Moving to the center has led to the failure of the Democratic Party.


Marco Rivero

The divide between centrist and progressive Democrats continues to divide the party.

The representative of California’s 12th District and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi historically led the Democratic-majority House of Representatives and formally impeached President Donald Trump. In her speech prior to the House vote on impeaching President Trump, Pelosi stated that “It is a matter of fact that the president is an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections — the basis of our democracy.” On the very same day that Pelosi stood alongside Democratic leaders to impeach the President, she also stood to support the President’s United States-Mexico-Canada trade bill. On the campaign trail to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 Presidential Elections, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has repeatedly attacked President Trump for incompetence and being a supposed threat to our security and freedom. Despite Senator Klobuchar’s apparent distrust of President Trump, she along with Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennett, all of whom are running on the basis that Trump is untrustworthy, voted in favor to give President Trump a 34 billion dollar increase to the military budget. 

For the past three years, the Democratic Party has taken on resistance as its guiding mantra but has largely failed to actually push back against the dominance of the current President. The Democrats as a whole have seen failure after failure following the stunning loss of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, but the problem with the party did not start there. The origins of the problems within the Democratic Party go back far beyond Trump, it is a legacy of a failed strategy of moving to the center that has cost the party the working-class vote, and has left the United States in a state of stagnation.

The origins of the Democratic Party’s problems go back to the early 20th Century. After the Republicans implemented large scale industrial reforms during the Reconstruction era along the East Coast of the United States, the Western farmers, and laborers who had migrated to escape the industry of the East became disillusioned with the Republican government. At that point, the U.S. entered a period where both parties catered to the Western voters by having candidates on both sides who supported large scale federal reforms. Where the Republican Party had Theodore Roosevelt pushing for workers’ rights and anti-trust laws, the Democrats also nominated people like William Jennings Bryan who pushed for cultural and economic reforms and got the Populist party to eventually merge with the Democrats. 

It would not be until after the election of Woodrow Wilson where the party lines would resemble the modern era. After Theodore Roosevelt caused the Republicans to split and effectively ended the progressive period of the Republican Party, conservatives, motivated by the loss of life from World War I, took the reigns of the party and effectively established what the Republican Party would become over the next century. 

The Democratic Party is where things get interesting. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats never had a moment where their party split ideologically in any substantial way. While there was the Populist Party who had arisen during the early 20th Century, no real challenger ever forced the Democrats to reform their platform. What this meant was that the Democratic leadership had grown bloated and ideologically split between progressive and conservative Democrats. Even worse for the party was that many fiscal liberals from the Republican Party, who loathed the anti-interventionist way of the Republicans in the 20s, joined the Democrats furthering the divide between protectionist progressives and free-trade liberals. 

The Democrats spent most of the 1920s as a weak party because of the divisions caused by a lack of a consistent platform. It would not be until the Great Depression where the economic crisis was so disastrous that another progressive surge happened within the party, but the divisions remained. The rise of Franklin Roosevelt was very much an anti-establishment movement similar to those seen in 2016 and the 1980s. Democrats were still very ideologically split as many opposed many of the social reforms FDR brought which was best highlighted in the election of 1944. When choosing vice-presidents for his final term, FDR was choosing his successor as he’d die shortly into his fourth term. In the end, FDR’s choice of Henry Wallace, a pro-soviet progressive who embraced social democracy, would be defeated due to inner corruption within the party leading to the nomination of Harry S. Truman as FDRs vice-president. 

While Truman was in no way a moderate or a conservative democrat, his presidency effectively ended the social democracy of FDR and Wallace and instead brought a pseudo-progressive era to the United States. Ultimately the final nail in the coffin for progressives would be the Cold War. With the rise of McCarthyism and the growing fears of socialism, the Democratic Party moved away from fiscal leftism which led to them nominating more conservative Democrats like John F. Kennedy, and led to even progressives within the party embracing social policies over fiscal policies. 

