, while drone bombing weddings in Pakistan. He also did a lot of good things, and still is plenty inspiring, but not even close to his 2008 level.

What drives a Democratic loyalist to one camp or the other? Fear? Inertia? Idealism? Pragmatism? Ideology? Probably all of the above. The old school crowd undoubtedly believes its approach is more pragmatic, but I’m guessing they’re ideologically more centrist than the average Sanders supporter. And if you’ve worked a bunch of elections and know the cost of a traditional campaign, supporting a candidate who won’t appeal to traditional funding sources is kind of scary.

Should one of the two strategy camps prevail? I hope so, eventually. I’m a believer in the progressive approach. But I favor it not because I dismiss the old school approach entirely. Rather, I think the old school approach is beneficial only in the short-term. Yes, in any given election, it can work. But there’s a trade-off. If a progressive candidate runs and inspires a bunch of new voters, but loses, there’s still a lasting benefit. I was inspired at age 16 by George McGovern, and here I am, as an aging boomer, still progressive in my views. If an old school candidate runs and wins the votes of just enough “swing-voters” to eke out a win, far fewer new voters are inspired and the immediate benefit, an additional House or Senate seat, likely will be lost in the future.

Further, when old school candidates win, they tend to be timid in the policies they pursue when in office. They’re always looking to the next election, with an eye towards employing the same strategy that worked for them previously. Which means they will curry favor with the socially liberal, fiscally conservative crowd. And that socially liberal, fiscally conservative crowd tends to favor more muscular foreign policy.

Over time, the old school approach weakens. It worked wonderfully in 1992 and 2006, but it’s struggled since 2008. Those swing voters are getting harder and harder to find. Which means that even in the short-term the progressive approach may succeed where the old school approach fails.

Does that resolve the dilemma?

Not entirely. In the upcoming mid-terms, there may be races where old-school candidates can thread the needle. And with Trump in the Whitehouse, eking out a few victories is beyond important.

But the returns from a tired, fear-based strategy are rapidly diminishing, and the time for Democratic loyalists to confront that reality is upon us.


  1. Must not be ignored: the Obama voters who didn’t vote for Hillary because of Bill Clinton’s destructive crime legislation — AEDPA (destroyed the Writ of Habeas); draconian mandatory minimum sentencing that exploded the prison populations and grew the for-profit prisons who gain billions targeting immigrants and anyone they do not want or like in America “land of the free”.

    “How for-profit prisons have become the biggest lobby no one is talking about” – The Washington Post

    “Several industries have become notorious for the millions they spend on influencing legislation and getting friendly candidates into office: Big Oil, Big Pharma and the gun lobby among them. But one has managed to quickly build influence with comparatively little scrutiny: Private prisons. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEOand Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. Private companies house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, a Huffington Post report found. In total, there are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds.

    Marco Rubio is one of the best examples of the private prison industry’s growing political influence, a connection that deserves far more attention now that he’s officially launched a presidential bid. The U.S. senator has a history of close ties to the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, GEO Group, stretching back to his days as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.” …

  2. Here’s why there is no dilemma.

    I’ve just learned that Barney Frank, of Dodd-Frank, and who is now in favor of easing Dodd-Frank, works for a bank. He’s on the board no less.

    That’s your old school Dem right there, and I have a bad feeling that Tom Perez and company are going to screw up in 2018 and beyond.

    • FSNT,

      There is a dilemma, but the two camps view it differently. If you look at the two comments to this post from old schoolers, you’ll see that they believe the dilemma can be resolved by positioning the Democratic Party, largely on platitude, in a way that can be sold to those treasured swing voters and also inspire young adults and people of color to register and vote in larger numbers. Then, when those voters are not inspired and the Dem candidate loses in large part because of poor turnout, they blame those who didn’t vote, rather than the candidate who failed to inspire them to vote. I’ve even had it splained to me that black voters cost Clinton the 2016 election because their turnout for her was lower than it was for Obama.

