“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me.”
This declaration is not new.
I heard it over and over again back in the early 1980s when old-line conservative Democrats, still smarting from Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, were looking for a different pathway. And they were finding one. It was blazed by Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms.
More recently, we heard it from formerly loyal working-class Democrats who felt their party had lost interest in their concerns. They found Donald Trump’s pathway more to their liking.
As the late state legislator Martin Nesbitt, an unapologetic mountain populist, warned me, when you lose these votes once, you will have a hard time getting them back.
Today, Democrats are flirting with losing another important part of their coalition.
Worried Democratic leaders see that some of the over-the-top campaign promises of prospective Democratic presidential candidates could drive away a slew of moderate progressive voters who support our competitive economic system.
Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and current leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, self-identifies as a democratic socialist. Trump, of course, brands all the current candidates as socialists.
Sanders does not run away from Trump’s branding. He takes credit for his ideas being in the platforms of many other Democratic candidates.
In their March 10 article in The New York Times, Jonathan Martin and Sydney Ember quoted Sanders, “Those ideas that we talked about here in Iowa four years ago that seemed so radical at the time, remember that? Shock of all shocks, those very same ideas are now supported not only by Democratic candidates for president but by Democratic candidates all across the board, from school board on up.”
Other candidates are adopting or copying Sanders’s platform of Medicare for all and free college tuition, certainly important ideals but budget-bursting in implementation. Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed breaking up Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.
Warren and Sanders seem like moderates in comparison to the outspoken super-progressives like newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, known as “AOC.”
In 2017, after the Democrats’ impressive showing in the Virginia elections, Republican columnist Peggy Noonan cautioned, “The threat for Democrats is that they’ll overplay their hand–that heady with their first big win since Barack Obama’s re-election, they’ll go crazy-left. If they are clever they will see their strong space as anti-Trump, socially moderate and economically liberal. Will they be clever? Hunger encourages discipline, and they are hungry. But emboldened progressives will want to seize the day.”
Noonan was right and is still right. Today, Democratic presidential candidates and many youthful activists are seizing the day.
Many young Democrats have no patience for or understanding of the hard-fought gains their parents worked so hard to win. “We have had enough of the centrist, corporatist Democratic–the type of Democrat that my mom would have voted for back in the ‘90s. We just don’t have patience for the platitudes,” one young Sanders volunteer told Martin and Ember.
But the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is due to victories in center-leaning, competitive districts, like the North Carolina Ninth Congressional District where hard-charging, but moderate, candidate Dan McCready nearly won on election day.
If McCready hopes to win the special election in the Ninth later this year, he must distance himself from any connection to socialism.
And if his Democratic Party wants to help him win, it will not allow itself to be branded with Sanders’s socialist tag.
Looking forward to the 2020 presidential election, the Democrats’ greatest asset is widespread disapproval of President Trump.
But, if put to the choice, some traditional Democrats and even Trump haters would still vote for Trump rather than a candidate they view as a socialist.