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The Real Civil War in the Democratic Party | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, flanked by fellow Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, second from left. and Elizabeth Warren, far left, introduced the party’s new economic message on Monday in Berryville, Va. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

As Democrats try to unite around their new “Better Deal” agenda, the supposed battle between the “socialist” left and the “corporatist” center seems to have collapsed into a bland but serviceable slogan, with a reasonably progressive economic agenda that both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer can get behind. So much for that overhyped party civil war.

But Democrats shouldn’t be trumpeting party unity quite yet. The economic-left-versus-center debate has always been primarily an elite one.

Among the Democratic rank-and-file, the more consequential divide is between those willing to trust the existing establishment and those who want entirely new leadership. It’s a divide that Democratic Party leaders ignore at their peril.

As part of a report I wrote for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, I looked at divides between enthusiasts for Senator Bernie Sanders and supporters of Hillary Clinton. For many policy issues I couldn’t find much difference of note, except for a little disagreement over the benefits of foreign trade. Most Democratic voters generally agree on first principles: Economic inequality is a problem; government should do something to help the less advantaged; diversity is a strength. That’s why getting to a shared “Better Deal” agenda was relatively easy.

But I did find one area of notable discord between Clinton and Sanders supporters — their degree of disaffection with political institutions. Support for the political system correlated with positive feelings toward Mrs. Clinton, while voters who felt negatively toward the political system tended to feel positively toward Mr. Sanders.

Most members of the Democratic Party establishment are pragmatists who made it where they are by working within the system that exists, not the one they wish existed. They often have frustration bordering on contempt for those who lack their hardheaded realism.

For those outside the centers of power, it’s far easier to disdain the trade-offs inherent in leadership. After all, voters can look at the political establishment and see a whole lot of consultants and lobbyists getting rich (win or lose).

Such divisions reflect a malady facing both parties: In a word, as the political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld note, our parties are “hollow.” The parties, they write, are “neither organizationally robust beyond their roles raising money nor meaningfully felt as a real, tangible presence in the lives of voters or in the work of engaged activists.”

No wonder many voters distrust institutions and the establishment. Their engagement with the party mostly consists of receiving fund-raising emails intended to enforce programmatic conformity while activating fear of and resentment toward the other party.

Republicans have already suffered the costs of feeding their supporters a toxic diet of anti-Democratic Party propaganda. They wound up with Mr. Trump as their standard-bearer. Democrats should not make that mistake.

What if, instead of spending billions on consultants, TV ads and mailers engineered to stoke zero-sum partisanship, party leaders and affiliated funders invested in increasing the paid staff of local party organizations, and then sought their input and advice?

With a real investment, community organizations could help Democratic voters feel genuinely invested in their party, including giving them more of a role in helping to develop and select local candidates. Voters might gain more appreciation for the actual challenges of winning a majority — rather than just shouting about how the party establishment is corrupt from their Facebook pages.

They’d also help Democratic Party leaders get a better feel for what communities across the country are thinking, rather than relying on high-priced consultants with data analysis that is too often a lagging indicator or just “proves” what the consultants have been saying for decades. If Democrats had invested in meaningful community organizing in 2016, they might have detected the crumbling of the “blue wall” (states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had voted Democratic in recent elections) sooner, and been able to adjust course.

If Democrats need to moderate their message for 2018, local organizers will probably know it, and have a sense of how. If Democrats need to sharpen their message to motivate reluctant supporters, these organizers should know that, too.

Finally, this investment would improve turnout. People are much more likely to get involved and vote when there’s genuine social pressure from people they know (not just random volunteers parachuting into town or calling on the telephone).

Party leaders would have to accept less control, and some national consultants might lose out. But the result would be a party with a broader and stronger base of support, a party that could draw on its strength of relative ideological unity while also making space for some local heterodoxy. Yes, some on-the-ground activists will have crazy ideas. But it’s still better to have them feeling that they’re in the tent, where they can argue about them, rather than outside the tent, where they feel like they have no choice but to organize their own outsider takeover strategies.

Ultimately, the challenge the Democrats face in their party is the challenge of democracy writ large. If voters feel that institutions are not responsive to them, and they have no say in how those institutions are run, powerlessness and resentment have a tendency to erupt in unpredictable and destructive ways.

(The New York Times)