      So, the old schoolers just don’t get the dilemma. They just don’t want to face the fact that the steps taken to persuade swing voters are inimical to inspiring new base voters.

      The progressives understand the dilemma well. Their attitude is: “Screw the swing voters. Let’s just get out and grow the base.” They recognize that being less attractive to a rapidly shrinking pool of voters who truly don’t lean in one direction or another is just an incidental cost of their strategy.

      • You’re doubling down on the zero-sum idea, so let’s go with it for a minute: are you saying there’s no way to thread the needle, appealing to the base while extending the tent to those who can be convinced? If so, you don’t seem to be leaving much room for Dems to win outside the blue districts, and we have been seeing that in other states.

        • No, what I’m saying, I’m pretty sure in an understandable way, is that there are many more votes to be gained by inspiring new voters, millennials, latinos, and others who lean heavily progressive, than there are appealing to a relative handful in the so-called middle. And, unless you’re Barack Obama, it is zero sum. You can’t inspire young people with the same platitudinous mumbo jumbo to which you allude that is employed to “thread the needle” by not offending swing voters while sounding just progressive enough to keep the existing base on board.

          Furthermore, if you inspire those young voters, they’re with you for a lifetime. If you somehow persuade enough of the few remaining swing voters to eke out a win, they’ll be gone as soon as the pendulum swings the other way.

      • Bob Lord said – “Then, when those voters are not inspired and the Dem candidate loses in large part because of poor turnout, they blame those who didn’t vote, rather than the candidate who failed to inspire them to vote.”

        I 10,000% agree. And when I say there is no dilemma, I was speaking for myself. My choices are clear.

        We have children being ripped from their parents while the White House cheers, the President of the United States supporting the Nazi killer of Heather Heyer, mowed down in the street, people are living in a real life horror show right now because the old school failed and it’s going to get much, much worse.

        As much as I blame Trump and his racist cult, a lot of the blame for the horror show is on old school Dems.

        And I fear Tom Perez and the old school will fail again in 2018 and 2020 based on 2016.

        Thanks as always for the factual and thoughtful posts.

        • Yeah, when the GOP is screwing up this badly the Democrats seem to position themselves squarely in “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” territory. Why take risks when “vote the bums out” will work just fine? Or so they think.

          I just looked up the “better deal” and all of their proposals seem pretty safe and inoffensive to the “base” from what I see here. We know it’s not controversial because no one is talking about it.

          A lot of people in this country have pinned their hopes on the 2018 election to stop the hemorrhaging, that and Mueller’s investigation(s).

          If the Democrats fail in 2018, our collective angst will be unbearable.

  3. Well, I suggest you read Brown is the New White by Steve Phillips and follow its every dictate/suggestion…

  4. Well, don’t kill the messenger but…

    The most important and the most divisive issue the Democrats have to confront is race. The clock ran out and the days when they can tell their most loyal supporters to wait for a better time are over.

    The issue going forward is race and all things directly related to race. Or, perhaps better stated, the issue is actually white supremacy, the dragon that must be slayed once and for all.

    Donald Trump’s entire campaign was based on white supremacy, the logical extension of his birther campaign against the first black president. The Trump voters provided us with a headcount of how many people either believe in white supremacy or are willing to tolerate the consequences which they deem less important than other issues (ex: abortion). Sadly, the number is large, 63 million.

    I just watched CNN’s “1968” documentary and they spent a considerable amount of time on the 1968 presidential election. There is much to be learned from that election that is still relevant especially with respect to political divisions and coalition building. But aside from that, I was struck by the footage of the George Wallace campaign rallies. There is, without question, a straight line from George Wallace to Donald Trump.

    Democrats won’t solve their race problem by trying to shift our focus (again) to the peripheral and relatively safe issues such as healthcare, education, Social Security, etc… Even “common sense” gun control is becoming a relatively safe issue.

    No, the Democrats own the race issue. Why? Because the other party has chosen to be racist.

    • I think that’s spot on, Liza.