The growing conservative element of the Democrats would finally lead to the modern Democratic Party following the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the conservative shift in the United States. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans were able to reform their party to present a platform that appealed to the Reagan coalition. The Democrats, following the mood of the country, embraced their conservative elements and became a socially liberal alternative to the Republican Party which had embraced evangelicalism and social conservatism.  

To the Democrats’ credit, the strategy worked following the election of Bill Clinton who broke from the older protectionist progressive mantra and embraced free trade. Despite the success of the Democrats, however, this is where their full decline would fully begin. The embrace of neo-liberal free trade laws cost the Democratic Party the working-class vote that was once fully Democratic. Signing trade deals like NAFTA while keeping social programs extremely limited angered the working class of the United States who began losing hundreds of jobs while not being able to benefit from the social programs they were paying taxes for. This was especially concerning coupled with the rise of mass media which Conservatives rushed to dominate. Fox News today remains the most-watched cable news network in the United States and during the critical turn of the century, the Republican Party dominated American culture and morals. 

The Democratic Party would fail to mobilize the working-class vote in critical states across the country in 2000 leading to their eight-year loss with the election of George Bush. More weakness within the party would begin once again. It had already been established by now that a significant portion of the Democratic establishment had embraced tough on crime and war hawkish approaches to national and international policy throughout the 90s. Politicians like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Tom Foley, all supported pro-drug war policies and were not hesitant to support interventions in the Middle East which were once unthinkable for Democrats to do. The same Democrats over-relied on minority voters who ultimately were being hurt by their lack of leadership which would culminate with significant portions of minority groups becoming disillusioned with the Democrats and even switching parties in some cases.

This leads to the modern era where the Democratic Party is at its most ineffective and most divided point in its long history. In its decade long effort to present themselves as a bipartisan sane alternative to the Republican Party, the Democrats have alienated their working-class voters, their minority support, and pushing the youth vote further and further away. Additionally, the policies that the Democrats pushed forward to send a message of bipartisanship have led to the economic decline of cities, rural areas, minority-majority suburbs, and the rust belt. In their effort to convince voters of their own moral superiority, the Democrats have failed to provide any actual significant policy that can compete with Republican politicians.

In 2016 Donald Trump went further left than Hillary Clinton in issues like free trade, militarization, and at one point had an almost completely similar platform to Clinton regarding fiscal issues. Trump won 2016 because he both embraced right-wing populism and left-wing protectionism which appealed to the working class of failing cities across the country. It is significant that the biggest victory the Democrats have had in recent years has been because of the embrace of policies like Medicare for All and pro-unionization which both led to a Democratic House and several governorships and state senates flipping blue. 

The Democratic establishment today argues that appealing to the center will flip many Republican voters disillusioned with Trump as well as many Independents. This is both inaccurate and has failed in the past. For one, President Trump has the highest approval rating within his own party than almost any other President in modern history, winning the Republican vote is a fools’ errand. The idea that Independents are centrists is also mostly unfounded and disproven by looking at issue-by-issue polling data. As it stands progressive policies appeal to non-voters and independents alike and independents are generally more motivated to vote by populists than centrists. Many centrist policies are much more unpopular than their progressive counterparts as well. Why would a working-class worker living in Detroit want a Medicaid system where his taxes don’t benefit him at all over a system where he’d be paying virtually the same taxes but he would get free healthcare along with it. This is where the political strategy of the Democratic establishment has failed, it fails to account for the common person.

The Democratic Party stands at a time where their potential is limitless. With one of the most unpopular Presidents in modern history, a country which is steadily shifting more and more to the left, and a youth motivated to vote, the party has never been more powerful demographic wise. The appeal to the center from leaders like Pelosi is an appeal to political and economic stagnation within the United States. If the Democratic Party truly hopes to combat President Trump and elevate its constituents to better standards of living, they must embrace the policies of the progressive era and motivate the working class people of the United States.