      I had meant to include a paragraph about the selection of candidates by the two camps. The old schoolers want candidates to be either white in color or white in speech and manner. A Barack Obama or Kamala Harris is okay, but Nina Turner could not speak at the 2016 convention. Why? Because the emphasis is on those coveted swing voters, and those swing voters will only open their minds so wide.

      Democratic candidates still are overwhelmingly white, while the Democratic base is overwhelmingly non-white. That mismatch must be addressed, and whitening the base isn’t on the table as a way to do so. After all, if Democrats want their base to get out and vote in larger numbers, candidates should emerge from the base, not be imposed on it.

    • “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” That’s Martin Luther King, from a 1967 speech, putting materialism and militarism on an equal footing (triplets) of things needing to be conquered.

      Trump ran as a racist, but he ran as many other things as well, including as an anti-militarist and pro-populist. 60% of Trump voters were women or people of color. So I personally don’t think that identity politics is going to be enough to win. And I don’t think MLK would agree that some of those other issues are peripheral either.

      • Your reply just reminded me of when I first discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was long before he was hired by The Atlantic. I found his blog and was struck by a conversation on an open thread. They were talking about MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. Someone who identified himself as a black man said, “We honor MLK one day a year, but we live Malcolm 365 days a year.”

        I think that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great visionary and a great man. I grew up in the Deep South surrounded by what he referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.” I understand all too well why he (and the strategy of non-violent protest) was successful in the south but not so much elsewhere in the country, like Chicago for example.

        However, there is no argument that poverty, healthcare, education, etc…are important issues. They are basic to a liberal agenda. But it might be worth noting the MLK Jr, who witnessed the most dire poverty in the country among his own people, believed that voting rights had a higher priority.

        To be continued…

          • “People of color” includes minorities of many races and ethnicities, not just African-American. 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, and the percentage of both Hispanics and African Americans that voted for Trump was larger than the percentage that voted for Romney in 2012. Many Democrats argued that “demographics is destiny” and that the rising percentage of minorities in the country would lead inevitably (i.e. with no policy changes necessary) to Democratic majorities in government. So ultimately I’m agreeing with Bob and saying that policy changes, not just anti-racism, are necessary.

            Last thing–the Democrats should reaffirm themselves as the anti-war party (“militarism” in the MLK quote) . The 1968 Democratic platform had an anti-war declaration. The so-called “most progressive ever” 2016 Democratic platform did not, and this is not an “issue” for most current Democratic candidates. Obama dropped more bombs than Bush, and took us from two wars to seven, including starting the war in Syria by attempting to overthrow Assad.

          • I’ve been talking specifically about black voters, deliberately avoiding the use of the term POC. Black people are already Democratic loyalists, there are race related issues that disproportionately affect them, and Democrats need to stop taking black voters for granted and confront these issues. Soon. That is essentially my point.

            The 63 million Trump voters are a lost cause, IMO. But I’m almost laughing thinking about how “anti-militarism” and “pro-populism” factored into their decision to vote for a vile, grotesque, dishonest, racist, misogynist buffoon.

            There would be a lot of reasons, of course. But, as I said back on May 31 @2:44 PM, a Trump voter is either a white supremacist like Trump or willing to tolerate white supremacy. Trump’s racism is well known and well advertised for many years. No other conclusion is possible.

      • It has taken me awhile to understand what I am about to say. And I’m not the best one to be saying it, there are certainly those who can do it with far more clarity and eloquence. But I’ll try.

        Without question, black people have made progress in the decades following the King years and the movement. Many have been left behind, to be sure, but the progress made is undeniable. In better times and without the constant push back of the conservative agenda, we would be building on those accomplishments. We would be building a more just society, and we still have quite a ways to go.

        But for all of that progress, it is still the tolerance for and the promotion of racism in this country that makes any black person, no matter how accomplished, a possible target for sudden death, physical or verbal assault, or humiliation. This is the most important issue in the black community, this is about life and death and freedom and basic human rights.

        Indeed, people want good jobs, a decent place to live, a clean environment, good schools, access to healthcare etc… But if you are black, you can have most or all those things and still be hauled off to the police station because you took a seat in a Starbucks coffee shop without ordering first and it made a white manager uncomfortable.

        Or, worse yet, you could be killed or beaten senseless for some minor traffic infraction.

        We are not talking about identity politics. We are talking about basic human rights. The black community is fed up and it is really starting to look like the wait is over. They are going to want something in exchange for their loyalty to the Democratic party. Democrats ignore this at their own peril.

  5. Thoughtful post, Mr. Lord.

    For example, is this what you’re talking about when you talk about old school Dems?

    That doesn’t look like Democratic scat to me, that looks like the droppings of an old school Republican.

    I’ll vote for her while cursing Tom Perez and the DNCC the whole time, but candidates like her are why so many people gave up and said “what do I have to lose” and voted for Trump.

    Here’s some real old school Dem, FDR’s Second Bill of Rights:

    -The right to a useful and renumerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
    -The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
    -The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
    -The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
    -The right of every family to a decent home;
    -The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
    -The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
    -The right to a good education.

    It boils down to the right to run your business and/or to be employed and get a decent paycheck, with health insurance and two weeks paid vacation.

    Sounds to me like a Trump speech without the self aggrandizement and racism. it’s literally The American Dream.

    This is a winning platform.

    You ask good questions about today’s Democratic party, but I don’t think it’s that complicated. Corporate money is making it complicated.

  6. Hello. After the primaries are over across the country in August/September, the Democrats and Progressives need to gather in a summit like the “Contract with America” Republican gathering in 1994, forge a forward-looking program that emphasizes progressive goals and a return to decency and competence that will appeal and draw both camps and campaign on that platform day after day after day.

    • Nice platitudes.

      If I understand you correctly, if you forge just the right “forward =looking program that emphasizes progressive goals,” all those people will start responding to Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and the candidates the DCCC and DSCC favors in the same way they responded to Bernie Sanders. And when you’re designing that forward looking program, I’m guessing you’ll be hesitant to include anything that might offend the AIPAC crowd, or the Democratic side of the Wall Street donor base. And careful with health care for poor people. You don’t want those suburban white voters to fear being taxed too heavily, you know. And don’t say anything about cutting back the bloated military budget. That might be too controversial.

      My guess is that once that forward looking program is in final form, it will be as platitudinous as the comment to which I’m responding.

  7. This sort of analysis creates an artificial binary divide on what is really a broad spectrum of political thought and practice. What unites us as Democrats today is all essentially progressive in tenor: better education for our kids, good jobs and secure lives for all, good health care that everyone can afford, equal treatment under the law for everyone, vital communities built on clean, sustainable business, and living up to our promises and ideals internationally, in peace.

    Where we fall down on the job is when we succumb to the political culture that proponents call pragmatic and the rest of us see as essentially corrupt. In every election cycle, to some extent we make a deal with this devil to win the power to defeat it. The best of us rise above it, the rest struggle with it. Our job as citizens, passed down to us from the founders, is to find, cultivate and elect people who have the moral fiber to work effectively for us in the grey area between ideals and indulgence, and move our society forward.

    Let’s focus on what we have in common, and work together against the dark side of politics.

    • Some progessives would argue that we don’t need to make that “deal with the devil”. I would argue that taking the “devil’s” money” (e.g. Big Pharma) too often means doing the “devil’s” bidding (e.g. supporting high drug prices and keeping marijuana illegal), rather than doing what is good for people. YMMV.

      Thought for the day: why do Republicans, when they get into office, talk about their mandate and do whatever their donors want, while Democrats, when they get into office, talk about “reaching across the aisle” and still do whatever the Republican donors want (e.g. Obama, with a Congressional majority, says we need a bipartisan health care plan and gives us the Heritage Foundation’s Romneycare, with no public option).

Comments are closed.